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Breaking down Buckingham

Breaking down Buckingham
Des Buckingham | Source: Twitter

Des Buckingham’s first sojourn on Indian shores must’ve been a weird one. ‘Lobera’ must’ve been amongst the names he would’ve heard more than any other as he started getting acclimatised to the second successive ISL bubble in 2021.

Rarely does a head coach come into a vacant position only to be badgered with questions as to how he intends to match the success of his predecessor, or even better it. Buckingham had to live with the fact that he was replacing the first league shield and championship double winner in the ISL. He also had to contend with the benchmark set by Sergio Lobera’s proactive and attacking approach which he brought to India first with FC Goa and then Mumbai City FC.

The weight of expectation wouldn’t have ended there. Clubs under the City Football Group’s (CFG) umbrella are almost stipulated a certain elite sporting standard – an added burden for a 36-year old taking charge of his first job as head coach.

While it may have appeared to be a certain positive to inherit a double winning team, Indian football silly season hit, meaning that Mr. Goenka of the newly formed ATK Mohun Bagan decided to open his purse strings and say, “I’ll take you, you and you as well.” And just like that, Amrinder Singh and Hugo Boumous swiftly left the door to league rivals even before Buckingham had been appointed. Adam Le Fondre decided to head back to Sydney FC while Bart Ogbeche and Hernan Santana made moves to rivals within the league. This meant 19 league goals from the frontline and a sturdy partner for Mourtada Fall at the back exited the door.

It must be noted that the Englishman was appointed just 42 days before the first ball was kicked in the 2021-22 season – certainly not an ideal timeframe for any new coach heading into pre-season to understand his resources and drill his methods into them. Added to that, Buckingham would’ve had very little if at all any input regarding incomings who must’ve signed on the dotted line even before he had. It’s no secret that ISL teams are reliant on their foreign recruits for a majority of decisive situations on the pitch, further underlining the importance of effective foreign recruitment.

Lobera vs Buckingham

The foreign recruitment for Buckingham’s first season at the helm turned out to be a mixed bag by the end. While Igor Angulo and Cassio Gabriel and even Ygor Catatau (who was bizarrely loaned until the January transfer window) looked like solid captures, the likes of Brad Inman and Diego Mauricio failed to live up to the expectations set by the double winning team. Despite the shortcomings in the transfer window, Mumbai’s attacking numbers under Buckingham last season were similar to those of the previous season under Lobera.

Mumbai City FC Attacking Stats Comparision 2020-21 vs 2021-22
Source: WyScout

The underlying attacking numbers from 2021-22 show themselves to be very similar to the title winning season of 2020-21. Buckingham’s ability to create similar levels of attacking threat from a slightly different core of players was impressive, given the mitigating circumstances that we spoke about earlier. His team went on to score 36 goals in the regular season, an improvement on the 35 goals Lobera’s team mustered the previous season. More on his unique imprint on the team later…

Leaky Mumbai City

So, if Mumbai City continued to put the ball into the opposition’s net at the same rate that they had the previous season where they won the double, what let them falter into their second fifth place finish in three seasons under the new gaffer?

Quite simply, failure to keep the ball out of their own net. While it feels easy to say that they conceded way too many goals to contend for the top 4, it’s a bit less straightforward to explain why.

Lobera and Buckingham’s teams have both been built on the foundation of being aggressive out of possession. This reflects in the opponents’ PPDA (Passes per defensive action) which is a useful metric to analyse the pressure that the opposition is put under when they are in possession of the ball.

The principle of suppressing the opposition’s build up high up the pitch was carried forward effectively by Buckingham’s side last season as they came 3rd in the league in regards to PPDA as well recoveries in the opposition third.

Where Buckingham’s side came unstuck in terms of being watertight was due to the instability in the back 4. Lobera crucially utilised a back 4 comprising of his two foreign centre backs in Fall and Santana, flanked by Mandar and Amey Ranawade with Amrinder Singh in net.

