Did Habas, ISL’s most successful coach, do enough to develop Indian players?
He won the first edition of the Indian Super League (ISL) with a goal from Mohammed Rafique but how much did Indian players improve under Antonio Lopez Habas? Based on the evidence of his work over six seasons, the answer could be not much. Ironically, at a team that has spared no cost in buying players, that possibly led to Habas’ ouster as ATK Mohun Bagan coach six games into the season.
Habas is ISL’s most successful coach. He won the title in 2014, took ATK to the semi-finals next season where they fell due to a first-leg blemish at Chennaiyin FC. Next season, Habas moved to FC Pune City but couldn’t take them higher than sixth. The Spaniard returned in 2019-20 and took ATK to the title. An own goal and a last-minute goalkeeping howler prevented him from retaining it.
Widely travelled— the 64-year-old former defender from Spain has had stints with Valencia and Tenerife, was the national coach of Bolivia and coached in South Africa—Habas has showed that there was more to him than the support provided by Atletico Madrid, ATK’s partners in the first three seasons. If his first two seasons at ATK was about managing quality imports provided largely by Atletico Madrid’s extensive network, in 2019-20 Habas was riding solo. His first dab at doing that hadn’t yielded much at Pune but on his return to ATK, Habas was a resounding success.
Success on return
ATK’s gamble with Roy Krishna and David Williams paid off—it would be unfair to assume that Habas didn’t have a role in their recruitment —and set a trend of players from A-League coming to India. Most importantly, it was the way ATK adjusted to the injury of Carl McHugh that showed Habas’s tactical nous. McHugh can play in central defence and in central midfield but was unavailable from early in the season. A season where Tiri, Habas’s defensive mainstay in 2015, was with Jamshedpur FC.
Habas switched to a three-back, used Michael Soosairaj and Prabir Das (five assists) as wing backs and relied on the accuracy of Krishna and Williams to score goals with Javier Hernandez, Edu Garcia pulling the strings in the midfield.
It is those names—Garcia, Hernandez, Williams and Krishna—that possibly sum up the Habas story. A story that rode heavily on Josemi, Luis Garcia, Javi Lara, Jofre, Ofentse Nato and very heavily on Borja Fernandez in the first two seasons. And on the names mentioned above on his return along with a late show from John Johnson whose retention was proof of ATK’s strength in depth and deep pockets.
True, Sumit Rathi had a breakout season in 2019-20 and there was Das and Soosairaj. But Soosairaj was injured early in 2020-21, and after playing 1728 minutes in 20 matches in 2019-20, Das’s numbers have been 600 minutes less last term and 117 minutes in five games this time. Back after surgery, Soosairaj has played eight minutes this season. Sheikh Sahil, who made a telling contribution in Mohun Bagan’s I-League title in 2019-20, played 285 minutes over seven games last season and hasn’t been used so far. From 14 games in 2019-20, performance in which fetched him a call-up from Igor Stimac in early 2020, Rathi played all of 255 minutes next season and 61 minutes this term.
Last season it was because ATKMB had signed India defender Sandesh Jhingan. But Rathi’s lack of game time in a season where ATKMB have leaked 13 goals—they conceded 15 in 20 league games in the last edition—is surprising. Is it because the 20-year-old is unable to shake off bench rust? Has lack of game time undermined his confidence? Is it beyond the coach’s remit to sort that out?
In a season where ISL has reduced the number of foreigners by one to four, Rathi, Das and Soosairaj not stepping up could explain what went wrong with ATKMB. It hasn’t helped that they did not replace Jhingan, who moved to Croatia. One import less on the pitch also means they can’t play McHugh and Tiri together without affecting the attack. That has led to inadequacy in the midfield where McHugh excelled last term. Maybe this could have been spotted and a solution found if Habas had played friendlies but he has been averse to them. It was fine when he was successful but “playing internally” hasn’t worked this time. It didn’t in the 2021 AFC Cup as well and that seems to be a lesson not well learnt.
And while Manvir Singh’s industry is beyond question, he is yet to hit the kind of form that led to six goals and three assists last term. Liston Colaco has got three goals but it was his naïve challenge that led to a penalty against Bengaluru FC.
Used as wingbacks, Colaco and Singh’s obvious lack of defensive ability was exposed by Mumbai City FC. And a team used to leaking the least, or being the second-lowest in the goals conceded list, lost 1-5; Habas’s worst defeat in India. A 1-2 defeat to Jamshedpur FC followed after which came the draws against Chennaiyin FC, who ended the game stronger of the teams, and Bengaluru FC.
Trouble with fewer imports
From when ISL allowed six imports on the pitch, Habas has been consistent in his opposition to reduce foreign players in ISL. “Now the rules are to play four foreign players and we have to adapt to that situation. We have six foreign players and there is a high possibility that all are capable of playing…I have one question: Is it better to reduce one foreign player? Because the player who comes here has to be of high quality. It is not possible that a (foreign) player with no quality can play in ISL,” he said before this season.
Habas followed up that by saying that focusing on youth development and having good academies was the way forward for football. It is a comment that could sit fine with a coach in a developed football country but not from someone working in a country ranked 104th in the world and 19th in Asia (November 2021).
ISL8 wasn’t the first time Habas struggled with fewer foreigners. In the 2021 AFC Cup, ATKMB resources saw them through the group stage but even getting Finnish international and Euro 2020 midfielder Joni Kauko couldn’t prevent being torn to ribbons by Uzbekistan’s FC Nasaf in the inter-zonal semi-final.
Buying top players
Habas has not had to work with development players in the way Manolo Marquez (Hyderabad FC), Marco Pezzaiuoli (Bengaluru FC), Sergio Lobera and Juan Ferrando at FC Goa, Owen Coyle (Jamshedpur FC and Chennaiyin FC) and now Des Buckingham (Mumbai City FC) have. Part of it is possibly ATKMB’s financial muscle—they bought Hugo Boumous, Amrinder Singh, Colaco and Kauko this term; it is the kind of expensive purchase most ISL teams wouldn’t make in a season. Part of it possibly also is that unlike some ISL teams, ATKMB have cited Covid-19 as reason to not have a structure beyond the first team.
Being part of the City Football Group, Mumbai City FC (MCFC) can match ATKMB’s money power but it is possibly because they are part of that group that Buckingham keeps talking about developing players. ATKMB have nine players between 18 and 22 on their roster but only Tangri, 22, has played regularly (400 minutes in five games). At MCFC and Hyderabad FC that number would be three. At Jamshedpur, it would often be four. Two of them, Komal Thatal and Boris Singh, joined Jamshedpur FC from ATKMB this year on long-term deals.
“The idea is to play according to the strength of the players I have,” Habas had said before the season. Usually, that would mean no-frills but effective football. It was evident that he couldn’t do that this season because after the 3-3 draw against Bengaluru FC, he said: “The match was... horrible. Horrible. We are in a bad moment, now. It is clear. We (have) lost (our) identity.”