India U22 under the guidance of Arthur Papas gifted us a wonderful evening. Playing against the juniors of 2007 Asian Cup champions Iraq, our boys gave a great account of themselves.
The ones who were called ‘mighty’ were forced to take the ball to the corner and waste time for whole of the final quarter of the match! You do not get gifts like these very often as an Indian football fan.
The mood on the Indian Football Forum is ecstatic to say the least. The excitement was so much that the forum was flooded with visitors during and after the match.
But how is the mood in the camp? Is the Indian contingent happy with what they have achieved? Well, not quite. Because there is this feeling of ‘Ah..what could have been..”. Our team is not minnows in the group anymore.
In a conversation with me after the match, India U22 coach Arthur Papas gives insights into the camp, the match and our prospects.
Somesh: A 5-2 drubbing against Lebanon followed by 1-2 against Iraq. Great results, aren’t they? What do you think?
Arthur: I think if you asked me how I would have felt with this result after the first training session three weeks ago after beginning in this position I would possibly have suggested I would have been content. However, tonight there is a feeling of dejection within the whole group because we also now understand that we can match the likes of Iraq on any given day and my hope is the players don’t lose sight of this potential that they possess in the future.
Somesh: How would you rate the performance of the boys today?
Arthur: I am so very proud of my team and the character they showed over the course of the ninety minutes, there were many different stages within the match and for the most part we were able to find the balance between nullifying the Iraq style of play whilst not forgoing our ideas, this was pleasing.
On another day we would have found our equaliser in the last 15 minutes and to watch Iraq use this final period to stop the rhythm at every possible chance meant that they were holding on for the win at all costs, a credit the to the ability of our boys to keep pressing and search for an equaliser.
After the match, the Iraqi coach Mr. Hakeem Shakir commented that this is the toughest Indian team he has had to face and this is a huge compliment for Indian football and again stresses the manner in which the team performed tonight!
Somesh: Right after our match against Lebanon, you along with the assistant coach Mr. Menon Narayan went on to observe Iraq. And you very effectively neutralized them in the game today. What was our plan, going into the match?
Arthur: Over the last 48 hours we had studied Iraq and knew we faced a top quality team who play with a lot of mobility & individual flair combined with a strong mentality and measured aggression. In particular their movement in midfield and through their wingers was very impressive so we worked on restricting the space in the pockets of space on either side of the midfield where their players liked to come and receive the ball.
To achieve this we changed the shape of our midfield and on the overall this proved to be very effective. It forced Iraq to change their natural short passing game and they began looking to play quite direct or by providing a long diagonal pass to the opposite winger which also was effective at times but overall not as natural for them.
We aslo felt that on the transition from attack to defence they were vulnerable and upon winning the ball we were looking as our first option to play to one of our three players in attack being Allwyn, Jeje and Manandeep who are all very talented attacking players and have the quality to exploit many teams. Overall, at times in the first half I felt we struggled with this and too many balls were not played with purpose but the positive was that after identifying this at half-time the team improved in their possession game in the second half and we had our fair share of control as the game progressed.
Somesh: A playing XI that won comprehensively against Lebanon saw as many as 4 changes against Iraq. One would not see that normally. You continue to surprise us and more importantly, the opponents. What was the thought behind this?
Arthur: Surprising the opponent’s is always something I look for in my preparing of the team with the main idea being that you never look to shock your own team.
From our end we already worked with this line-up in yesterday’s training because firstly there was only a 48 hour break between games, we are playing in 40 degree heat, some players are losing between 3-4 kilograms per match, as well some positions on the field fatigue the players more and hence you look to freshen them up.
Also we have 5 games in 11 days so it’s about trying to find a balance in our line-up to be as fresh as possible for each game or else by the end of the tournament we will be playing at a much lesser intensity, we are trying to play as close to 100% in every game.
In regards to today, we had to take into account the above mentioned variables and balance these with the tactical situation based on the opponent and also what we were wanting to do. This is the reason we brought in Prathamesh, Vishal Kumar and Pronoy as they added an element of physical maturity as we knew the Iraqi team is very physical and will look to exploit set-pieces and play off the second ball if they went direct. In addition, Jeje started because he has a very good ability to hold up the ball and we knew there would be occasions when under pressure that we could use him as an outlet.
Somesh: Jeje limped off the ground in the first half. How serious is the injury? Will he be available for the rest of the tournament?
Arthur: As we all know we have been very cautious with Jeje from day one and considering three weeks ago he had not even joined team training its been a tremendous effort to get him to this point. Today he has not had a major setback and as I stated from day one that although we will do everything we can to qualify it will not come at the cost of a long-term injury for which we can avoid.
In the game Jeje was feeling some aggravation around the knee and as soon as he signalled this we substituted him as a precaution and he will just need the next 24-48 hours to let it settle down. Hopefully, we will see him again at some stage this tournament but until we know more tomorrow it’s best not to speculate.