BENGALURU FC: Passion Personified || Know Your Opponent ft. Bengaluru FC

Credit: Bengaluru FC Media via Twitter

BENGALURU FC: Passion Personified

When JSW Group’s bid to provide a team into the I League from the tech city of Bengaluru got accepted by the AIFF, their humble yet passionate bunch of supporters probably didn’t expect that team playing at the Bangalore Football Stadium would become the fourth most successful club of Indian football, in terms of being the top division premiers/champions within the upcoming decade, only behind giants Mohun Bagan, Dempo and East Bengal. From the very beginning, the owners and the players were driven by an ambition to introduce a fresh face into the Indian footballing scene, at a time when the multiple issues such as lack of sponsorship, corporate investment and advertising to match fixing allegations had culminated to arguably an all time high.

I. The Big Bang

Winning the topmost division in the very first season of a club’s existence sounds like a short film idea for some amateur director, but the sheer intelligence (and a bit of luck) with which they pulled it off deserves a complete movie of its own. The first important factor in their success was their timing. They arrived at a time when the big names of Indian football were struggling to find quality players and were not much impressive on the pitch. The 2012-13 season saw Mohun Bagan, Salgaocar, Shillong Lajong to occupy mid table finishes. Churchill Brothers, the winners of that season happened to collapse in 2013-14, while East Bengal, Dempo and Sporting Goa lost many points too. This gave the perfect opportunity for Bengaluru to arrive into Indian football in an incredible fashion. Coached by Ashley Westwood, and with a mix of skilled foreigners (defender John Johnson, box-to-box midfielder Menyongar, forward Sean Rooney) along with unproven but high potential Indian contingent involving Sunil Chettri, Siam Hanghal and Beingachho, they brought on a flavour of modern European football in India where full backs overlapped to put in crosses while wingers preferred to invert into dangerous spaces, and did the unthinkable within a budget reported to be less than 10 crores, an amount lot less than what the big names of Indian football spent at that time.

II. On the Driving Seat

Courtesy: Press Trust of India

What differentiated Bengaluru FC from other Indian clubs who had achieved sudden rapid success was the presence of investors who not only retained their crucial and potential first team players but also brought in some new names in positions needing improvements. They brought in Josh Walker from England as a marquee, along with players from I League showing great potential, which included Eugeneson Lyngdoh, Udanta Singh, who went on to become club legends. 2014-15 season had a shattering end for the ‘Men of Steel’ (a name coming from Jindal Steel Works Group which didn’t stick much later) who, 4 months after winning the Federation Cup, were set to premier back to back I Leagues until a 87th minute equaliser by Mohun Bagan’s Bello Razaq stole it all away in the favour of the Mariners.

At the beginning of next season, there were some doubts after the transfer window as established performers Sunil Chhetri, Pawan Kumar, Darren Caldeira, Thoi Singh, Robin Singh and Shilton d’ Silva left for ISL teams while Sean Rooney went to Australia, but they were promptly replaced by another bunch of signings such as Kim Song-yong, Amrinder Singh, Seiminlen Doungel, Daniel Lalhlimpuia and Nishu Kumar. The “transfers” of Chhetri, Thoi and Robin included a clause which would bring them back to Bengaluru after the end of ISL, a move which turned out game changing for the Blues who got back some of their best players in the later crucial stages of the season, helping them clench the I League yet again under good old Ashley, 2 points ahead of their previous season’s heartbreakers from Kolkata.

Courtesy: Press Trust of India

Before the beginning of the next I League, they were up for the Asian glory in the AFC Cup. The underdogs fought against big names from Malaysia, Myanmar, Hongkong and Indonesia and stormed into the final at Doha, where their Asian dream crumbled through a solitary goal by Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya (Air Force Club). They couldn’t replicate their I League success under new coach Albert Roca after Westwood was roped in by Malaysian club Penang, only finishing 4th, which could have been worse if not for a 4 game win streak at the end. Albert Roca’s hyper aggressive tactics didn’t sit well with the inexperienced side. The 3-4-3 formation, coupled with a high backline left wide gaps between as well as behind the defenders and they conceded most of their goals from counter attacks. The midfield comprising of Lyngdoh, Lenny and Cameron Watson didn’t gel together and were unable to supply the ball to the front three. Roca, instead of changing his formation, only experimented with his players as multiple rotations only aggravated the lack of chemistry among players. It was not all over as they managed to bag their second Federation Cup, winning over Aizawl and then Mohun Bagan in the final. This match marked the temporary pause between the intense rivalry between these two clubs, as Bengaluru finally executed their grand move to the Indian Super League.

III. ISL Blues

It was somewhat obvious to Indian football enthusiasts that the club was being developed to become a part of the more lucrative ISL, and the transfer of a club from the I League’s declining legacy to the up-and-coming Super League was significant in establishing the ISL’s future as the official top division of Indian football, as it is today. And yet again, the newcomers decided to embarrass the already established clubs of the league as they ended first position in the league, but couldn’t end up championing the ISL as they lost 3-2 to Chennaiyan in the final. This season, Albert Roca improved his defense by structuring in a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1. Performances of ever trustworthy Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, the foreign CB pair of John Johnson and Juanan, Sunil Chettri and Udanta Singh down the flanks with Miku up top finally unlocked the creativity leading to Bengaluru scoring not only the most goals but also conceding the least, ending the league season with a huge 19 goal difference. The only time they had to play a 3 at the back was in the final due to Subhashish Bose’s unavailability where they conceded 3 goals from counters and set pieces.

