Most Indian football fans’ first introduction to Simon Grayson would have been through one of the more infamous fly-on-the-wall sports documentaries in recent years, “Sunderland ‘Til I Die.” The behind the scenes docuseries covers the downward spiral through the English footballing pyramid of one of the northeast’s biggest clubs, Sunderland. The average football enthusiast, who doesn’t follow Sunderland or the lower divisions of English football wouldn’t have had the greatest impression of Grayson. Indeed, the man from Yorkshire was tasked with an ambitious project – to bring the Black Cats back to the big time (appointed by none other than the present CEO of FSDL, Martin Bain, who you could say was the helmsman of the sinking Sunderland ship at the time).
What ensued has been termed a disaster. Grayson only lasted three months at a club in turmoil, winning just three games in 18 which left them in the relegation zone. His dismissal at Sunderland began a negative momentum in his managerial career as disappointing and short spells at Bradford City, Blackpool and Fleetwood Town followed. Grayson has now turned to pastures new as he takes on a fresh experience in the Indian subcontinent and in particular, the Indian Super League.
Bengaluru FC’s Two-year Playoff Exile
Simon Grayson takes charge of a Bengaluru FC in a state of flux ever since its ISL Final triumph in 2019. After letting go of fan favourite Carles Cuadrat midway through the 2020-21 season, the management chose to go the German route by appointing Marco Pezzaiouli on a three-year performance-based contract.
By the end of the season, Pezzaiouli was let go due to “off-field issues,” but more importantly, he wasn’t able to steer the club into the playoffs with a squad which was (realistically) not good enough to contend for those positions. Added to this was the fact that the German-Italian tactician brought in a completely different method or “philosophy” of playing, involving high intensity and high pressure up the pitch, which required time to build automatisms in the squad.
The club also chose to bring in players of a younger age profile to combine with the promotion of several youngsters from the youth setup, therefore signalling the start of a medium-long term project, for the lack of a better word. In one transfer window, the recruitment shift had brought the average age of the squad down to 24.5yrs, with a view to develop the youngsters in a first team environment to get them ready in 2-3 years.
Further, Pezzaiouli wasn’t given the opportunity to shift through the gears of his Audi and was denied the chance to lubricate the engine. Pezzaiouli’s solitary season in India ultimately didn’t go the lengths of captivating Indian football with the introduction of his style of football, but the underlying numbers of his Bengaluru side showed promise for what was to come.
This StatsBomb xG chart for instance gives a representation of the expected goal difference Bengaluru mustered over the course of last season. xGD is a calculation obtained by subtracting the xGA (expected goals against) from the xG (expected goals) which indicates that Bengaluru had the 4th best goal difference in the season.
Bengaluru FC in 2021-22 topped the league in metrics such as PPDA (Passes per defensive action) which essentially underlines the number of passes on average afforded by the defensive team before reclaiming the ball, came 3rd in the league for progressive passes (which tells us the number of vertical passes played on average every 90 minutes), as well as league toppers in terms of xG generated from set pieces.
The highest xG from set pieces kept in line with a trend of this team in recent seasons which sees them create and convert a high volume of set-piece goals while creating amongst the lowest xG in the division from open play. This pattern has seen them judged as perhaps being a bit too over-reliant on creating openings from set piece situations.
In time, BFC’s scatter gun approach over the past five years hasn’t worked out entirely. Starting from the 2016-17 season, the board chose to appoint a Spanish possession-based coach, followed by a Spanish pragmatist, an Indian coach who specialises in youth development on an interim basis, then a German-Italian who demanded a high intensity pressing system and now an English coach who’ll look to make this team resolute and hard to beat.
Not exactly what you would term long term planning or execution.
Simon Grayson’s BFC
After being frugal and experimental in the past few transfer windows, the management decided to back the incoming manager with proven Indian and foreign talent from within the ISL. Roy Krishna and Javi Hernandez will provide as close a ‘guarantee’ of creativity and clinical nature to the squad as possible.
BFC seemed to prefer doing a bulk of their business in Kolkata, through pure coincidence it seems, as proven domestic recruits Hira Mondal, Sandesh Jhingan, Prabir Das and Faisal Ali have joined ahead of the upcoming ISL season. It’s clear to see how Grayson wants to build a core spine of proven quality as a base for success for the next couple of years. The recruitment shift has been quite visible, as you can see here:
The three Indian recruits are in or close to what is typically known as the ‘peak’ years of a footballer while the three foreign recruits might be past the stereotypical ‘physical prime,’ but will look to add their experience and mental nous to the team.
Speaking after the appointment of the new coach, the Director of Bengaluru FC, Parth Jindal outlined one of the key details which swayed his decision towards the Yorkshireman.
Simon has a great ability to work with young players and bring the best out of them, as well as a very strong sense of how to get the best out of experienced players.Parth Jindal
Grayson’s initiation to Indian football in the form of the Durand Cup has offered an insight into how he’ll strive to combine the two. If his first 90 odd days in the hot seat are anything to go by, the Bengaluru FC faithful are in for an earnest journey back to the top. The seven games on the road to clinching their first Durand Cup will definitely serve as a grand appetizer for what’s to come.
