FC Goa got their first win of the season yesterday against East Bengal, but their first three matches of the season have proven the oft-quoted Murphy’s Law – anything that could have gone wrong went wrong for the Gaurs. The win lifted them off the bottom of the ISL table, but it is a steep fall from grace for Juan Ferrando’s side that nearly made the ISL final last season and represented India proudly in the AFC Champions League.
Much of their problems seemingly stem from the inability to adapt to the new rule that only allows four foreign players. Ferrando has tried four different systems – none of which have worked particularly well.
The opener against Mumbai City saw winger Jorge Ortiz and new signing Dylan Fox, both of whom were recovering from injuries, start from the bench. Ivan Gonzalez at centre-back, Edu Bedia in defensive midfield, Alberto Noguera as attacking midfielder and Airam Cabrera as the centre forward formed the foreigner core of the line-up through the centre.
The second match against Jamshedpur saw Ortiz lead the line instead of Airam. Goa dominated the match, but failed to create clear-cut chances. More concerningly, they were very open on the break and Jamshedpur racked up 15 shots against them with a cumulative xG of 1.52 which is very poor from a Goan perspective.
This led to Ferrando opting to shore things up at the back, handing Fox his debut as Bedia dropped to the bench against Northeast United. Still, there was a notable improvement defensively, but the side still gave away far too many shots (20) and continued to look docile in attack.
The match yesterday against East Bengal saw Goa play a back three of Aiban, Gonzalez and Ali as Bedia came in for Fox. So what are Ferrando’s options in terms of selecting foreign players and what do they mean for the side’s structure both in and out of possession?
Option 1 – Iván González + Edu Bedia + Jorge Ortiz + Airam Cabrera
This is perhaps going to be the most used quartet for Goa by the time the season ends (despite Noguera’s heroics yesterday) and for good reason. It is similar to the line-up used by Ferrando in the opener, but having Ortiz as a winger instead of a striker makes a big difference.
Goa’s attack has looked directionless at times with Ortiz up top and it does not make the best use of the Spaniard’s strengths. He is at his best when running at players with the ball and having him as a No.9 forces him to roam into wide areas, vacating the centre.
The video below is a perfect example of Ortiz’s strengths as a winger and why he is not ideal as a striker. Playing as a centre forward, he drifts out wide and is played in behind. His exceptional pace and control allow him to isolate a defender, but he has no support in the middle because that’s where his striker would be. Even if he beats his man, the angle is unfavourable and what would have been a dangerous situation is neutralised.
Airam may not have taken the world by storm in his opening few appearances, but his movement in the box and overall play have signs of promise. It is natural that a new signing goes through a period of adjustment and Airam should find his shooting boots soon.
Brandon Fernandes and Alberto Noguera are similar players who can play the roaming midfielder role, dropping deep to link midfield and attack. One can expect that when Brandon returns from injury, this will be Goa’s best line-up. It gives Goa a foreign core through the centre of the field in each horizontal line and has a good combination of technicality and physicality.
Fox can come in for Gonzalez as well when the scheduling gets tighter or when Goa are up against a particularly physical striker like Nersjus Valskis or Deshorn Brown. As seen below, Fox is much more physical and adept aerially, but Gonzalez is perhaps the better on-ball player. His ball carrying is particularly useful in the first phase of play, especially to move into the space Bedia vacates when he splits the centre-backs.
This option does leave Ferrando with a dilemma of choosing who will partner Gonzalez (or Fox) at the heart of defence. Papuia started the first match, but did not have the best of outings. Aiban played against Jamshedpur and struggled to cope with Valskis. Mohamed Ali is another option while Leander d’Cunha can also play at centre-back.
Ferrando will be hoping to figure out his best Indian central defender quickly to bring in stability to the team.
Option 2 – Ivan Gonzalez/Dylan Fox + Alberto Noguera + Jorge Ortiz + Airam Cabrera
This would be an uber-attacking option for Goa – front-loading their foreign players, but it could work if their technical Indian players manage to stay fit. Goa have the luxury of having two of the most technical domestic players in the form of Brandon and Princeton Rebello and they can utilise this to allow Noguera and Ortiz to supply Airam.
Princeton could line-up alongside Glan Martins in the double pivot ahead of the defence with Brandon on the right, Ortiz on the left and Noguera as the attacking midfielder. Brandon is not the quickest of players, but his delivery from wide areas is impeccable as he has shown for the national team.
