17th March 2019. “That Night in Mumbai.”
As Sunil Chhetri lifted the trophy the BFC faithful had been hankering for impatiently, Carles Cuadrat announced himself to Indian Football as Roca’s rightful heir. An exciting brand of possession football, a mentality of winning at any cost and a heartbreaking loss the year before made the BFC side of 2018-19 look like stereotypical protagonists.
As they continued their prodigious streak of six trophies in six years, the future seemed bright for Cuadrat and Bengaluru’s dynasty. It wasn’t long before fans gathered around the trophy at the Kanteerava, unbeknownst to the fact that a tedious season awaited them.
Although going out at the play-off stage and a third place finish in the league might seem like an achievement for most teams in the ISL – for Bengaluru FC, the 2019-20 ISL was a season to be scrubbed off the record.
For a side which topped the league two seasons in a row (including in their very first season in the ISL) and set the gold standard for Indian football, a third place finish and crashing out of the play-offs suggests the plan went awry or daresay the beginning of a possible decline.
In this post, we explore the reasons behind BFC’s dip in form in the 2019-20 season and if the Bengaluru FC Head Coach Carles Cuadrat is all that and more.
Transfer Market Woes
The very first instance of trouble was with the transfer window leading up to the ISL 2019-20 season.
Right off the bat, they lost Miku to AC Omonia – a Cypriot First Division club. While many songs are sung about his lethal finishing, what made him complete was his ability to create chances for his teammates.
Time and time again, he would come in deep to receive the ball, and lay off an inch perfect pass to Udanta Singh or Sunil Chhetri who eagerly made runs behind the defense. His replacement, Manuel Onwu was a great finisher (as could be seen later in the season with Odisha FC), but wasn’t as crafty as the Venezuelan. We will get back to this comparison soon.
Another one that got away was Xisco Hernandez, but signing Chennaiyin FC fan favourite Raphael Augusto seemed to mitigate this loss. Augusto’s flashy dribbling meant some good trickery on display, yet Xisco was a more complete player and had a larger influence over attacks. Unfortunately for BFC, the Brazilian was able to contribute with only one assist as he was injured for most of the season.
What withstood against the woes of the transfer market and injuries was the old guard assembled by Albert Roca. The very fact that nine players out of the usual Starting XI were from Roca’s regime shows that Cuadrat’s signings didn’t make much of an impact. For all the money the gaffer spent on big signings such as Ashique, Onwu and Augusto, the payback was underwhelming.
Winds of Change
Apart from Raphael Augusto’s season ending injury, Ashique Kuruniyan and Udanta Singh must shoulder the blame as their lackluster efforts left BFC with a blunted frontline. With a major deficiency in the creative department, Carles was left scratching his head.
His solution was to switch over to a defensive setup. With Juanan at the heart of a solid back four, Erik Paartalu and Harmanjot Khabra added steel and tenacity in midfield. This would become the cornerstone of their playing style, a stark contrast to the system they flaunted a year ago.
Like a classic defensive, hard as nails team, Cuadrat turned to set-pieces for goals. With El Mago’s wizardry and Paartalu and Juanan’s aerial dominance, set-piece goals became a vital part of their philosophy.
A whopping 12 out of 24 goals came from set-piece situations, meaning one in every two goals came from non-open play situations. Comparing this to the 6 out of 29 goals scored from set-pieces the previous season, we can clearly see that corner and free-kick routines drove them to the play-offs this year.
With an increased focus on defense, a stat that has seen a decrease is PPS (passes per shot i.e. the average number of passes BFC attempts before they take a shot). This shift signifies that they have gone from being a possession centric team focusing on buildup, to a more direct team. The possession stats have also decreased which means that the Blues have seen less of the ball this year.
Another facet of last season’s front-line was crossing. With Miku’s physical presence and Erik Paartalu’s late runs into the box, BFC had yet another way to give their opponents a headache. Like all other attacking outlets this season, the crossing numbers dwindled as they concentrated their play through Dimas Delgado’s long balls over the defense.
