Should Igor Stimac’s reign as Indian Football coach be extended?

Igor Stimac
Igor Stimac. The Croatian manager at the helm of the Indian Football team. Having been appointed as the manager in 2019, Stimac’s contract is all set for a renewal till the 2021 AFC Asian Cup Qualifiers in September. According to reports, the former West Ham defender’s fate will be decided based upon discussions in a […]

Igor Stimac. The Croatian manager at the helm of the Indian Football team. Having been appointed as the manager in 2019, Stimac’s contract is all set for a renewal till the 2021 AFC Asian Cup Qualifiers in September. According to reports, the former West Ham defender’s fate will be decided based upon discussions in a meeting convened by the AIFF’s technical committee on Friday.

The Indian football team came into news quite recently after their 6-0 humbling at the hands of UAE in an international friendly. This raised questions on Stimac’s credibility, and whether Indian football was going in the right direction under him. However shocking this result might seem, if thought practically, a thinly experienced team playing its second game in over fifteen months was playing against one managed by one Bert van Marwijk, the man in Netherland’s dugout at the 2010 FIFA World Cup; it’s tough to blame Stimac.

In 2019, when Igor Stimac was given the top-post, Indian football was going places. The Indian Super League was gaining popularity and young talent had gotten the perfect platform to showcase their talent. India’s mission to help the sport prosper seemed to be gaining momentum and the domestic leagues were restructured. The news of Igor Stimac taking over the job was an encouraging move and met little resistance.

The Croatian didn’t disappoint in the initial period of his arrival. Beating Thailand in the King’s Cup, the Blue Tigers were setting their eyes on the Intercontinental Cup. Stimac boldly said that India was “on its way to become a strong force in Asia, once again”. These were optimistic signs, and Igor Stimac seemed to mark the arrival of a new era. However, India’s Intercontinental Cup campaign unravelled in no time, as the tournament saw them suffer defeats against DPRK and Tajikistan and salvage a draw against Syria. What followed was an even more disappointing World Cup qualification campaign, after which the pandemic halted this rather dark run of form.

As Indian football tries to recover from the hammering by UAE, Igor Stimac faces a reality-check. His backers might argue that he’s on a long-term mission here. However, sports require signs of growth; often in the form of results. In his time at the helm of the national team, Stimac has overseen 6 losses, 5 draws and a solitary win. The introduction of a more fluid, attacking style of play was Igor Stimac’s primary selling-point. Ironically, India has scored only two goals from open play in their last 9 games. Notably, the loss against UAE was the biggest one since 2010. Not. Encouraging. Signs.

One of the main problems under Stimac has been finding the perfect playing eleven. Igor Stimac has handed debuts to 18 players so far. However, the question remains whether Stimac knows his go-to side and players. Having never fielded the same side in two games, he hasn’t quite found the right combination. Moreover, the employment of multiple formations in his short time here has perhaps resulted in the players underperforming due to lack of awareness and varying expectations in all games. The Indian football team has been lacking fluidity due to fluctuating tactics, often found playing like strangers around each other. Developing a swift passing game, and being skilled on the ball requires awareness of the positions of your teammates, something the Indian team seemed to lack against UAE.

Premier League fans are used to seeing Gareth Southgate in the stands when International tournaments are round the corner. However, Igor Stimac hasn’t emulated any of his European compatriots, and that might have compounded the issue of his lack of understanding of his players. An example of the same would be Pritam Kotal’s use as a right back against UAE, in spite of his natural position at Mohun Bagan being that of a wide centre back. He was often found caught in possession, failing to make the right pases at the right time. With all due respect, India did press high, and won the ball through these presses, however they couldn’t capitalise on these situations since they didn’t make progressive passes after that. Igor Stimac’s frustration at Adil Khan giving the ball back to Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, in spite of having space ahead, was visible as he made gestures and called Adil out from the sideline.

In spite of being the heavyweights as far as SAFF (South Asian Football Federation) is concerned, India couldn’t outperform the likes of Afghanistan and Bangladesh. Performances against weaker teams are something a Blue Tigers’ fan would like to forget. It’s doubtful whether players playing in Indian football are getting the exposure and attention that they deserve. India lacks a proper system or structure like European footballing nations, however little scouting is done in the I-League (the only other league in India). Igor Stimac and AIFF have paid little attention to these issues. This is a concern that needs to be addressed by the AIFF, however Igor’s lack of enthusiasm in I-League affairs has been lucid, when he was quoted saying that “he didn’t have more time to watch I-League”.

The question is whether Igor Stimac’s reign as the Head Coach be extended. India has largely underperformed under him. Saying that India plays devoid of tactics won’t be completely right. However, India needs to look for someone who can transform this team, the way it plays. A man-manager, brilliant at squad selection, and an astute tactician. India needs an all-rounded manager. As good as a tactician Stimac is, his man-management and selection hasn’t been of the expected levels.

That being said, sacking Stimac will create a negative atmosphere around Indian football for a short period, and the venture of hiring a new manager with the World Cup Qualifiers yet to finish, the Asia Cup qualifiers round the corner will be a gamble to make. A gamble AIFF will have to make.

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