Mumbai City FC this season may well and truly be the most dominant side the league has ever seen. 18 games unbeaten, 50+ goals, highest points tally ever and so many more records broken, it’s hard to say if there has been a more dominating side in the league’s history.
But this dominance came after a season of incredible turbulence in 2021-22. With the highest of highs followed by the absolute lowest of lows, they were unsuccessful in fulfilling the perceived minimum expectations of qualifying for the top 4. They struggled to replicate the exploits and attacking football from the Lobera double season and looked far from the team they could’ve/should’ve been.
Their pressing was disorganised, they leaked goals throughout the season and their initial attacking prowess seemed to fizzle out halfway through the season. They looked like a side with good players who were not suited for each other or their manager’s demands. Throughout the 2021-22 season, you could see glimpses of what Des Buckingham wanted from his team in terms of pressing. He wanted a team that pressed from the front, pressed aggressively, and quickly sought to attack the goal after winning possession. But it was clear that Mumbai lacked the personnel to do it. The 2021-22 season acted as a template, the foundation of what Des was trying to build with the team and it’s noticeable that the changes and tweaks made to that initial system paid off big time.
Let’s talk about said personnel. Despite being a fantastic striker, Igor Angulo was just not the man to be the pressing general that Buckingham wanted him to be. His age did not complement his efforts in the pressing phase and more often than not, that willingness would only last a good 20 minutes. It was clear that he did not have the “dawg” in him, pressing-wise at least. This meant that Cassio Gabriel took the major lead in the press, where he was an effective player in the pressing phase but mostly lacklustre, same from Brad Inman (remember him?) and the Ygor/Mauricio swap just screamed of poor planning, if any, and displayed a disparity in what the club planned for and what Des wanted/needed.
Most of the signings had been made prior to the announcement of Des as the new head coach of Mumbai City FC and there was clearly a huge amount of disparity between the way Des wanted to play and what the players he had on hand were capable of doing. It was also evident in how Des talked about his philosophy for the season, stating how he wishes to continue and build on the playing style of Sergio Lobera, rather than make huge chops and changes.
So it was clear that they needed to change their playing personnel and that’s exactly what they did. Mumbai on paper seemed to have upgraded on all fronts. The magical Greg Stewart replacing the Brazilian loanee Cassio Gabriel and Alberto Noguera on the bench, just in case Mumbai ran out of pure magic. They also made the decision to go with two foreign CBs instead of one, bringing much-needed solidity and structure to the team which in turn provided versatility in both defence and attack.
When the signing of Jorge Pereyra Diaz was announced, many wondered whether he was an upgrade in quality to the retiring Igor Angulo or even a better choice than the heavily linked Roy Krishna or the apparently “he’s signed but not really” David Williams. Questions about his technical abilities were raised and many predicted that he might not even start most games. But his signing is a testament to why profiles matter a lot more than just superior technical ability and how with just a few structural tweaks and better recruitment, Mumbai became one of the best pressing sides and arguably the best-ever team to grace the ISL.
First, it’s important to understand how Mumbai likes to press under Des Buckingham. Structurally it’s not too dissimilar from how Lobera’s Mumbai City pressed. When the opposition CBs have the ball, Mumbai go into a 4-4-2 Shape, with the no.10 pushing up to make the front 2. When the ball moves from one centre back to another, the respective striker aims to put pressure on the man in possession while the other drops slightly to sweep up the ball behind them or to trap the defender into making a pass back to where it came from. The winger on one side pushes up, getting ready to pounce when his opposite fullback receives the ball and win the ball quickly. The 2 forwards method allows them to apply pressure on the CBs quickly and more intensely while making sure that the forwards don’t tire out chasing after the ball, which could easily become the case with just a single player up top. Any balls/players in midfield would be instantly put under pressure and any loose balls would instantly be swept up.
In the 2021-22 season, however, there were multiple times when teams found it incredibly easy to play out from Mumbai’s press. More often than not, they were able to play a free man in midfield due to Mumbai’s 10 pushing higher up and the pivots being relatively flat. This coupled with the passive fullbacks in the pressing phase allowed the opposition to quickly play the ball out to wingers as targets to play the ball back in centrally or just play a forward pass into midfield. Here’s a poorly made video as an example.
Igor Angulo despite being a willing presser was inefficient. Partly due to his age and partly due to the fact that he’s never been that kind of player. He has never been a pressing machine and most of his game is built around his excellent fox-in-the-box movement. This put a lot of pressure on Cassio Gabriel to be the focal point of pressing for Mumbai and credit where credit’s due, he did an above-average job. Especially against Jamshedpur, where it led to a direct assist. But overall, the pressing from the front two was less than desirable for Des. Another area of weakness for the proactiveness, or the lack of, from the settled double pivot of Jahouh and Apuia.