Miku’s shoes too big to fill?
Now that we have figured out how much (or little) of the ball they have, let us try to answer what they do when they have the ball. In the 2018-19 season, a large amount of BFC’s play went through Miku. He would often drop deep and tee up with a winger making a run behind him. He would routinely try to create his own chances as well by trying to shrug off defenders with his physicality and footwork (hence the high number of dribbles attempted). The fact that he was impressive in both aspects and had a good shot on him made him the biggest threat in the trident.
Onwu however, is a very different kind of player. His low passing and dribbling stats show that he is more of a poacher – someone who sits in the box and finishes off all sorts of chances. The reason why he worked so well in Odisha is because he had two wingers and Xisco in the middle to feed him, just like his predecessor – Aridane Santana. At BFC however, he was expected to feed the wingers, which clearly wasn’t his strong suit.
Having realized this dissonance halfway through the season, Cuadrat decided to replace him. His immediate solution to this problem was Deshorn Brown. Although Brown was far more involved in play than Onwu was, he couldn’t replicate Miku’s passing ability. He completed the highest number of dribbles among the three, but his end product was questionable as he was often found shooting from outside the box with no real consequence. His finishing in the box was poor too as he missed an average of one big chance every time he started.
Evidently, this was where they were undone. Behind poor form and injuries, it was glaringly visible that Miku’s replacements were not up to the mark. This lapse of judgment haunted Carles Cuadrat and eventually played a role in him changing his system. As a result, the chance creation metric (xG) and number of goals scored took a massive dip.
The Old Fort
Moving over to their defense, there is a decrease in PPDA (Passes Per Defensive Action i.e. the average number of passes the opposition completes before an interception, challenge, foul etc. is attempted), from 15 to 13, which would generally imply that BFC pressed higher up the pitch and with more urgency this season. However, this is not the case.
Upon close inspection, no team in the ISL really sets up a concrete pressing structure. They try to use a touchline press (wherein they allow the ball to progress to extremely wide areas and then press with 2-3 players) or formulate a midfield trap. BFC does both.
Apart from this, not a lot has changed in the backline. Having retained all of their main defenders and midfielders, their roles are largely similar with the exception of an added emphasis on defending. While one may raise questions as to why defensive actions have decreased this year, we must remember that a decrease in possession also leads to a decrease in winning the ball back.
An interesting anomaly though was Ashique’s stint at left-back. Having played as a wing-back of sorts at FC Pune City, Ashique wasn’t a complete stranger to the position. Although he struggled when he was asked to defend against wingers, he did incredibly well to stride into free space and give out crosses. This change was brought about due to an injury in the back-line, but it could be used against opposition with deep lying defenses. While most people look down upon this move, it could actually be a game winner under the right circumstances. However, for it to happen, Cuadrat will have to train one of India’s best wingers as a left-back – a change that could lead to a mixed bag of reactions.
All in all, the manager deserves credit for his defensive organization. By reducing the xGAgainst and conceding the lowest number of goals in the league (13), he showed that a sturdy defense can take you a long way.
Agreed, one trophy in two years is definitely not a bad run. But, what irks people is that he won it with a team handed over to him by Roca. “Can Carles Cuadrat do it by himself?” they ask. His gambles in the transfer market further fuel this line of questioning.
Even though he did well to identify the team’s perils, his actions were largely reactive to the situation he found himself in – AKA playing off the back-foot. Perhaps, there would be more sympathy for him had they finished runners up, but scraping to a 3rd place finish and bottling the play-offs did not make for a good showing.
As for comparisons with Roca, Cuadrat still has a year to vindicate himself. In the midst of a rebuild, the odds do seem stacked against the Spaniard.
Will he able to step out of his predecessors’ shadow or will he be the one who marks the end of BFC’s dominance? As with everything else, only time will tell.