The re-appointment of Spain’s Antonio Lopez Habas by ATK has led many to believe that the two-time champions are falling back on a successful formula for immediate success. However, Habas’ brief stint in ISL indicates that his tactical know-how and cavalier management makes his hiring a smart move.
While there isn’t any way to confirm if Habas’ appointment would bring success for ATK, the surprise move seemed more about stirring up things than exploring various available options. ATK’s home venue remained empty for the most part of the last season and it wasn’t so much to do with their lack of results in the league as much as it was about their style of play.
The only thing constant in every single ATK match in ISL last season was the stoic figure of Steve Coppell leaning against the dugout railing. And his inactiveness, in a certain way, was an extension of his players on the field who looked incapable of a comeback whenever things went south.
A good example of it would be their match against NorthEast United FC at the Yuva Bharati Krirangan earlier in the season when Rowlin Borges had managed to get his side the lead at the 89th minute. The hosts, who were religiously defending since Sena Ralte was red carded in the 32nd minute, had given up on the match way before that goal. But, the crux of the matter was revealed in the post-match press conference when Coppell stated that he knew his side lost the match as soon as they conceded the late goal.
The complacency and lack of belief remained throughout the season and the only reason ATK finished sixth on the league table was the subpar performances of Kerala Blasters, Delhi Dynamos, FC Pune City, and Chennaiyin FC.
Now, Habas’ tactics aren’t very different from Coppell as both the managers believe in defending predominantly and counter-attacking in every opportunity. However, where the Spaniard differs from Coppell has been the flexibility in his approach.
After the first ten matches last season, anyone and everyone could guess ATK’s three substitutions upon a given situation. The Englishman’s inability to experiment with the available options at his disposal was his biggest weakness. While ATK’s mid-season injury crisis was apparently a huge blow for Coppell, the manager rarely tried anything different to churn out results, something that Habas has previously proved cannot bog him down.
During their final against Kerala Blasters in 2014, Habas’ attack was reduced to their bare bones. Star striker Firkru Lamesa was released, Luis Garcia was sitting at the dugout with a hamstring injury along with compatriot Jofra Mateu. Almost everything was against ATK apart from Habas’ determination to get something out of the game and he decided to play an amateur Mohammad Rafi up top with Sanju Pradhan and Jakub Podany playing on either wing.
ATK had a similar situation for most of the last season. After Kalu Uche suffered an early injury to miss much of the first half of the last season while Emiliano Alfaro couldn’t even play a game since coming on loan from Pune, Coppell would often be seen playing Everton Santos as the false nine or in the central midfield. His idea was to hold the structure of the team better over most aspects and this is where he lost his ability to surprise opponents.
The defensive stability, which was a thing to boast for Coppell, soon became the only thing the squad could hold on to. ATK would rarely have real attacking outlets and the manager looked completely out of his depth in the clash against FC Goa in the second half of the season. It was almost a do-or-die match for the Kolkata outfit and the team lost it as soon as they conceded in the very first minute of the match.
There were 89 more minutes of normal time to change the game but ATK, instead, went to their shell. With Uche underperforming massively throughout the season and vital midfielder Pronay Halder missing with an injury, Coppell had given up long before the match had actually started – something Habas wouldn’t ever do.
ATK were in a similar situation when Habas was the coach and FC Goa were rampaging past teams in 2014. The side had squeezed into the playoffs after a series of draws and boring football and hardly anyone considered ATK to be a threat. ATK fans were looking at despair for they knew their side wasn’t half as edgy as their opponents on paper and their run would end in nothingness. But, a persistent Habas stuck to the same players, regardless of their prior form, who were demanded to press at every opportunity.
Habas wouldn’t compromise on his structure at any time even if injuries forced him to change his preferred players from a particular position. While the first 45 minutes saw Nato, Arnab Mondal and Josemi forming a three-man central defence, the second half saw Jakub Podany coming in as the fourth defender with Kingshuk Debnath being introduced at the back and Nato returning to his central defensive midfield role.
With Fikru missing up top, Habas knew the only way out was a penalty shootout and his well-instructed side did exactly that to get the job done. This ability is the sign of a title contender as we could see in Bengaluru FC last season, who went on to beat FC Goa 3-0 after being reduced to 10-men in the first half.
Now, what ATK would be providing Habas as a bonus this season would be the attacking arsenal of Manuel Lanzarote, Edu Garcia, Jobby Justin, and Michael Soosairaj. Unlike, Luis Garcia, Mateu, or Lamesa, this lot has been proven products of the league and more than anything, they solve ATK’s biggest problem of scoring goals.
However, while the squad has been going through changes and we would see more additions and subtractions, the one thing we know for sure is that if things don’t go as planned then ATK fans, from the gallery, wouldn’t just see their gaffer standing helplessly at the face of inevitability. They will see someone who will shout his lungs out at the players to pull their socks up and wouldn’t be afraid to replace a star with a debutant, just because the latter has a bigger will to win.
Cricket FootBall Kabaddi