Buckingham, on the other hand, came into the hot-seat needing to deal with a great deal of instability in the backline and in goal. Firstly, they chose not to sign a foreign centre back, meaning that the minutes partnering Mourtada Fall were split between Rahul Bheke and Mehtab Singh.

Bheke is amongst one of India’s best defenders and has proven to be adept as a centre half in a high line, but with all due respect, he’s not Hernan Santana. The full back department of Mandar, Amey and Vignesh didn’t hit the heights of the previous season, perhaps due to a combination of not having an authoritative centre half alongside them as well as a normal dip in form.

A common theme you’ll see from a big chunk of the 31 goals Mumbai City FC conceded last season is the exploitation of spaces left behind, especially on the left side of the backline for wingers to run into and create.

One match which typified Mumbai’s struggles in defence last season was the game against Northeast United FC at the Fatorda, where Deshorn Brown took home the match ball after a sensational hat-trick in a 3-3 draw.

While the exemplary timing, pace, power and finesse of the three goals must be applauded, notice how each goal in almost a mirror image of each other.


ISL 2021-22 Northeast United FC vs Mumbai City FC screenshot 1
Source: ISL Media

Brown picks on the less experienced centre half in Mehtab while also occupying the space left by Mandar, Mumbai’s left back in this game. Mumbai’s midfield duo of Apuia and Jahouh, not the most intense defensively, have been bypassed.

ISL 2021-22 Northeast United FC vs Mumbai City FC screenshot 2
Source: ISL Media

Northeast United’s left winger sends in a sumptuous diagonal onto Brown’s chest for him to take down and finish.


ISL 2021-22 Northeast United FC vs Mumbai City FC screenshot 3
Source: ISL Media

Notice again how little pressure there is from Mumbai’s midfield two to stop the diagonal for Brown to attack.

ISL 2021-22 Northeast United FC vs Mumbai City FC screenshot 4
Source: ISL Media

Brown once again takes it down ahead of the committing Mehtab and makes no mistake in dispatching it.


ISL 2021-22 Northeast United FC vs Mumbai City FC screenshot 5
Source: ISL Media

Suhair is once again afforded time and space to get his head up and send it towards Brown, who’s on the bottom left of your screen.

ISL 2021-22 Northeast United FC vs Mumbai City FC screenshot 6
Source: ISL Media

Bheke gets his head on the initial diagonal but it goes straight to Imran Khan who shoots towards Brown, who in turn gets a slight touch on it to find the bottom right corner.

On top of the defensive frailties, Amrinder Singh left with big shoes to fill in goal, certainly from a shot-stopping perspective. The incoming Mohammed Nawaz over the course of the season didn’t do enough to cement his position.

It’s sometimes an unnecessary stick to beat Nawaz with whenever he makes a mistake, but his height, or the lack of it becomes a factor to consider, even with his obvious proficiency when it comes to playing out from the back.

Nawaz played 1530 minutes out of a possible 1800 in the ISL regular season, but lost his position to Phurba Lachenpa who’s established himself as the no. 1 since the start of the AFC Champions League group stages and into the new season.

New Season, Shiny New Toys

Much like last season, Mumbai City have come out of the blocks fairly quickly this year, racking up 15 points from 7 in an unbeaten start. It’s worthy to note the opposition they’ve already faced so far – Hyderabad, ATK Mohun Bagan and Odisha who are all tipped to finish higher on the table as well as last season’s league winners Jamshedpur besides tough away fixtures in Kochi and Chennai.

Their statement victory so far has come against Bengaluru FC where Mumbai tore apart a sturdy backline to runaway with four goals and a clean sheet in a scintillating display of attacking football. The early signs are that Buckingham’s light blues have made a step further this season, certainly with the squad composition and balance.

More certainty in the process one year into Buckingham’s project is definitely a positive, but the reinforcements in the summer window could catapult Mumbai into title contention this year.

The highlight of their summer business is no doubt Greg Stewart.

Last season’s ‘Hero of the League’ winner has already shown himself to be an influential figure in the heart of the Mumbai attack. Stewart has featured as a no.10 in Buckingham’s 4-2-3-1 in behind another new acquisition Jorge Pereyra Diaz with Bipin Singh and Vikram Pratap on the wings.

