The next club we’ll be putting our lens over is ATK.
A star-studded transfer window and Antonio López Habas’ return meant that the title was in their sights from the beginning. A consistent effort from the Kolkata outfit ensured that they went all the way and picked up a record third title.
To understand what expected assists and xA heat maps are, click here for a quick explainer
Part 1: Introducing xA HeatMaps: How Mumbai City FC fared in Attack and Defence in ISL 6
Without further ado, let us get to know the specifics of the champions’ system.
ATK IN OFFENCE
ATK’s way of attacking was no closely held secret. Prabir Das and Roy Krishna’s partnership has been spoken about at length. Every fan, every team and every player knew that ATK primarily used the right wing. Despite this, why was their system unbeatable?
Apart from individual quality, a lot of it boils down to Habas’ eye for finding a weakness. He knew that judgment of space by Indian defenders in the ISL was suspect. The team’s objective was plain and simple: get the ball in the final third to one of three players – David Williams, Edu Garcia or Roy Krishna and they went about this in a couple of different ways.
The first was to play it directly from behind. Cross-field balls were launched with the intention to find Krishna or Williams behind the opposition defence. The two forwards would time their runs to perfection and use their pace and power to get past anybody and everybody in sight. Whenever this happened, the defenders would find themselves caught high up on the pitch while ATK’s hitmen found themselves in acres of space behind them. After the strikers latched on to the ball, all that was left was a deft finish – something that almost always followed.
This however was an ideal scenario. There were occasions where defenders sniffed out these long passes. In that event, Habas instructed his team to try and win second balls. Knowing that defenders found it tough to dribble or pass their way out of pressure, he instructed Krishna, Williams and Edu to clamp down on them. An immediate turnover would mean that ATK would have a 3v3 or 3v4 in a very favourable area. Quick one-twos or skillful dribbling after stealing the ball usually saw them through on goal.
The second (and the better known) option was to overload the right flank. Prabir Das would comfortably go up the wing as he had Pritam Kotal covering the space behind him. In order to progress, a central midfielder and Krishna would form a triangle with Prabir on the right. The emphasis was on third-man runs. The centre mid and Krishna would draw out defenders and a quick one-two gave Prabir a good amount of space to run into. Here, he used his blistering pace and crossing ability to find a forward in the box. The graph clearly shows how important this method of attacking was for them.
Now, we make the comparison with the rest of the league. It is no surprise that more than half of the entire right flank is a shade of orange. Although this was expected on the right wing, it is also orange in deeper areas. This signifies that a lot of their key passes came from within their own half. It is verified by our observation with reference to long balls.
The orange in midfield is validated by our observation as well. This is the area in which they win the second ball after a defender clears it. An immediate pass to a player making a run in behind leads to shooting opportunities. This exact scenario shows why Krishna and Williams are among the best forwards in the league. Not only can they finish with aplomb, but they are also able to drop deep and create. As a result, Krishna finished with the second most assists in the league and Williams was third on that list.
Midfielders like Javi Hernandez and Jayesh Rane who supplied through balls from this area (in case ATK were already in possession) were also major contributors. With the simple principle of numerical superiority, ATK were able to turn the centre of the pitch into a bountiful region.
The left flank is a blue patch and this is because Michael Soosairaj was used differently. He was used to progress the ball past tight defenses and to maintain possession. His attributes were employed well by Habas as he completed the most dribbles in the team (3.16 per 90) and had a dribble completion of rate of 67%. He made half as many crosses as Prabir, but attempted and completed a higher number of passes. This clearly shows that his role was less attacking than the other wing-back. Even though he didn’t play a very advanced role, he managed to score three goals – two of which were a deciding factor in the scoreline. His contributions provided balance to the team and made them threatening besides the counter-attacks.
Some may find it surprising that ATK’s involvement right outside the box is below average. However, this is not a cause to worry because their front-line played deeper than most and as a result, many of the final passes came from deeper locations.
ATK IN DEFENCE
When facing a system that uses wing-backs, countering on the wings is a straightforward solution.
The right back space was bombarded more than the left because Prabir went up far more often and consequently left more space behind him. We can see a deeper shade of orange trickle into the right side of ATK’s midfield as well. This is due to similar reasons – the right sided centre mid went up more often to form passing triangles with Prabir and Krishna. Thus, they too left space behind themselves which could easily be attacked.
The lighter shade in left midfield again shows how Soosairaj had a more defensive role. Although, his flank did face its fair share of attacks.
Apart from the flanks, ATK’s box and the area right outside it saw fewer chances being created. More on this in the upcoming section as comparing it to the league average gives us a more refined view.
This graphic is an apt depiction of ATK’s solid defending. The blue in central areas shows how they were compact and were able to stifle their opponents. David Williams tracked back several times and was an important part of their press. This gave them numerical superiority in midfield with a default three-man midfield turning into a four-man midfield.
Even the left midfield area is well-covered in contrast to the right midfield. Apart from Soosairaj, it could be because Williams started on the left and Krishna on the right. While Krishna stayed up for counters, Williams’ side gave out lesser space in midfield as he tracked back more often. He was also supported by other players because the lack of offensive responsibilities on the left made it easier to defend there.
The full-back spots were bound to be more porous than the league average, but ATK had control of a better area – the box. Pritam Kotal and Sumit Rathi came in narrow and clogged up the space around the box. Midfielders also came to their aid and created an impenetrable barrier. Although the opponents were free out wide, they didn’t have many options apart from crossing. Cutting in was a challenge – as ATK besides taking a narrow shape offered little space between the lines.
If ATK were caught on the counter, Pritam Kotal and Sumit Rathi were left to deal with the threat. Their top notch one-on-one skills alongside John Johnson’s ability to cover ground made them unbreachable. On occasions when the defensive line was permeated, Arindam came clutch and kept them in with last-gasp saves.
With 33 goals scored and 16 goals conceded, ATK had the second best attack and the second best defence at the league stage in the 2019-20 ISL. Their recent merger with Mohun Bagan has seen their talent pool and resources increase a hundredfold.
They have retained their best players and have given new meaning to depth by signing national team stars such as Subhasish Bose, Manvir Singh and Sandesh Jhingan.
Spurred on by the addition of legacy fans, ATK Mohun Bagan stand firm favourites to lift the ISL Championship going into the new season and will aim to reach the knockout stage of the AFC Cup competition.
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