How Stephen Constantine put his best foot forward in the AFC Asian Cup 2019
It's not easy being the football coach of a national team in modern times, especially when the country happens to be one with a population of a billion strong. Expectations are high and every aspect of your work is constantly under the microscope. For India head coach Stephen Constantine, like many others before him, it has been a roller coaster of a ride.
The Englishman has his own unique way of doing things, which doesn't always fit the mould of conventional coaching - a trait which makes him a divisive figure among Indian football fans. Constantine's has often invited widespread criticism, from pundits and fans alike, for an array of reasons like unconventional tactical calls, surprise team selections, etc. For example, the Englishman's process of rotating the captain's armband around in almost every match has been particularly unpopular among the fans. The move has also led to unsubstantiated speculations about him falling out with some of the senior players and what not.
Different yet effective
Constantine, however, has always remained unfazed by criticisms and has stuck to his methods. As unconventional, controversial or divisive as they may be, it's hard to deny that the 56-year-old has always delivered positive results - a fact that has endeared him to certain sections of the Indian football community.
Currently in his second stint with the Blue Tigers, Constantine has added a fair few feathers in his cap. Not counting the LG Cup triumphs during his first stint, Constantine has managed the Blue Tigers to three international trophies in the last four years, beginning with the SAFF Championship in 2015 followed by the Tri-Nation Football Series win and most recently, the Hero Intercontinental Cup 2018 victory. A seamless qualification to the AFC Asian Cup 2019 further substantiates Constantine’s impressive resume. To put his second term as India coach in context, the Blue Tigers were ranked 171 in the FIFA Rankings when Constantine took over in February 2015. It has been a steady climb since and India are currently ranked 97th in the world. Back in August 2018, India had reached 96th - their best FIFA Ranking in over two decades.
Faith in youth
Another success story of the 56-year-old’s second stint has been the rise of the young Indian stars in the senior setup. Under his tutelage, the likes of Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, Sandesh Jhingan, Anas Edathodika and Pronay Halder have grown leaps and bounds to constitute the spine of the team. The last year has brought about another batch of promising young talents like Anirudh Thapa, Udanta Singh, Subhasish Bose and Vinit Rai. The biggest testimonial to Constantine’s unwavering faith in youngsters is the squad he picked for the AFC Asian Cup 2019, which happens to be the third-youngest in the tournament.
AFC Asian Cup 2019 – the best yet?
Constantine's list of achievements at the helm of the Blue Tigers is indeed impressive, but the Englishman seems to have saved his best for the AFC Asian Cup 2019. The Blue Tigers have definitely made a mark in their two matches so far. The 4-1 win in the opening match against a highly-rated Thailand side was a historic moment for Indian football. Constantine's men also gave a good account of themselves in the 2-0 loss to hosts UAE in the second match, earning plaudits from the Emirati players themselves. With a bit of luck, the fixture could have easily tilted the Blue Tigers' way. Constantine’s contributions behind these impressive displays cannot be taken lightly.
Tactically, Constantine has produced some great surprises which have taken opposition teams by surprise. For instance, the utilization of Ashique Kuruniyan in a very Roberto Firmino-esque roaming no. 9 position paid rich dividends in the first match against Thailand and worked pretty well in the first-half against UAE. Using Ashique's tireless running ability to initiate presses deep into the opponent's half has been a unique aspect of the Englishman's new 4-4-1-1 system in the tournament. When needed, Constantine has not backed out from shaking things up and even change tactics in between matches. The high-pressing shock and awe tactic worked particularly well in the match against the Thais, as the War Elephants found themselves unprepared to deal with the gambit.
Constantine's decision to play India's last preparatory friendly against Oman behind closed doors was highly unpopular at the time, but the Blue Tigers' performances in the AFC Asian Cup vindicates his call and due credit should be given to the veteran coach for not showing his hand before time.
India's fate in the tournament still hangs in the balance, with their progression to the Round of 16 resting on the result of their final Group A match against Bahrain. However, it's safe to say that the Blue Tigers, along with Constantine, have exceeded the expectations already and seem capable of doing much more going forward.
Despite his many criticisms, Constantine's role in instilling a never-say-die attitude in the team, which has carried them so far, is irrefutable. With the Englishman's contract reportedly running out in March this year and the extension talks yet to begin, it's still unclear whether he will be a part of Indian football's journey into the future. But his contribution to the journey so far is definitely deserving of a rousing toast.