Stewart has come in as a like-for-like replacement for Brazilian Cassio Gabriel who was the technical and creative spark at Mumbai last season. Stewart, however, is an upgrade on Cassio, as this chart will tell you:

Mumbai City FC Greg Stewart vs Cassio Gabriel
Source: WyScout

Stewart’s numbers have been taken from his opening 12 games in the Durand Cup and the current ISL season up until the game against ATK Mohun Bagan. Note the sheer difference between the two players, both in terms of goals and chance creation.

Stewart has been a class apart since he first joined Jamshedpur at the beginning of last season and his acquisition in the off-season was a no-brainer. Buckingham’s understanding of Stewart’s strengths has also been particularly compelling.

Stewart thrived in a system last season where he played as a foil to strikers Chima Chukwu and Jordan Murray whose strengths lie in stretching the opposition’s defence, which in turn creates space for him to pick the ball up in space and drive forward. Snatching Jorge Pereyra Diaz from underneath Kerala Blasters’ nose has thus been a shrewd piece of business, given his quality, he could get the best out of the Scotsman.

Pereyra Diaz made a name for himself in Asian football first at Malaysian giants Johor Darul Ta’zim’s and then his season at the Blasters where he was prolific in front of goal. However, it’s his off the ball work rate and movement which will have no doubt been one of the main reasons behind Mumbai City getting him.

The games where Pereyra Diaz has lead the line ahead of Stewart as a free roaming no.10 with Changte and Bipin flanking him have been the most fruitful from an attacking perspective. Buckingham has also played Stewart as a lone striker in the games against Odisha and Jamshedpur, but the lack of mobility in the final third for Stewart to create for was visibly lacking.

Buckingham primarily stuck to a 4-2-3-1 structure last season in the ISL and in the AFC Champions League, where he led Mumbai to unprecedented success. The ACL was an outlier in the sense that they went in with nothing to lose and played against teams with technical superiority, meaning that the maintenance of a solid and compact defensive shape was more important than playing a more expansive brand of football that they’re used to in the ISL.

Nevertheless, going away and getting seven points out of six games and to finish second in the group is a highly respectable result.

This season with six top foreign players to select from and more depth in his backline, Buckingham has shown his ability to tinker formations and personnel depending on the opposition.

In the seven games so far in the ISL, he’s already trialled a 4-2-3-1, a 4-3-3 with Alberto Noguera in the starting lineup instead of Diaz and a 4-4-2 with Stewart and Pereyra Diaz up front.

While Noguera possesses some very good attacking qualities in terms of ball retention and incisiveness in the final third, the dynamic that Pereyra Diaz provides to get the best out of the main man Stewart has worked better so far.

Mumbai also likes to play with its wingers high and wide which plays into Jahouh’s strengths to make long diagonal switches to find their feet. Having Noguera and Mourtada Fall on the bench is a luxury that most teams in the ISL would bite their hands off to have.

Each of the six foreign players offer different strengths, giving Mumbai City the flexibility to operate in different ways. The abundance of quality has already proven to be a useful headache.

Selection Trade-offs

The trade- off Buckingham has made in terms sacrificing a foreign centre half for a more attacking player has its pros and cons. While the attacking quality to supplement Bipin, Chhangte and Stewart has been more consistent, the constant changes in the backline and midfield has led to Mumbai’s defence not being as miserly as they would like to be, especially against Hyderabad & ATKMB, and more recently in the first half against Chennaiyin FC.

In the first six games, five of the eight goals conceded have come from set piece situations. The ISL has been known to be an outlier in the world footballing context in the sense that over 40% of the goals scored come from set pieces. Hence, a team’s ability to defend set pieces in the ISL is more vital than most leagues and usually enable a team to fight for the top spots.

vs ATK Mohun Bagan

ISL 2022-23 Mumbai City FC vs ATK Mohun Bagan screenshot 1
Source: ISL Media

The importance of defending set pieces in this league is critical enough to decide key moments in big games such as this one at home against ATKMB.