Trying to trap the opposition into playing the pass into midfield turned out to be wasteful as more often than not, the midfielders were forced to chase around the ball too often and the trap would very seldom work. A very really good example of this pressing is in the Mumbai vs ATKMB 1-1 draw. The free forward man (McHugh) allows ATK to break the press and when the ball enters in the midfield, Jahouh instantly closes him down to win the ball. Now whether the pressing pattern was intentionally set up like this or if it was just an outcome of the fact that due to the poor pressing personnel upfront, the pivot stayed deeper as a more conservative move, we’ll never know. What we do know was that it wasn’t difficult for teams to play out of it and it often resulted in a disjointed midfield and lots of open gaps.
Now when you look at Mumbai this season, you can see the recruitment changes for the team and the slight technical changes they’ve made to their pressing has made Mumbai a much better team in press.
Let’s start with the first big change. The slight tweak to their starting formation in the press. Now in the pressing phase, Mumbai lined up in a 4-1-3-2 formation as opposed to a 4-4-2.
It’s just a slight tweak where Apuia is slightly higher up the field where instead of forcing the opposition to play in the midfield and then pressing the player in possession, Mumbai mark the available progressive passing option. Jahouh sits behind him sweeping any long balls that may come if Apuia misses the press or the ball is played behind him. This coupled with the higher line of engagement of the front 2 and the better structure and understanding of the pressing pattern by the wingers forces the opposition to either go long or to lose the ball in the press.
Side note, the slightly higher role given to Apuia in the pressing phase is actually a defensive move since it contributes to a better pressing structure for Mumbai, but this higher role in the press has allowed him to become more involved in the attacking phase of the game too and hence is a big reason for the increase in his attacking output. He’s playing higher up the field to defend so that they can attack. I thought that was pretty neat. Here’s another poor example of the pressing pattern. The pattern is visible from the first minute of this seasons game between Mumbai and FC Goa.
These changes are evident in how Mumbai press now. Secondly, the addition of players like Jorge Pereyra Diaz and the higher involvement of the full-backs in the press has made the press even more leakproof. Diaz is an incredible presser and his work rate off the ball is arguably the best among all the strikers in India right now. It’s not just his work rate and his willingness to press, but his understanding of how to press that makes him so dangerous and so effective.
In the example above, you can see how JPD not only presses as if his life is on the line, but also does so at the perfect time. And when the bad touch from the defender is presented to Diaz, he sees the perfect trigger to win the ball, which he does immediately, attacking at goal and scoring.
This is a brilliant example of how a player is recruited to best suit Des ball. Jorge Pereyra Diaz got that dawg in him and it shows.
The involvement of fullbacks is very evident too and has already paid dividends this season for Mumbai. Rahul Bheke and Vignesh/Mandar have been far more aggressive in interceptions and have made sure that the wingers are not an outlet to play out of the press. This aggression resulted saw itself almost cause harm first when Vignesh over-committed and left Mehtab high and dry and then it was seen as a success later when Rahul Bheke’s press allowed Diaz to score immediately after as a result of some incredible pressing.
The high intensity in pressing is of course, still very difficult to keep up for the full 90 and some slip-ups are bound to happen. The example below of how proactiveness coupled with the occasional poor decision making which is ever prevalent in Indian football can sometimes lead to almost disastrous consequences.
The philosophy, the non-negotiables, and the patterns have not changed that much if at all to be honest. But the changes in recruitment and slight tweaks in the structure has made Mumbai so much more dangerous in the press and have actually converted these presses to direct goal scoring opportunities.
Now obviously, there are still so many questions that remain unanswered. Was the recruitment of Diaz really to suit Mumbai’s and Des’s tactical approach? Were the fullbacks actually asked to be slightly more conservative last season or were they not well-versed with the pressing patterns? Is Mumbai’s improvement in the pressing phase slight tactical changes this year or are they just noticeable improvements due to the repetition in pressing patterns? We may truly never know.
The purpose of this article I suppose is more to highlight the noticeable changes and to show that these improvements, whether an outcome from technical changes made seeing last year’s failures and shortcomings, or just the effect of repeat patterns, shadow play and the better understanding of the way the gaffer wants the players to play by the players, are definitely noticeable and are making Mumbai into one of the best sides to have ever graced the league.
And seeing how these changes led Mumbai to go on an incredible 18 game unbeaten run, it is clear that Des and his team are more than capable of learning from their mistakes, improving each day and utilising the abilities of his players to the fullest extent – all in all creating a system/ solid foundation which ensures success on the pitch over the next few seasons.