Forgetting formations and tactics for a moment, Grayson’s success in the Durand Cup has seemed to have been built on establishing a strong spine with a core bunch of 7-8 players. The tantalising combination up front of Krishna and Chhetri might be eye candy for many as we edge closer to the regular season, but the building blocks in defence and in the engine room have started taking shape.
Grayson’s BFC has predominantly set up as a back five with three central midfielders to support the two strikers working in tandem up front. It’s a system which incidentally assisted Albert Roca’s success fairly well in the run to the AFC Cup final in 2016 as he used his three big central defenders and three central midfielders to control the central areas of the pitch.
The Durand Cup winning team has been set up on a similar approach, as Grayson intends to find the right balance whilst also aiming to fit in as much quality into the team. Involving Chhetri more centrally, closer to the goal and as a foil for Roy Krishna will no doubt have been one of the starting points in pre-season. In behind and on the flanks, the front two have been ably supported by the two wing backs in Roshan Singh and Prabir Das, who’ve been instructed to play high and wide in order to whip crosses into the box. The midfield three has consisted of combativity rather than creativity as Bruno Ramires, Rohit Kumar, Danish Farooq, Jayesh Rane and Suresh Wangjam have rotated in and out of the team.
The introduction of Javi Hernandez in behind the front two once he gets over his fitness issues will no doubt add more threat in and around the box. Grayson has noticeably identified BFC’s weakness in playing a high line over the past few seasons and has resorted to defending deeper.
The likely starting centre halves Jovanovic, Jhingan and Alan Costa aren’t blessed with a great deal of recovery pace, but dominate aerially and on the ground, which has served a solid platform to contain opposition. Gurpreet Singh Sandhu not being instructed to play out from the back without having adequate and efficient ball distributors in front of him will help make things simpler. Additionally, having more solid communication with a fellow Punjabi in Jhingan and English-speaking Jovanovic will only help their organisation.
One of the key benefits of the 3-5-2 (3-4-1-2 in possession) is the strength in the central areas of the pitch. This ties in with what we spoke about earlier – Grayson looking to build a strong spine to the team. Playing a 3-5-2 out of possession enables the team to defend with a numerical superiority against most teams, giving them a higher chance of reclaiming possession through second balls.
The effectiveness of the low compact block shows in the above data viz, as Bengaluru FC showed a competitive volume of ball recoveries while having amongst the highest successful ball reclaims from sitting back deep in the low block (low pressing successful).
IN POSSESSION, this BFC side is unlikely to play progressive, tippy-tappy football through the thirds like most teams want to these days. A key principle that we’ve seen a hint of and are more than likely to see in the ISL regular season is the usage of width to penetrate the opposition in the final third. The numerical superiority in midfield should force the opposition to defend narrow, which in turn should give the luxury of space to arguably two of the best wing backs in the league on their day.
The above images show instances in the Durand Cup final where the width against the 4-3-3 set up is beneficial. Mumbai City FC have narrowed their defensive shape to deal with the midfield overload, hence allowing more space for the wing backs to be played in either through diagonals or through passes.
OUT OF POSSESSION, Grayson’s BFC has shown itself to be deep, compact and resolute so far. We must stress that this is only pre-season and they haven’t been tested to the limit. The back three in possession become a back five out of possession while the front three gets behind the ball to form a deep block.
The three towering defenders will make it difficult to penetrate the box aerially. Every system poses some sort of weakness however, and in this case numerical inferiority on the flanks could force the wing backs deep and make them less of a threat going forward. Good positioning is pivotal to neutralising the threat of the opposition wingers who’s aim would be to run at the wing back. The defensive threat of an overload on the wings would be the weakness of this system against most teams, who tend to play with a winger higher up who’s supported by his full back. This could also lead to the midfield trio being dragged wide in support, leaving gaps through the middle.
The above images show instances of the Bengaluru FC team having form a low, compact block to stop the opposition.
In totality, Grayson and his coaching staff’s identification of the strengths and the tools to mask the weaknesses has been the foundation for their swift success. As much as there’s a craving for Indian teams to play ‘progressive’ football like the top teams in Europe and South America, simple and decisive football has garnered success in India in the recent past.
In the seven games so far, they haven’t shown an abundance of creativity or chance creation especially from open play, which may hurt them going forward especially given the goal scoring talent they have up front. The pragmatic and effective blueprint to success in India has been laid out by the likes of Owen Coyle and Antonio Lopez Habas as well as some of BFC’s own former coaches like Cuadrat or even Ashley Westwood, if we cast our memory back to nearly a decade ago.
Those past campaigns of triumph will no doubt give Grayson inspiration to programme this team to be resolute and robust, to be combative and to keep clean sheets, because the attacking firepower should do enough to win games if they’re given ample ammunition.