In age-level sports, results should be a secondary target. The intent, tactical approach and proper implementation of plans should unequivocally be made the first priority. A magic moment by a particularly gifted player can win a game or two but proper implementation of game-plan, supported by right players at the right positions, will bring more consistent results. On a continuation, a team can be molded into a winning machine over the time. A system will be created that will promote and acquire players according to the vacated position and provide for the senior teams.
Nepal’s U-15 football team defied expectations to beat Bangladesh in the semi final in a convincing manner that influx the possibilities of lifting the trophy going against the odds of beating the dominating team of the tournament, India U-15 team.
The final match of the SAFF U-15 championship started at the ANFA Complex at 3 PM. It took me 55 minutes to finally locate the formation the Nepali team was playing in the final, still not sure. It was something between 4-1-3-2 and 5-3-2, as much as it was supposed to be a 4-4-2, according to the submitted playing list. But the right back kept playing somewhere between winger and side midfielder role, losing his position so often that India’s goals and many other chances came from the left flank.
The lack of left-footed players did not help either. Too many right-footed players cut the football pitch into half as many unsuccessful attacks from the host team came from the right side. Either to be derailed by lack of ideas going forward or the right back Deepak Bhandari, killing the tempo every time when a pass was made to him. As Bhandari not being physically intimidating enough to defend, his willingness to support the wingers and attacking midfielders did not help his case. So many times, his part of flank was left open when he failed to recover the lost ground which eventually allowed Indian wingers to take advantage of. The time given to Lalrokima to score that Worldie was a result of poor marking by the right back.
It is not that Nepal only struggled in the match. Nepal led the first half with a 1-0 scoreline. They looked confident to counter; if not determined to create clearer chances.
Central defender Sanjib Aryal was the best player on the pitch up until he performed in a no-nonsense defensive center back position with a role of a stopper. He would run at the attackers, win the ball and thrust it as high as possible for wingers or forwards to transform into an impromptu attack. Aryal’s save at the goal-line at the end of the first half was the highlight of Nepal’s disciplined center defending partnered by equally capable Roshan Dong.
It was all good and confident the way Nepal ended the first half. Especially, defending part was assuring. Logically, more focus on defending would have made life more difficult for thwarting attackers of opposition in the second half.
A subtle tweak in the formation or a substitute with controlled mentality would have done the job in the second half. But then they broke my heart. In the second half, for some reasons, Nepal still stuck to the same formation they deployed in the first half. More so, the antics Aryal pulled, playing sideway passes, he somewhat enrooted to keep the possession in more of a ball-playing defender role which cost us the second goal. India was pressing hard, Nepal was clearing less which hit the home supporter hard. That was vague.
The most puzzling part throughout the match was skipper Rohan Rana Magar’s midfield role. At first, one would say he was given something between the roaming playmaker and box-to-box midfielder role. However, his lack of pace did not help him. At times, he was spotted standing simply staring at the ball missing his positioning. He was good at winning the ball but any forward tempo was disrupted by the same problem of lack of left side play and incisive passes or through balls meeting the dead end at the disoriented forward players. India defenders were quick to lurk into any lapse of concentration by Nepali forwards.
The team played two center forwards throughout the match. Both played in the advanced forward role. Nepal clearly lacked someone who could play defensive or deep-lying forward role to add the numbers at the back. Or someone who could drop in false nine roles to link up the attack between midfield and forwards, where most through balls were wasted, despite all the early build up by Rana Magar & Karlosh Bakhariya.
Karlosh was substituted in as early as in the first half to play at wings. He struggled to keep possession but for any brief period of time, he had this amazing touch to make that killer passes only to be wasted by forwards who could not anticipate. It will be interesting to see if he can be molded into a finisher. A future prospect if he can be re-trained as a striker.
As a whole, without being too critical, lapses in tactical execution were more of a problem which cost us the match. Fitness is a concern too but lack of positional knowledge will forever haunt the team if not prepared or trained from this level.
Nepal had upper hand in the first half. As simple as it sounds, one of the forwards could have been taken off to play in a hole between defensive midfielders and the lone striker. Rana Magar, considering his ball-winning skills, should have stayed back with half-back Ashim Gurung who was constantly dropping in back three center-back roles along with Aryal and Dong. That created the opening between midfield and the back line which Indian skipper Vikram Pratap Singh took full advantage of to score his first and the match winning goal for India.
Any football fan, be it the most biased one on Nepal’s side, at least would have expected a more of the same approach in the second half. That would have been enough for Nepal to take the game and the trophy. The Indian coach quoted at the press conference, “I expect Nepal to be fitter and stronger in the upcoming matches”. That partially summed up Nepal performances in the final. Nepal lacked the stamina to contemplate their better-trained opponents at the final minutes but having two advanced forwards did not help either.
Nepal had this match in their grasp only to throw it away by refusing to counter the fluid attacking game India played in the second half. At the half time, Nepal’s dream to lift the trophy was possible in every bit. However, being an ardent fan of Nepal sports, the possibility of messing it all up was equally predictable. And that broke many hearts.