Kerala Blasters hosted ATK on 20th October at Kochi’s Jawaharlal Nehru stadium in the 6th instalment of the Indian Super League. On a head-to-head count, both sides have met 12 times. ATK won four of them, Kerala won two and the rest majority ended in a draw. Antonio López Habas’s ATK had a good preseason; his side won three of the four matches in the preseason and scored at least three goals in each one of them. After returning from the United Arab Emirates, Kerala’s preseason was reorganised in India, Eelco Schattorie’s side won four of their six preseason game. In this tactical analysis, we will breakdown the strategies of Antonio Habas’s ATK. The following analysis will reflect ATK’s 2-1 loss against the host.
ATK’s side started with a defensive 5-4-1. Arindam Bhattacharya started between the sticks with the captain Pritam Kotal, Carl McHugh and Agustín García played in front of him in the defence. Former Jamshedpur winger Michael Soosairaj started as a left wingback and Prabir Das as the right wingback. Indian duo Pronay Halder and Jayesh Rane took charge in the centre midfield. The former Real Madrid academy player Javi Hernández and the Australian David Williams started on the wings. Newly acquired Roy Krishna was leading the line.
The forwards Williams and Krishna displayed good chemistry in the preseason having played together before at Wellington Phoenix in Australia’s A-League. Midfielder Sehnaj Singh replaced Jayesh Rane in the 65th minute. Edu García and Balwant Singh came in for Javi Hernández Pronay Halder respectively to provide an attacking threat.
Schattorie set his side in a 4-1-4-1. Bilal Khan started in the goal after his impressive performance last year in I-League for Real Kashmir where he kept nine clean sheets in 19 games. First choice defender Sandesh Jhingan was out due to his knee injury hence Jairo Rodrigues paired with Gianni Zuiverloon in the defence. Young full-back Mohammad Rakip played on the right and Jessel Carneiro played on the left in defence. The midfield three was comprised of FIFA U-17 world cup scorer Jeakson Singh Thaunaojam, Moustapha Gning and Sergio Cidoncha. Prasanth Karuthadathkuni and Halicharan Narzary played on the wings and the 35-year-old former PSG striker Bartholomew Ogbeche was at focus upfront.
Kerala was brave to make offensive changes after getting the lead. Mario Arques came in for Cidoncha who was then replaced by the striker Raphaël Messi Bouli in the 90th minute. Jeakson was substituted in place of another promising and fan favourite midfielder Sahal Abdul Samad.
ATK in possession (Attacking)
Bhattacharya encouraged his players to move higher up the pitch on receiving the ball. The goalkeeper’s distribution was often directed in the 10th zone (area on the left flank ahead of the mid-line) of the 18 zone model. ATK focused all their men in and around the 10th zone but were fairly ineffective in winning the ball back. Bhattacharya didn’t play short passes to his defenders until the start of the second half. That’s when ATK started dominating possession in search for an equaliser.
ATK relied on the individual qualities of the front three when it came to creating chances and goal-scoring opportunities. David Williams and Javi Hernández kept switching flanks to give variation to their attack and offer a new challenge to the opposition. The front three offered great mobility in counter, running and interchanging positions to create space for one another. In the above picture, Hernández pinned Rakip and made a run from the left to the centre, this movement helped Krishna to dribble the ball in space without any challenge.
The right wing-back Prabir Das and the left wing-back Michael Soosairaj interestingly had different roles when it came to contributing in the attack. Prabir Das had the task to provide effective crosses in the box chiefly aimed at Krishna Roy. Das provided three crosses and two key passes in the game. On the other hand, Williams frequently stayed wide on the left which paved way for the right-footed left wing-back to drift inside near the edge of the box. Soosairaj attempted four dribbles in the game, only second to Krishna in his team.
Change of play
ATK changed the dynamics of their attack in the second half after conceding the lead in the first half. Their focus changed from putting long balls in behind the defenders to keeping a hold on to the ball and building a constructive positional attack. The defenders became the part of the build-up now. The back three; Kotal, McHugh and García along with the two centre-midfielders Pronay Halder and Sehnaj Singh circulated the ball amongst themselves in order to attract Kerala players. Williams and the substitute Edu García hugged the touchline to provide width when the ball was in their defensive half.
As the ball progressed further, both the players moved in close to Krishna to pull the full-backs in with them and make space for wing-backs Das and Soosairaj to run into. The centre-midfielders launched cross-field balls into space for these wing-backs to turn it into a successful attack. This was done to achieve an end result of either a successful cross into the box or a quick link-up with the nearest forward.
