After their 3-2 defeat at Gokulam Kerala on Sunday Bhogtoram Mawroh looks at how Shillong Lajong might improve on their strategy in away games and personnel decisions
Lajong’s season can be described as one resembling Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, good in one and bad in the other.
However, that would be focusing only on the short term while I believe there are two important issues to look into for the long term.
Lajong tried to employ the same tactics that had worked so well in the match against NEROCA: defend deep and attack on the counter through precise long balls played to the big strikers.
The tactics worked perfectly well with Lajong taking a 1-0 lead in the first half. But in the second half the commentators observed the the players looked exhausted and were not showing the same intensity they showed in the last match. That was actually already evident in the first half itself where the pressing was not very intense. Still, they were able to keep their shape and hold off the opposition attackers.
The last three matches have indeed involved a lot of travel for the young players: from the western coast to the North East and then to the southern-most part of the country. Not just overcoming the physical and mental exhaustion of travelling but the need to adapt quickly to an entirely different climate becomes very crucial.
It is here that I feel change is needed in the team’s approach to away games. At home Lajong have been trying to dominate games by making the opposition players work hard for the ball. That approach has taken a long time in the making.
There has been a big transformation from the direct football during Desmond Bulpin’s day to the keep the ball approach evident during the last years of Thangboi Singto’s coaching. When Singto first got the job he tweaked Bulpin’s style but still played direct football. And it was during the latter part of his third year in charge that the team looked to keep more possession at home.
But away from home, the team has always looked to play on the counter. That may bring success in some cases, but, as was evident in the match against Gokulam, it can have its downsides as well. You need to be physically very fit to make this tactic work, especially when you are travelling a lot.
This is more so with a young team coming from a part of the country that enjoys a subtropical to temperate climate while the rest of the country is reeling under a tropical climate regime. Even teams from the mainland find it difficult to cope with hot and humid weather, so one can understand the plight of the Lajong youngsters.
Therefore in my opinion the team needs to think about how it approaches away games in future. Replicating the home tactics in away matches will not only take the team to a different level but also make sure they can finish every game strongly.
The other approach would be rotate the squad extensively. However, with a team in which the majority of players are playing their first national senior tournament it is very difficult to change players constantly. A young team needs stability and continuity and therefore the second approach is difficult to implement.
That brings me to my second observation. I did not understand the change of personnel in the second half. Taking off Kenstar Kharshong to bring on Redeem Tlang was a very surprising decision which cost the team. Kenstar was making individual errors but they were not severe enough to take him out of the game.
The other surprising thing was that the shape of the team remained the same, which meant that Redeem had to play as a wing back while Novin Gurung, the prior designated right wing back had to play as one of the three central defenders. And it was Novin’s mistake that led to the second Gokulam goal. Instead of putting his foot through the ball and clearing it, he just tapped the ball in front of Kivi Zhimomi, who made no mistake in blasting it into the net.
At the beginning of the season Novin was very tentative and uncertain but since the second half of the game against Minerva Punjab he has looked more determined and solid. He was making good progress until he was again moved to the centre of defence. He had played in that position in the game against Indian Arrows and didn’t look comfortable at all. In fact he is a liability in that position.
On the other hand, playing Redeem as a wing back was also a mistake. Redeem is a very hard worker who fights for every ball. However, his biggest strength is up front where his close ball control and quick feet can create threats to the opposition goal. By asking him to do more defensive duties he was completely wasted. It would have been much better if Kynsailang Khongsit had come on instead of Redeem.
But even if Redeem were to be brought in, the shape of the team should have changed from 3 at the back to 4-4-2 or 4-3-3. Both Novin and Redeem would have gone into their natural positions and that would have created more stability. There are two ways in which a team can be organized, viz, create a system and ask the players to adapt to it or create a system taking into consideration the strengths and weakness of the players.
Different coaches use different approaches. When the team went from a back four to a back three it was more about accommodating the three central defenders. By doing this the team tried to play to their players’ strength. I like this approach because I believe that every player has their best position and they should be allowed to be the best they can be in their position. Too much role-changing is confusing.
So when Kenstar was withdrawn and Novin was moved to the centre of defence it was a move waiting to fail. What the coach tried to do was find an in-between way, ie, play the shape he wanted and expect the players to adapt to it.
I don’t think the players at his disposal are adept at that. What many don’t realise is that it isn’t just the Lajong players who are highly inexperienced but the coaching staff as well.
This is the first major assignment that Bobby Nongbet (who didn’t travel with the team to Kerala) has had. He had been coaching the junior and senior Meghalaya teams with some success, but this level is much higher. Alison Kharsyntiew was Singto’s assistant coach who himself was young and still learning his trade.
Going forward, however, there has to be more clarity on how they want the team to evolve. For that they have to be clear in their own philosophy. For me, the game against Gokulam raised questions about how the people at the helm of taking the team forward think about the future of the team and the role of players.
The first cannot be achieved in this season but I think the second can be tackled immediately. Clarity is the need of the hour.
(Photo contributed by Shillong Lajong)