Game, set-piece, champions! Cuadrat's secret recipe for the title
Let's turn the clock back to March 17, 2018. Bengaluru FC were 1-0 up against Chennaiyin FC in the Hero Indian Super League (Hero ISL) 2017-18 final at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium in Bengaluru. With 17 minutes on the clock, Chennaiyin got a corner kick from the far side. Gregory Nelson floated in a dangerous delivery towards the edge of the six-yard box, which was turned inside the goal by Mailson Alves for the equaliser. Rahul Bheke was caught ball watching and Chennaiyin's Brazilian defender took full advantage of the situation. Fast forward to 28 minutes later in the same match. Another Gregory Nelson corner, this time from the opposite side, and Alves got on the end of it yet again. The Chennaiyin man outjumped Juanan to bury the ball past a helpless Gurpreet Singh Sandhu to make it 2-1. The match eventually ended 3-2 in Chennaiyin's favour, securing their second Hero ISL title while Bengaluru were left to rue their missed opportunity.
After the match, no one, including players and coaching staff from the Bengaluru camp, would have disagreed that the two set-piece goals changed the tide of the fixture and eventually cost the Blues the title.
Exactly one year post the heartbreak, it seemed only fitting that Bheke, who was at fault for Chennaiyin's first goal in the 2017-18 final, would rise to meet a Dimas Delgado corner in Extra Time to score against FC Goa in the 2018-19 final and hand Bengaluru the title along with their much-sought-after redemption. Life had finally come a full circle for Bengaluru.
For anyone following the Blues' performances closely this season, it's been evident that set-pieces have been at the very core of their preparations for this campaign - perhaps as a direct response to what happened in last season's final.
Head coach Carles Cuadrat, who was in the dugout as Albert Roca's assistant during last season's final, witnessed first-hand as Chennaiyin ruthlessly exposed Bengaluru's gaping weakness at defending set-pieces. So, it's hardly surprising that one of the first things in the Spaniard's to-do list once he took over the reins of the team before the start of this campaign would have been to address the issue.
A look back at the season's numbers reflects the planning and hard work Cuadrat put in behind preparing the team for dead ball situations at both ends of the pitch. On the defensive front, Bengaluru have had the best record against set-piece situations, conceding just four goals in their 21 matches. Taking into account that three of the four were from penalties, it leaves a solitary goal as the only blemish on their record. Incidentally, the one goal was conceded from a free-kick, leaving Bengaluru with a flawless record while defending against corners - the one thing which haunted them in last season's final. In comparison, Roca's Bengaluru conceded a total of 10 goals from set-pieces in the 2017-18 campaign.
Eelco Schattorie's NorthEast United FC were the closest team to matching Bengaluru's defensive record from set-pieces, conceding 4 (1 from free-kick, 2 from corners and 1 from a throw in) in their 20 matches.
On the offensive side too, the Blues were no slouch from dead ball opportunities. Their record of scoring 8 goals from set-piece situations was only bested by Jamshedpur FC (14). However, Cuadrat's men led the charts when it came to converting free-kicks into goals (5).
Best defensive record against set-pieces, best record when it came to converting free-kicks, the championship-winning goal coming from a dead ball situation - there can be no debates on the fact that set-piece preparations had a major role to play in Bengaluru's title win this season. For anyone in need of further convincing, here's how Sunil Chhetri summed it up at the post-match press conference after the final. "We worked really hard with Carles. We have only conceded one goal from set-pieces and there are charts in the bathroom before we go into each match. We have to stand there for 20 minutes and look at it, because every free kick, every corner has a different sign. Going forward and defensively we have been very strong from set-pieces and it is not by chance that we have won the game through a set-piece," he said.