ATK out of possession (Defending)
Eelco Schattorie set his Yellow Army to build the attack from behind. ATK lined with the front three forming the first line of defence and either the left wing-back Soosairaj or the RWB Das joined the midfield two to form 2nd line of defence. This transformed the shape to 4-3-3 when the ball was in the opposition’s half. Krishna blocked the progressive passes in the centre while Williams and Hernández positioned well enough to press both the centre-back and fullback depending on who gets the ball. The second line of defence stayed compact to block penetrating passes and mark Kerala Blaster’s midfield three; Cidoncha, Thaunaojam and Gning.
ATK defended in a combination of mid-block and low-block. Hence as the play progressed for Kerala, ATK changed to a linear back five and a central narrow pentagon in front of the line. This shape served two motives for the team. It denied space to the opposition in the centre and staying compact enabled the front three and midfield two to link-up in transitions.
The back three of ATK Kotal, McHugh and Garcia preferred staying in the box close to Ogbeche even when the ball went wide. The wing-backs Das and Soosairaj dealt with Kerala’s wingers Narzary and Karuthadathkuni individually. Kerala pushed their full-backs Rakip and Carneiro forward to support the wingers on the flank; ATK’s wingers struggled to track these runs due to the compact shape in the centre. Due to the lack of cover from the right centre-back Kotal and left centre-back Garcia on the flanks and difficulty for the wingers to track wide runs from the centre gave the edge to Kerala to establish numerical superiority on the flanks. Hence Kerala finely managed to deliver 20 crosses in the game.
Lack of cover behind Soosairaj gave the opportunity to Karuthadathkuni to run behind him to find a pass from Rakip. Karuthadathkuni delivered a low cross in the centre of the box, where Ogbeche had managed to hold his run and was left unmarked by the three defenders. A miscue from Halder landed the ball straight into Ogbeche’s feet that fired it into the right top corner. Kerala Blasters scored the second goal of the game in the 45th minute of the first half.
Transitions – Defence to attack
ATK’s solid back three in the box dealt with Kerala’s crosses well. The ball recoveries lead to an immediate pass to either Williams or Hernández who were the direct options in transitions and were easily available in the channels. The narrow central pentagon provided multiple passing options to maintain the possession while the wing-backs Das and Soosairaj got forward. ATK created chances to attack in transitions as Krishna ran through the defence in the centre and the wing-backs made the most of the space available on the flanks.
Attack to defence
ATK had a permissive approach after losing the ball. In defensive transitions, the focus shifted from having the ball to occupying the space. Guarding the central channel became the priority of the team. The centre-backs and the wing-backs retreated to get compact in the centre irrespective of the number of attackers and their positions with only the ball-near player putting pressure on the ball carrier.
The set-pieces represented ATK’s vitalities. Nine of their 13 shots in the game came from set-pieces. The left-footed Spaniard Hernández was on set-piece duty. Agus García was at the forefront of the set-pieces. He stood as the last man in the line, right in front of the defender. His off the ball ‘U’ movement around the defender to get behind him was imperative in winning the first header.
García’s awareness to identify space while he is on the run shouldn’t go unacknowledged. McHugh linked with García in this free space to win the second ball and score. This strategy seemed to come from the training ground and was a well-worked move.
ATK had a similar approach in corners as well. García made constant runs to the near post or towards the centre of the goal. His movement provided a lot of threat to Kerala.
McHugh scored the goal in the 5th minute of the game and gave ATK lead using the same strategy. Hernández launched the ball diagonally long towards García from the free-kick conceded by Thaunaojam. McHugh didn’t track the ball instead held his run to be in space left by ball watching Kerala players. García’s header assisted McHugh’s sweet volley with his left foot into the goal. It was a well-crafted move by ATK
ATK were disciplined in their defence in spite of having just 39% possession in the game. They conceded no more than three free-kicks and gave away just two corners in the game.
ATK’s defensive organisation in set-pieces was based on Zonal marking. Two lines of four players guarded both the sides of the six-yard box in corners. They deployed one player to man-mark the opposition player and one to cover the near post, with this ATK defended with all their men in corners.
Despite having a solid organisation in set-pieces, Halder’s shirt pull on Jairo conceded a penalty to Kerala. Ogbeche stepped up to seize the chance and calmly finished in the right bottom corner despite Bhattacharya’s effort to dive in the right direction.
Habas set up his team to play by the strengths of his individuals and the tactics were adaptive based on player qualities. ATK was menacing on set-pieces and the team mentality was strong. Defensively, the wing-backs looked lonely and needed more cover on the flanks. The two times crowned champions of ISL had a bitter loss against Kerala Blasters. Their performance showed many positive signs for the team though.