Will Habas’ ATK ‘find a way through’ to a third Hero ISL title?
Two-nil down on aggregate heading into the final hour of their two-legged semi-final clash against Bengaluru FC, ATK FC were hardly anyone’s favourites to join Chennaiyin FC in the Hero Indian Super League (Hero ISL) 2019-20 final. The Blues seemed firmly in control, only needing to rely on their strong defence, which had conceded the least number of goals in the competition till then, to see things through.
However, egged on by a 50,000-plus crowd present at the Vivekananda Yuba Bharati Krirangan in Kolkata on the night, ATK roared back to score three unanswered goals and found a way through to their first Hero ISL final in three seasons. ‘Finding a way through’ perhaps has been the catchphrase for the two-time champions this season, who, even when not at their best, have managed to dig deep and salvage just enough to pull through with crucial results, whenever needed.
While the way forward will be a lot more daunting given the kind of form Chennaiyin have been since Owen Coyle’s arrival, Antonio Lopez Habas’ side will be quietly confident of going all the way, given the experience of the coaching staff and the ‘never-say-die’ attitude of the players involved. Only time will tell if the Kolkata-based side can clinch a record third Hero ISL title come Saturday, but till then, here's a look at the key components within the squad which will play a big role in the final on March 14.
The head coach
As soon as ATK announced Habas’ return, there was visible excitement around the club and fans given what the Spaniard had achieved in his first stint with the side. ATK won the inaugural season of Hero ISL with Habas at the helm, before going on to reach the semi-finals the following campaign under the Spaniard's stewardship. The move, therefore, made sense, especially after two underwhelming seasons where they finished ninth and sixth respectively.
Like in his previous stint, the Spaniard employed a largely pragmatic style of play geared towards keeping things solid at the back while utilising the ability and individual talents of star forwards like Roy Krishna and David Williams to wreak havoc on counter attacks. Behind the front two, Habas has mostly deployed a five-man midfield with the electric Prabir Das and Michael Soosairaj operating as rampaging wing backs to stretch opposition defences. The ploy has worked like a charm as the duo directly affected a combined eight goals for the club so far. Habas’ man-management skills have been equally impressive, helping ATK get the maximum out of their squad, especially while the club was dealing with injuries to key foreign players. Edu Garcia and John Johnson, among others, are shinning testaments of that, with Garcia especially stepping up during Williams’ prolonged mid-season absence to keep ATK on track to qualify for the semi-finals.
Habas’ men finished the league stage in second position after raking up 34 points from 18 matches. They were the second-highest goal scorers, whilst also conceded the second fewest number of goals amongst all teams during the league phase. Striking the perfect balance between defence and attack is a tedious ask, but Habas seems to have managed it quite well, solidifying his reputation as one of the best tacticians to ever grace the Hero ISL.
Like their head coach, ATK have been dynamic and aggressive throughout the Hero ISL 2019-20 season. Barring a few occasional blips, Krishna and Co. have been top draw, blowing away opponents with their pace, accuracy and defensive solidity. The back three, which was led for large parts by Agustin Iniguez, have been brilliant since the start, forming the foundation for the club’s success so far. The likes of Pritam Kotal flourishing in a new role and the emergence of youngster Sumit Rathi has been big stories of the season so far. Agus' departure at the beginning of February, however, was a huge blow for the side. While the Spaniard's leadership skills and ability to organize the backline was always going to be difficult to replicate, his replacement, John Johnson, seems to be steadily growing into his role after a somewhat rocky start.
In midfield, Javier Hernandez's uncompromising work-ethic makes him an automatic pick and one of ATK’s most important players for the final. The Spaniard has been an important link between the midfield and attack, assisting five goals so far. Defensively, he has been no slouch either, seamlessly dropping deep to help out the backline whenever the team is under pressure. His guile and ability to go past players has made him a key component of the club’s style of play and he will be an important piece on Habas’ board going into Saturday’s final.
The final third of the pitch, however, is where ATK’s true strength lies. Krishna, Williams and Garcia are all more than capable operators, who can literally turn a match on its head at any given moment. The first two will be especially dangerous for Chennaiyin, given the telepathic understanding they have between them. The Williams-Krishna partnership is most likely to be ATK’s trump card in the decider, although Habas will be counting on all his players to diligently perform their respective roles on Saturday.
Key stats from ATK’s season
- ATK had the second-best attack (after FC Goa) and the second-best defence (after Bengaluru FC) during the league phase this season.
- ATK’s Roy Krishna currently leads the Golden Boot leaderboard with 15 goals and five assists.
- ATK have won 11 of their 20 matches this season – one more than they managed in the previous two seasons combined.
- ATK have attempted 329.6 passes per match this season – the lowest among all teams this season. The stat demonstrates just how direct ATK have been.
- ATK have scored 11 goals from through balls (most by any team).
Players to watch out for
ATK lacked the firepower up top in their last two Hero ISL campaigns and the signing of A-League 2018-19 top scorer Krishna from Wellington Phoenix was the management’s move to address that. And the Fijian hasn’t disappointed. With 15 goals in 20 matches this season, the Fiji international has proved his worth, often single-handedly driving ATK towards victory. His most important goal contribution, however, was the opening goal against Bengaluru FC, which ended his three-match goal drought and heading into the final, will give him some much-needed confidence. The 32-year-old striker has averaged 0.75 goals per game, along with five assists, meaning he was involved in 20 of ATK’s 36 goals this season.
Sidelined for the entirety of last season with a serious knee injury, fullback Prabir Das has roared back with a point to prove. His consistent performances for ATK down the right flank have been integral to how Habas’ ATK have operated this season. Used mainly as a wing-back this season, the Kolkata local has raked up five assists, including two in their second leg Hero ISL semi-finals fixture against Bengaluru. On the defensive front, Prabir accounted for 80 clearances, 63 tackles and 28 interceptions for ATK.
While securing a passage to the final might have been ATK’s biggest takeway from Sunday’s match against Bengaluru, another crucial story unfolded over the course of the match which may have great implications on the title decider. Central to the plot, was David Williams. The Australian hit the ground running in the initial stages, but a substantial injury layoff mid-season disrupted his form. After coming back, Williams was struggling to regain his form and looked a mere shadow of the player he was at the beginning of the season. But when the team needed him the most, the 32-year-old stepped up in a big way. Williams’ cheeky reverse pass played an integral role in Krishna’s first-half equalizer against Bengaluru and brought ATK back in the contest. In the second half, Williams took the match by the scruff of its neck, first winning and converting a penalty for ATK’s second goal and then burying a sensational header for the third. The performance is set to lift the Australian’s confidence and him hitting form at this stage, will undoubtedly add to Chennaiyin’s woes.