The clock had hit the 88th minute and 10-man ATKMB were chasing the game and were gifted an opportunity from a wide free kick.

Notice how Carl McHugh is able to outmuscle Ahmed Jahouh who tends to have a lapse in concentration now and then.

A good ball swung in to the area with McHugh being able to get his head on it allows ATKMB to snatch a late equaliser in a game Mumbai City were perhaps just edging on the balance of play.

vs Hyderabad FC

ISL 2022-23 Hyderabad FC vs Mumbai City FC screenshot 1

Another situation where Mumbai City make a critical lapse in judgment while they’re on the ascendancy.

Greg Stewart has just got them level at 2-2, but Hyderabad are given an opportunity from a corner.

It’s swung onto the far post, where Phurba Lachenpa and Rahul Bheke get caught under the ball allowing Odei Onaindia to head it across for Joao Victor to head home.

What’s interesting with the ongoing selection tradeoffs Buckingham makes from game to game is that Ahmed Jahouh and Mourtada Fall are no longer certain starters. The duo have proven to be amongst the best deep lying midfielders and centre halves in the league over the past few seasons.

Fall has been made to wait for his opportunities while new signing Rostyn Griffiths commands the defence alongside an ever-improving Mehtab Singh. Buckingham’s insistence on using three of his four foreigners in more attacking positions is no doubt one of the main factors for Fall’s limited minutes.

Jahouh’s rotation in and out of the team is a more interesting one though. While he possesses undoubted supreme technical skills and an exceptional passing range, he’s not the most mobile out of possession and is prone to an error on the edge of his box or in a tackle now and then. His midfield partner Apuia possesses similar strengths to him in terms of ball progression, meaning the double pivot proves ineffective in terms of defensive intensity to reclaim the ball. Yet again, Buckingham making a selection trade-off of using primarily ball progressors makes them a bit suspect in defensive organisation. The following sequence against ATKMB will give you a better idea:

ISL 2022-23 Mumbai City FC vs ATK Mohun Bagan screenshot 2
Source: ISL Media

Mumbai City vs ATK Mohun Bagan ended in a thrilling 2-2 draw, but ATKMB’s first goal was one that could’ve been avoided had the team functioned better in their defensive organisation.

Note here how Mumbai’s front three are intent on pressing ATKMB, who have started playing through the thirds since the arrival of Juan Ferrando.

Chhangte gestures for his full back to get tighter on to Colaco (out of shot).

ISL 2022-23 Mumbai City FC vs ATK Mohun Bagan screenshot 3
Source: ISL Media

The ball instead goes to the deep lying midfielder (Lenny) who’s afforded time and space to look up and make his next decision. Apuia’s position where he’s neither here nor there leaves space for ATKMB to exploit.

The ball eventually goes through Colaco, who fashions a chance in the final third for Joni Kauko to convert in the box.

While these are facets of play Buckingham and his coaching staff will definitely look to correct on the training ground, his squad looks more ready and capable of being more consistent this season.

Scoring goals won’t be the concern, although he’s previously expressed that he’d much prefer to win games 5-4 rather than 1-0. Spectators are often treated to some of the best football in the country by Buckingham’s sides, but Mumbai’s ability to manage games has come into question in certain games this season.

While they have shown their quality to outscore the opposition, there are certain stages in games where you feel that Mumbai could manage the game by slowing the match tempo down or even ‘suffering’ in certain stages out of possession.

Mumbai have shown a tendency to overplay at times – a prime example being the game against ATKMB where Jahouh invites pressure in the 88th minute by attempting something extravagant, a situation which eventually leads to the equaliser.

As the old cliché goes, attacks win games, but defences win championships and Buckingham will have to steer his team towards winning championships by getting all 11 players to defend as a team whilst cutting out poor individual mistakes and situations where they overplay.

With the restructuring of the playoff format, the goal for the top teams will be to be amongst the top 2. With Des Buckingham and the owners’ ambition, you can expect them to settle for nothing less than first.

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