Ortiz and Brandon are bound to create high quality chances for Airam to make the best of, but it does leave the defence a bit open as neither of the two are the most defensively disciplined.
Ferrando could counter that by having Sanson Pereira as the full-back instead of Saviour Gama. The former is less inclined to bomb on forward and could perhaps shoulder more of the defensive burden for Ortiz or Brandon.
This option gives Goa more flexibility as well. Instead of Princeton, any one of Naorem, Romario, Redeem or Nemil could start with Noguera in the pivot alongside Glan. Noguera may not have the passing range that Bedia does, but he is more mobile and carries especially well. Noguera recorded 2.54 progressive carries per 90 as against 0.65 for Bedia in the last 365 days, but a contributing factor of that differential are the different roles the two take up in the side.
Option 3 – Ivan Gonzalez + Dylan Fox + Edu Bedia + Jorge Ortiz
This line-up is the opposite of the previous one, where Goa backload their foreign players and have a stable foundation to build from. Admittedly, Ferrando is not one to go very defensive in his approach, but if results continue to go against them, then this is worth looking at.
Gonzalez, Fox and Bedia are exceptional progressors of play – all three of them are in the top 10 players for forward passes per 90 in the league over the last year (Bedia 2, Gonzalez 3 & Fox 8). This line-up will almost certainly give Goa control of the match, but does leave them a bit light in the final third.
The usage of Ortiz is also crucial here. When Airam or Angulo (last season), were absent, Ortiz played as a central striker. However, that is not his best position. Devendra Murgaonkar has impressed in preseason as well as in the Durand Cup and could be given a run at striker. His pace is impressive and he can stretch opposing defences as Goa look to hit them quickly using Bedia’s raking passes.
Nemil has also shown good goal scoring touch and could be an option upfront as well, swapping with Ortiz occasionally in a fluid attacking line. Against East Bengal, Devendra did well and so did Nemil when he came on even though they didn’t get on the scoresheet.
Option 4 – Ivan Gonzalez/Dylan Fox + Edu Bedia + Alberto Noguera + Jorge Ortiz
This line-up is also a tempting one for Ferrando and a sensible one to have his best players in the middle of the park to control the game. It is one that has a lot of creativity in attack and the absence of a proper striker could be made up for by the sheer number of chances they create.
Their second match against Jamshedpur saw a similar lineup and although Goa were beaten on the day, there are reasons to give this structure another shot. The Gaurs had 67% of the possession in the match, but it was in the final third where they were lacking.
Moving Ortiz to the wing with the same foreign players and going with Devendra as the striker could be more fruitful, catering to the strengths of both players. The return of Brandon could also solve the problems in the attacking third allowing Ortiz to stay as the centre-forward.
It allows flexibility as well as we saw against East Bengal. They played a back three which allowed them to dominate the game and it was only three rather freakish goals that made it a close contest. The system gave Goa a technical advantage in each third of the pitch and they were able to play vertically very easily.
This formation also allows Goa to play with more attacking full-backs – Seriton and Saviour’s relentless running was a feature of Goa’s play last season and it can help them create overloads in wide areas and create good chances.
It is a given that over the course of the season Goa will use these combinations, based on availability, scheduling and opponents. The first option is the most balanced and if they can get it working to their liking, it should be their primary choice. The second one can be used by them when chasing games – Ferrando is not afraid to go with Bedia, Noguera, Ortiz and Airam as his four forwards as we saw in the last half hour against Jamshedpur.
Option 3 is unlikely to be used often, but depending on the game state and perhaps against opponents like Mumbai City, Ferrando could be tempted to shut up shop and play on the counterattack as he did in the AFC Champions League in April. The fourth one is useful if Devendra and Nemil can bring their goal scoring form to the ISL.
A lot also depends on the availability of Brandon. His technicality makes him an effective fifth foreign player for Goa and his return could solve a lot of the problems that they have faced up until now. The arrival of Anwar Ali in January could further convince Ferrando to stick to one foreign centre-back if they can make that system work.
Three losses from three games was not expected by the most severest of doubters (not that Goa has many) and there are lots of question marks for Ferrando at this stage. Perhaps, all of this will be for posterity as the season goes on and the team settles down. Nonetheless, the questions are worth asking – What is Goa’s best lineup? Does captain Edu Bedia fit into that side? Will Airam come good or will they rue letting Angulo go? We will find out in due time.