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Possession Obsession

Tactless over tactics

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PAST FORWARD: The AIFF is keen to consign Houghton's effective ways to the dustbin of history.

With Houghton's exit goes his much-effective 'long ball' mantra. The men who run Indian football are harping on 'possession football. ' Will it work?

Robert Houghton became India's first national football coach not to be sacked for non-performance. Two Nehru Cup triumphs, a return to the Asian Cup fold through victory in the AFC Challenge, meant that the All India Football Federation had to think of other ways to hand him the pink slip. While why they needed to do it beggars belief, it is clear that the AIFF now no longer wants any trace of the man and the ethos that he created during his five-year tenure with the senior team.

Among the first things to be eliminated is the Englishman's much-favoured 'long ball' tactics which an otherwise technically-challenged AIFF brass suddenly felt was not the way forward. "It's not just my view but the technical committee's as well, " said AIFF general secretary Kushal Das, almost immediately after Houghton's resignation last month. "Houghton's long ball tactics wouldn't take us anywhere, " he had added, effectively dismissing the coach's body of work in India over the past five years.

"The search for India's next coach has already begun and I can tell you it will be someone who stays loyal to the mantra of possession football, " Das had said. For the AIFF - with advice from its technical committee - to be suddenly harping on 'possession football' is a total and complete departure from the pattern infused over the past five years by the Englishman.
While Houghton's footballing philosophy may have had its detractors, his players took to it most willingly. What's more, it was effective and produced results, swiftly making Houghton India's most successful national coach.

At another level, the AIFF's utterances on technical matters and playing styles appears another ploy by the country's football administration to force senior players to comply with the new regime. Seldom in Indian football, and indeed Indian sport, have players come out in support of an ousted coach.

Players voicing their support for 'Bob sir' had left the AIFF red-faced, specially since it has never been used to dissent of any form in the past, leave alone battling Twitter and Facebook posts by confident, tech-savvy players.

Yet, the AIFF's decision to revert to possession football raises crucial questions. To dismiss Das' comments as hyperbole would be missing the point entirely. After all, it's not his view alone;the AIFF general secretary, one learns, was sufficiently briefed during the Asian Cup 2011 in Doha, and one among those who provided solicited opinion was a former CEO of Inter Milan, one of Italy's most successful clubs.

Asking for possession football is one thing, getting it is quite another. Just ask the dozens of national associations globally, who demand the same from each coach they employ.

"It takes years to inculcate this belief in the team that you have to stick to the ball like your life depends on it. The change cannot happen overnight, " feels Dempo's coach Armando Colaco.

Colaco, at the helm of India's most successful club side, has implemented possession football with great success. "You look at teams like Barcelona and Arsenal. They are a treat to watch and I would like the national team to stay true to those principles. I wouldn't mind paying a fortune to watch any team which plays possession football. It's the best way to move forward, " he adds.

Even if Colaco has replicated the same model at Dempo, his words sound good on paper. In reality, he will have several detractors who feel the coach has had it easy at Dempo since players are being retained on long expensive contracts and the best players are snapped up without the accountants at the club asking any questions.

"Bob is someone who gave India three trophies, and even though he won all three in Delhi and fared poorly abroad, losing even the SAFF Cup where we are kings, I wouldn't criticize him like others have been doing, " avers Mohun Bagan coach Subhas Bhowmick.

He adds: "My biggest complaint though is that the system and tactics adopted by Bob were totally wrong in the Indian context. Playing the ball in the air and not keeping possession is like asking for trouble, simply because we do not have either the speed, power or technical abilities to play in such a manner. "
Bhowmick, who many feel has been plain unlucky not to have coached the national team sometime early in his career, feels it is time to look forward. "The AIFF should not fall back on English coaches. Except for (late) Bobby Robson, England have not produced good coaches, " he adds. Significantly, the last two foreign coaches to train here - Stephen Constantine and Houghton - are both Britishers and are trained in the ways of British football.

Among Houghton's greatest criticisms was that he used a constant pool of 30-40 players - with the final XI usually remaining unchanged - for the entirety of his five-year tenure. According to his scouting, give or take a few changes, his batch was the best in the country, good enough for international duty. It did work for the coach that this pool managed to adapt to Houghton's concept and produce important victories.

Paradoxically, it is a similar count that coaches in the country feel, would not ordinarily make up a decently talented bunch. Is it a damning verdict on the state of talent available?

Bhowmick takes the argument further. He feels that India, at any given count, would never possess 30 players good enough to adopt a style of their own. "Our system is so limited that at best we have two or three players who are good enough. Our youth system needs a thorough relook, " says the coach.

Houghton's assistant and former international Savio Medeira, believes all this hue and cry over the Indian team's style is, in reality, much ado about nothing.

"Bob's critics should not forget that we won three trophies, " protests Medeira, who gave up a lucrative club career to assist Houghton.

"At the Nehru Cup we played some good football, stitching passes and keeping possession in midfield. The problem with Houghton is that he is an Englishman, so he gets tagged as someone who believes only in long balls and direct football, " says Medeira.

Medeira, who was himself among India's better known passing midfielders, feels that under Houghton, India were simply playing to their strengths. Fiddling too much in defence or midfield was asking for trouble. "Of course, we can play possession football but it will take us a long time. On our current strength, it's difficult, " says the former Salgaocar coach.

India broke the Asian barrier by qualifying for the Asian Cup 2011 in Doha early this year. Their performance has been analyzed differently - depending on which side of the fence you are sitting - but with Houghton now gone, and the search for his replacement gathering steam, questions about style and essence will continue to be asked.
Answering them will be no small task.

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