Next season, they applied similar principles, now under previous season’s assistant Carles Cuadrat, to not only retain their top league position, but also champion the ISL. Although they scored less and conceded more leading to a reduction on GD from 19 to 7, it mattered less to Sunil Chhetri and Co. who now had become the first ever team to conquer both the ISL and the I League. They came close again in 2019-20 when they gave up their joint first position win by getting only 2 points from their last three games (although winning the shield would have been unlikely due to Goa’s much higher GD) due to mid-week AFC Cup qualification fixtures, and then facing a 1-3 loss to ATK in the second semi-final leg even after getting a 1-0 win at the first.

Credit: Press Trust of India

2020-21 was not at all favourable for the Blues as an ageing squad (avg. 29.8) could only provide the club a measly 7th place finish. They had undergone a fruitless transfer due to growing differences between the board and Cuadrat, who had become a lot more defensive over time, got the sack in early January. Their transitional period continued under new manager Pezzaiuoli who came with a more attacking mindset, but the defense couldn’t keep up with his aggressive principles, leading to a 6th place finish. There were some positives as their player choices were a lot better leading to more young Indians such as Roshan Singh had their ISL breakthrough..

IV. 2022/23: The Remontada

3 wins, 1 draw and 8 losses. Then 10 wins. Non-stop. Something changed, mostly a major tactical overhaul, and the rest a bit of luck. These two versions of nearly the same set of players were quite remarkably differentiated by two formations. 4-3-3: 87.5% (7 out of 8) loss rate and 3-5-2: 6.25 % loss rate (1 out of 16). Bengaluru had started the league with a three man defense, winning their first match against North East, but after drawing to Chennaiyan and losing to Hyderabad, they switched to a back four. A high line with aggressive full backs is only possible with ball confident CBs with a good passing range, and Alan Costa, Parag Srivas and Sandesh Jhingan were not at all good in such a role. They would get intercepted in their own half during build up multiple times leading to concessions of embarrassing goals and frustrating defeats even when their overall performance was even better than the opposing team.

Parag Srivas losing possession from pressure by Ogbeche (Courtesy: Indian Super League Youtube)

The turn around only happened after Bengaluru’s midfield partners of Javi Hernandez got sorted after multiple variations involving Bruno Ramires, Suresh Wangjam, Danish Farooq and Rohit Kumar among others. By the time the ideal combination of Suresh and Rohit was figured out by Grayson, along with back three of Alan Costa-Jhingan-Jovanovic and full backs Prabir and Roshan, the calendar had already flipped. It was a fight or flight, a now or never scenario, for the players and for the manager to make a name for themselves. The presence of an added defender released the build up pressure from the CBs who could now focus on the defending, and were more adept at staying together and closing down the incoming forwards. Even when the arial advantage of the CBs were used in the opposition box late in the game to find winners, Suresh, Rohit and one of the full backs always stayed back to tackle the counters.

The 3-4-1-2 also caused the formation of a midfield diamond when 1 of the CBs went a bit forward, thus creating the man advantage while building up from the back. Excellent crossing abilities of Prabir Das and Roshan Singh led to some beautiful goals originating from the wings, but the most important creator, rather expectedly, was Javi Hernandez. The seasoned attacker with sensational passing and positioning skills, coupled with a tremendous long shot ability proved overwhelming for even the most respected defenders of the league. In defense, the double pivot of Suresh and Rohit forced play wide where one CB, one FB and one of the pivots tried their best to close down the incoming cross, while there would be 2 CBs man-to-man with the forwards inside the box and the other pivot marking the late runner.

CBs giving less space and closing down opposition forward (Courtesy: Indian Super League Youtube)

Siva Shakti and Roy Krishna, with their powerful shots, blistering speeds combined to create a lethal counter attacking team, evident from their drop in possession from an average of 50.5% in their first 12 games (when they used 4-3-3) to 40.5% in their next and final 12 games (when they switched to 3-4-1-2 from the beginning of 2023). They churned out back to back decisive victories, mostly through close margins, and marched on till the very final match of the Indian Super League against Mohun Bagan. That fierce rivalry which had brewed for nearly a decade now had reached its very peak as the Blues faced the Mariners in yet another showdown for conquering the league. After conceding an early penalty, they equalised the game through a penalty themselves in the added time after 45 mins. Former MB star player Roy Krishna gave them the lead again, but a foul on Kiyan Nassiri which ended inside the box was judged as a penalty, which was converted as the game went on to extra time and then penalties, where the Mariners caused yet another heartbreak for the Blues at the final game of the league, and thus putting a dent on Bengaluru’s fairytale run.

