The national team is currently busy at the SAFF 2023 Championship, where it showed similarly, defeating Pakistan 4-0 and then defeating Nepal 2-0. The defense, too, has been impenetrable, with the Indian No. 1 not conceding a goal in its last eight matches.
In an exclusive conversation with the Hindustan Times, the head coach talked about various aspects of development and the road ahead. He also talked about his future with the national team, stating that the door is not yet closed, and a moment in the technical area during the match against Pakistan.
I remember your first press conference in 2019 when you said that India was a sleeping giant in soccer, so it’s been four years and the team has had tremendous success under your reign. Can you tell us about your observations of the progress the team has made since then?
The team has grown according to the plan and program that we prepared. Through a selection process that was based on science, experience, and knowledge in general, which no one in this country trusted.
In the Indian team’s recent performances, communication on the flanks, possession of the ball has been good, we have seen good switches of play from one side to the other, and the results are there. Can you tell us about the work behind the scenes?
It’s about training and enough time given to us to work together. No more than that.
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Your thoughts on Lallianzual Chhante and his energy, be it running, dribbling or passing?
I would say Chhante as well as (Naorem Singh) Mahesh. Those two give us terrific options right now in the final third because they are very special players. Obviously, the season they’ve had has helped them, and the club coaches’ belief in them has contributed a lot to them becoming more relaxed and creative on the field. Expressing themselves and just having them on the national team is a great thing for us. And I praise everyone who worked with them, their talent, and most importantly, their dedication.
Chante is a very, very important, if not the most important player for the future of Indian soccer because he is a worthy role model in professional soccer. Like Ronaldo in the world. That’s what Chante is becoming in Indian soccer.
The next assignment is.against Kuwait, which dominates the SAFF 2023 Championship. India also showed similar skill, but given their (Kuwait’s) performance, will India return to the lineup that started the game against Pakistan?
Whoever is in the starting lineup will not change because we are all Indians here. So names don’t matter. Right now it’s pretty obvious that we have a very reliable first choice of central defenders. We have three great midfielders, each of whom could be a first option. We have a center forward who again is a first option, a right winger who is a first option. And we combine at the defender and left winger positions depending on the opponent, depending on the needs of the national team and success.
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You mentioned three excellent central defenders and India have come out clean eight times in a row, can you tell us about that?
I mean, it has to do with the philosophy that’s being implemented in the international team. It has to do with what you mentioned earlier, in the first press conference, where I made it clear that the first goal was to change the mentality of the players, and it was changed to playing fearless soccer. Showing respect to everyone, but not having fear of anyone. And that’s not going to change, no matter who we play with.
So in the future, I tell you… India will not change its philosophy of soccer, despite the difference in the quality of the opponents we face. Whoever it is, we will go high and attack. Whether we win or lose, we will not change. It’s the only way to move forward.
In the previous match against Nepal, the team made eight lineup changes, and please correct me if I’m wrong, but I thought we were a little concerned. What’s your honest feedback on that?
At certain points in the game, we did not follow the instructions given before the game. We didn’t play very tight. We allowed their front players to pick up rebounds and make good crosses into the penalty box that were dangerous. There were two dangerous situations: one arose from a bad header by Mehtab, who came back from a corner to the center position on the edge of the field. And then Gurpreet saved that shot. That was the only dangerous shot, and they had one cross from the right side that was not good enough.The first one is for a striker who comes in behind our central defenders.
So, given that we switched eight players, four have never played together, and the guys needed time to adjust to the game. Considering the referee was favorable to Nepal, allowed some bad tackles and didn’t penalize them. Thapa (Anirudh) was hit very hard from behind three or four times, but was not penalized. We can talk about those 45 minutes, but the point is that we weren’t good enough. We didn’t follow the exact instructions, the passing wasn’t fast enough, we didn’t change sides enough. For the first 15 minutes, we only pressured through the right flank, killing Udatanta (Singh) with bad passes, not giving him the opportunity to position himself better.
So tactically nothing, I would say 90 percent of the things and instructions were not followed, and so we suffered. And then you have the obvious changes in the second half. A change in approach. Strict adherence to instructions, and everything is perfect.
As you mentioned about Oudante, in the match against Pakistan he came on as a substitute instead of Ashik (Kuruniyan), which was not his natural position, but he scored. But against Nepal, even though he played in his natural position, he could not find common ground with Nikhil (Pujari). What do you think about that?
Only time will tell how these two will work in tandem on the right flank, and we need to be patient, as I always say. It takes time for these guys to build a proper and effective tandem. We’re already seeing Chante and Nikhil working together. Meanwhile, Udanta is a different type of player than Chhante. Chhante is someone who likes to get the ball to his feet and then make the difference and the advantage for the team. Either by penetrating with the ball inside or by circling a player, stepping on his right foot and forwarding the ball to Sunil (Chhetri) to score.
On the other hand, we’ve seen Udanta use his tremendous speed and get behind the back four to get the ball instead of getting it to his feet. But it’s good to have both options.
In the match against Pakistan, we saw Anwar (Ali) send a great close-range serve from the Indian double to his opponent, which led to a goal. He plays long balls and makes terrific interceptions, what do you think of him?
That’s another good point about the quality we have on the team right now. Because when someone tries to press us really high, it’s like it gives us the ability to niti because we haveenough speed in the front players. Now we have guys at the back who can create such long passes with such precision that it can kill the opponent.
I would like to ask you about an incident that happened during the match against Pakistan. A player when he was about to make a throw-in and you knocked the ball out of his hands. Afterwards, you tweeted that you were defending the players from an unreasonable decision. Can you shed any more light on this?
It’s simple. It was a clear foul on (Pritama) Kotal at the line. Just a meter away, and the referee was only two meters behind me. He clearly saw it, but he didn’t give it. And it was in extra time in the first half. People say: why does the coach do that? 2-0 is a comfortable result and so on. 2-0 is not a comfortable result, because we are in extra time in the first half, and Pakistan takes the ball very quickly and goes on the counterattack.
It was a tactical decision. Nothing like an incident, I wouldn’t say that. I was well aware of the penalty I would receive, but I wasn’t prepared to let the Pakistan team take advantage of the referee’s error.
If you look at the team’s recent games, they have been impressive on both fronts – attack and defense. However, at the Asian Cup, things will be a bit different considering the opponents. Do you have any specific plans for opponents like Australia, which regularly participates in the World Cup?
It’s a long way to think about that yet. First we need to focus on September, then October, then November, and then we’ll start thinking about Australia, Syria and Uzbekistan and prepare an analysis on our rivals. Analyze all of their games for September, October, November and those are the only ones we will plan for.