ATK Mohun Bagan have played Mumbai City twice this season, and lost both games. Ahead of their third meeting -- in the final of ISL 2020-21 -- both coaches would dismiss the importance of these matches. 'Clean slate', 'the final is a different ball game', 'what happened in the past does not matter'... the kind of quotes sports coaches have repeated so often you can probably reel them off by-heart.
The two games, though, are important.
Sure, the circumstances were different -- one was a regular league game, halfway through the season, the other was a virtual final for the League Shield -- but the manner of the defeats will worry Antonio Habas.
In the first match, Mumbai won the Sergio Lobera way. Dominating possession, passing the ball around, creating chances, centre-back combining with attacking midfielder and striker in open play (inside the opposition box) to create the lone goal of the match.
In the second, Mumbai won it the Habas way. Goals from set pieces, defending deep, strikers doubling down as the first line of defence, wingers acting as auxiliary fullbacks.
This throws up the interesting question of what Habas can do to trump Lobera, if both Plan A and Plan B have failed already. What can he do differently? We focus on a couple of areas on the field where Habas could, er, focus on --
The inside channels
Roy Krishna has been in terrific form throughout the tournament. David Williams is now hitting peak form. And Habas is finally playing them as a proper pair up-front. The two share a near-telepathic relationship, each willing to provide for the other, each capable of picking out the other's runs.
Their interchangeability, canny off-the-ball movement and sheer skill on the ball make them the division's most fearsome strikeforce. What adds to this is their knack of picking up unorthodox positions -- in between the lines, along the inside channels between fullback and centre-back. One moves your defence out of position, the other smashes through the gap.
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Of course, in the first match, Hernan Santana was able to neutralise Krishna (who'd been playing more or less like a lone striker) with his constant, surging runs into midfield, forcing the Bagan striker to track back and spend the vast majority of the match much deeper than he would have liked to. Williams spent most of the game trudging up and down the left wing. Bringing them closer together changes that equation.
While Williams and Krishna did play up front in the second match, and both were in decent nick going into the game, what will change in the final, is the presence of Subashish Bose on the outside.
With Michael Soosairaj having suffered a serious injury in the very first match of the campaign, Bose has been Bagan's starting left back/left wingback throughout. He struggled a little initially, but much like the collective, his form has picked up in recent weeks.
Bose provides natural width on the left, complementing Manvir Singh's more potent offensive attributes on the right. His constant overlaps allow Williams to pick up the kind of position in between the lines that brings the best out of him.
This is something that Goa exploited superbly in their semifinal against Mumbai, the fullbacks and wingers combining perfectly to overload the channels and attack Mumbai where they are most susceptible.
Bagan should take a cue from that.
Rotational press in central midfield
Carl McHugh would nominally be slated to mark Hugo Boumous, but Mumbai's most dangerous player has a tendency of floating all across the pitch. Man-marking him then could prove counter-intuitive, as he'd just drag McHugh (Habas' controller of midfield) into areas where he would be pretty much useless. It would completely ruin Bagan's greatest strength -- their defensive shape. As important as neutralising an opponents' threats are, it ought not come at the cost of sacrificing one's own strengths.
Which is where a rotational press comes in. This would mean that whoever is closest to Boumous goes tight in on him immediately. This has multiple benefits -- stopping Mumbai play through their playmaker-in-chief, and frustrate an easily-frustrated player.
Further up the field, Williams could drop a little deeper when needed to help Bagan flood midfield, and stop Ahmed Jahouh. Allow Javi Hernandez to move a little forward, and you have another rotational press in place on the man who is Lobera's on-field general.
Set-pieces are a traditional strength of any Habas team, but no one has done it better than Lobera this season. That second match was a perfect illustration of Mumbai's set-piece abilities -- Jahouh and Santana's quality on the ball, Mourtada Fall's aerial strength, Bart Ogbeche's predatory poaching -- and Habas will need to dig deep and go back to basics to stop them.
The marking has to be on-point (Fall was completely unmarked for the opener in the last match), and rash fouls need to be avoided (Ogbeche's sprung from a freekick conceded when Mumbai were going nowhere in particular). These may sound extremely basic, but it's in getting the basics correct that Habas has built his impressive CV. He will not want that tarnished.