V. The First Game of 2023/24

Bengaluru’s most recent transfer window has been impressive and potential filled. A big club clear out led to some of the big names such as Udanta Singh, Pablo Perez, Roy Krishna, Sandesh Jhingan and Leon Augustine moving on. With this a lot of ageing players were replaced, a commendable move by the management who made sure their previous mistakes would not get repeated. In their space, the impressive Halicharan Narzary and Rohit Danu from Hyderabad, crucial defender in Mohun Bagan’s ISL winning season Slavko Damjanovic, Dutch second division player Keziah Veendorp, Jessel Carneiro from KBFC and foreign attackers Ryan Williams and Curtis Main were welcomed. 

Simon Grayson took out a rather interesting 11 in their opening clash vs Kerala Blasters. Jessel started at LB while it seemed like there were two right mids, Roshan and Bhutia. Roshan was on the more attacking side, sending in threatening crosses from his dominant left foot, while Bhutia covered Roshan’s forward movements. Veendorp started as a DM with former pivots Rohit and Suresh being together a lot more forward. Ryan Williams switched between the wings as Siva Shakti Narayan was put as a lone striker. Now this combination proved rather ineffective in front of the zealous Blasters who had a thirst for revenge after that infamous saga between these two the previous season.

KBFC out of possession kept a box structure at front with Luna, Peprah, Jeakson and Danish. Luna charged at the goalkeeper (which even led to a goal) while Peprah tried to close the pass to Veendorp whose distribution skills seemed quite impressive. Since Suresh and Rohit were further up, the ways to get them the ball was through a long ball from GK which were being won by Jeakson, Danish or the CBs, the other being through the full backs, who were being pressed by Daisuke and Aimen. Even when Suresh and Rohit got the ball, they were just not clinical enough with passing the ball onto Siva or Ryan. Also Bhutia or Roshan weren’t as attacking as expected, leading to Siva being overpowered by the much more physical Pritam and Milos. Their failure to progress the ball forward centrally is pretty evident from their pass map of the match, as even though they enjoyed 60% possession, the field tilt (ratio of touches in the final third) was at 50%, as they were mostly seen distributing the ball through their defensive line.

Courtesy: @totalf0otball via Twitter

Bengaluru’s defense was solid overall, rather had to be after keeping 6-7 defensive minded players in the lineup, although it can be opined that such a defensive approach was the plan as Javi wasn’t 100% match fit so the goal was that if the attack cannot be good enough, might as well keep the defense solid until Javi comes on. After their talisman’s arrival, there were some glimpses of last season but since the Blasters had already established their 2 goal lead, they were happy to sit back and see the match through. The goals were conceded primarily due to the early season rustiness, but over time, if the same defensive system as last season is preserved, and Javi still maintains his exemplary performances, the team again has the potential to qualify for the playoffs.

VI. Mohun Bagan’s approach

After toying with Punjab FC, Mohun Bagan will face their first mighty challenge in the ISL. As Bengaluru are expected to learn from their tactical deficiencies at Kochi, Roshan might slip back to his preferred left, with Bhutia organising the right. With Javi likely to start, BFC have the potential to again display their style which initiated their comeback last season. The Mariners’ defense and midfield need to be at their absolute best, not overcommit and always keep a look at Williams/Main, Siva and Javi. Thankfully both Anwar Ali and Hector Yuste are brilliant on the ball and have displayed incredible maturity in their movements. Anwar has got the pace to catch up with Siva’s notorious accelerations, while Hector’s intelligence in creating offside traps compensates for his slower pace.

As Sadiku’s struggle continues, Cummings, after executing a rather De Bruyne-esque pre assist, is expected to pair Petratos up front. Boumous and Sahal most probably will feature along with Thapa, whose pressure releasing skills through his sensible passing into free regions would be key as he returns after an (unexpected and somewhat confusing) suspension. It is expected for Juan to field a team similar to that in the Odisha game due to a somewhat similar approach by Bengaluru in certain aspects, but there can be atleast one surprise due to the fact that both Liston Colaco and Ashish Rai played full 90 minutes in the Punjab clash, 4 days prior to the match against Bengaluru. If neither of them are fit enough to start, Subhashish might act as the left wing back again, or even Sahal might shift to the left. On the other flank, Manvir Singh might again play as right wing back, a role he plays surprisingly well as seen in the Durand clash vs Mumbai. If neither Colaco nor Ashish Rai start, another Glan Martins appearance might be on the cards, or maybe either Cummings or Petratos won’t start and Manvir would be a forward while Hamill would be added to the defense.


Possible Bengaluru FC and Mohun Bagan Lineups

Juan Special Surprise Lineups

The 2023-2024 season promises to be a saga of redemption for Bengaluru FC. The pain of last season's near-miss has only intensified their hunger for the coveted ISL title. This rivalry is defined by the contrasting styles and identities of the two clubs. Mohun Bagan represents tradition, heritage, and the old guard of Indian football, with a legacy stretching over a century. Bengaluru FC, in contrast, embodies the new wave of Indian football, bringing a modern, innovative approach marked by tactical brilliance and a commitment to success. When these ideologies clash, it's not just a game; it's a battle for supremacy, pride, and bragging rights, making every encounter a spectacle that transcends the league table.


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