Marco Pezzaiuoli's Bengaluru FC are up and running, but can they marry entertainment with efficiency?

Prior to the 2021-22 season of the Hero Indian Super League (ISL), Bengaluru FC decided to adopt a different philosophy and had subsequently installed Marco Pezzaiuoli at the helm.

The German, who replaced Carles Cuadrat, instantly declared that he wanted to play a high-octane style of football – a style that was vastly different from the Blues’ cautious approach under Cuadrat.

Unsurprisingly, plenty of eyeballs were trained on how Bengaluru FC would fare in their opening game against NorthEast United FC. This wasn’t the first time the Blues would play under Pezzaiuoli, considering their AFC Cup excursions.

False dawn

Yet, the competitive nature of the Hero ISL meant that this would be the ultimate test of how far Bengaluru FC had traversed under the German’s stewardship.

Hence, when the Blues romped past the Highlanders via a 4-2 score-line, countless fans stood up and took notice. This was, for those wondering, a far cry from the team that clinched the Hero ISL title in 2018-19. But it still was an outfit that had shed its 2020-21 conservatism and had embraced a diametrically opposite brand of football.

Unfortunately, the initial optimism evaporated quite quickly. While they didn’t compromise on their style, a slight lack of experience and misfiring marquee players meant that they couldn’t stitch together a victory until they met Chennaiyin FC on December 30.

That positive result was quickly followed by an uninspiring draw against SC East Bengal, meaning that many felt the encounter against the Marina Machans was another false dawn – just like the contest against NorthEast United FC. So much so that it took another incredibly breathless performance against Mumbai City FC for people to believe that Bengaluru FC might be onto something.

Can the Blues show consistency?

In different parts of the world, different managers have different ideas on how the game should be played. There is a distinctness attached to each style and it becomes very difficult for players to adapt to something new, especially in the middle of the season. On the flip side, new managers bring along new ideas – ideas that take time to get implemented but ideas that inject freshness into teams.

Bengaluru FC have felt the double-edged nature of that quandary already. They have been thoroughly impressive in the games that they’ve won but have been quite insipid in the matches that they have lost or drawn.

On further introspection, though, it becomes clear that a pattern is emerging. Not just based on the results but also in the way Bengaluru FC perform in these fixtures.

Against Chennaiyin FC, Mumbai City FC and NorthEast United FC, the Blues played to their strengths. They stretched the game as much as possible and everything rattled along at a hundred miles per hour. In such a scenario, they are able to exploit the spaces in midfield and are able to optimize the gaps behind the opposition’s defensive line.

Cleiton Silva and Prince Ibara are crucial to that style of football. While the former often makes telling runs deep into the opposition’s defensive third, the latter is the out-ball Bengaluru FC generally look for, especially when pinned in their own half.

The aforementioned duo creates space with their movement and allows the central midfielders – the likes of Bruno Ramires, Danish Farooq and Suresh Wangjam to get into better attacking positions. A perfect example would be Danish’s goal against the Islanders, when he ghosted to the edge of the box and rifled a shot into the corner.

These sequences also allow Ashique Kuruniyan and Roshan Singh to maraud forward and create overlapping situations on the wings. Roshan, in particular, has bagged five assists by bombing down the flanks.

More importantly, though, the end-to-end nature of these matches papers over some of the defensive cracks that exist in the Blues’ ranks, which at this point, is a touch inexperienced and prone to the odd moments of madness. This might seem paradoxical, considering an end-to-end game would provide more opportunities to the opposition. The counter-argument, though, is that it gives BFC a chance to outscore their rivals.

In clustered games or ones where spaces are at a premium, Bengaluru FC seem to struggle. Their midfield, which houses an extraordinary engine, has to lean on creating rather than just disrupting and moving the ball forward. Their full-backs also don’t get enough freedom, meaning that that avenue is also cut off.

This particular theme also doesn’t suit Cleiton and Ibara’s strengths. Both are exceptional counter-attacking players but don’t always like playing with their backs to goal – something that happens when teams sit deep, allow Bengaluru FC to retain possession and invite them to break down the defensive door.

At the moment, Bengaluru FC are perhaps the only side in the Hero ISL that doesn’t have a genuine No 10 or attacking midfielder in their ranks. Farooq and Jayesh Rane have performed that role so far this season but neither seems very comfortable. Hence, when the onus is on them to carve open an opposition defence, the Blues seem to be falling short.

That, though, doesn’t mean that the 2018-19 Hero ISL champions can’t make a fist of this campaign. Football, just like life, is all about minimizing your weakness and maximizing your strengths as best as you can. And, seem to be BFC thriving on end-to-end encounters.

It might not be possible for them to create such a situation every time they play because, well, other teams are probably aware of it now. Yet, if they can do so more often than not, you feel many outfits might not fancy their chances against Bengaluru FC.  

When the season started, thousands waited with bated breath, hoping that this rendition of the Blues would be more free-flowing and action-packed than what had unfolded in the Cuadrat era. On those fronts, BFC have already succeeded. But it seems that they might be able to marry that entertainment with a bit of efficiency.

There is still a far way to go but Pezzaiuoli at least knows the direction in which he can traverse. And, that, especially after a tough initiation to life in the Hero ISL, is more than enough to cling on to.

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