India’s Shanmugam Venkatesh: Indian Football has evolved a lot, changed its outlook!

Former Indian National Team captain and current Assistant Coach of the Indian Senior Men’s National team Shanmugam Venkatesh averred that Indian Football has changed its outlook. In a very detailed interview with AIFF Media Venkatesh tracked down the pathway for evolution highlighting the difference in squads, club football vs international football, approach of the current batch while backing it with data analytics, much-needed improvisation at the club coaching level, and much more.

You have been with the Blue Tigers since 2015. How do you define the current process?

It has evolved a lot. There’s always a pathway for evolution. Looking at the international calendar, there are three stages of the preparatory process – unofficial friendly matches, International Friendlies, and then the Official Qualifiers and tournaments. As these are different stages of preparation, the process of selection and approach also stay different.

What is the difference?

It’s about the squad which you select. You need to understand that International football is entirely different from club football. In club football you get two matches every 10 days which allows you to look at every player who has been performing well and improve within a short span.

The FIFA window is written in stone – March, June, September, October and November, and then there are unofficial matches. In unofficial matches and exposure games, the aim is to try out as many young and new players as possible. Unless you try, you won’t get to know. You have to give a chance to the deserving youngsters to see how they react and gauge their decision-making. After all of that, you move to the Qualifiers and the tournaments wherein there can’t be any compromise.

An entirely new set of boys who have donned the colours since the King’s Cup in 2019.

Indian Football has changed its outlook. From the camp for the King’s Cup, we began our journey from scratch and looked for players who are adept in more technical play. The easier way would have been to look for six players who can defend, and four who could chase, and someone who could score. The entire process is for the benefit of Indian Football’s secured future.

The idea is to play matches against extremely tough oppositions. The March friendlies were against Oman and UAE – who are among the top teams in Asia. Playing Curacao was also a novel experience for the boys. It serves no purpose of playing lower-ranked teams. The AIFF also needs to be complimented for arranging all of that.

What has your experience been in working with Igor Stimac?

At the very outset prior to speaking about technical aspects, I need to highlight that Mr. Stimac is an epitome of a perfect human being. His training sessions are all match-oriented which allows the players to settle down fast. He manages the micro along with the macro, he goes into every detail with much detailing, and that has allowed me to take forward together the philosophy into the Indian Arrows.

Understandably, he is a person of such a huge stature and I consider myself lucky to grasp as much as I can from him. He is always so calm, never under pressure. He has never come across as an in-secured person, and allows space to every support staff including myself and the players. Always open to ideation, and talks, his heart beats for Indian football.

You have captained India and was an extremely successful domestic player on the circuit. Now that you are a coach, how do you describe the difference between club and international football?

There can be no comparison whatsoever. The intensity, tempo, ball time in international football is ruthless — ask any debutant who has had a taste of international football. Let me tell you a basic – at the international level, even before you get the ball there are already two players who have pressed you. The pressure is immense and you need to make decisions under pressure. There is very little time to react — in fact, no time. Only the best who have been filtered in the process, thrive here. There are so many examples.

Has there been any change in the process and approach among the current crop that has hit the eye?

The team has undergone a significant change in their style of play and approach to the game improving on their basis than what was in prevalence till the AFC Asian Cup UAE 2019. The data analytics are proof of that.

What are the numbers from the data analytics?

In the first seven matches of the current Qualifiers for the 2022 FIFA World Cup – Qatar and 2023 AFC Asian Cup – China preliminary joint round qualification Round 2 so far, the Blue Tigers have played an average of 450 passes per match with an accuracy of 80%. We have also had a 50% average ball possession among all matches, with an average of 8.14 shots per match out of which an average of 2.71 were on target. The stats also point out the young but tough and stubborn Indian team has won a staggering 49% of the duels on the field.

Is that an improvement?

Yes! The remarkable shift in the paradigm makes it clear about the indexes that define the system, and the prevalent process being currently followed under Head Coach Igor Stimac, where certain essential technicalities have improved notably.

What are they?

A direct comparison with the first 7 matches of the previous World Cup qualifiers – the 2018 FIFA World Cup – Russia qualifiers which kicked off in 2015 shows us that the average ball possession of the current squad has increased by 10.2% — going up from previous 39.8% to 50%. During the previous qualifiers, the number of passes per match was 338 in comparison to 450 in the new set-up. The current passing accuracy is 80% in comparison to 74% previously – an increase of 6 percent. The average length of passes per match have gone down – earlier the average length of passes was 22.2 in comparison to the current 20.4. The accuracy of the long passes also narrates a positive story – currently it is at 71% in comparison to it being 56% previously.

Also after seven matches in the qualifiers in 2015, we had scored four and conceded 16 (GD -12), while after seven matches in the current qualifiers, we have scored five and conceded six (GD -1). Obviously, we are yet to play Afghanistan in our last league match – not to forget that their players are playing professional football in the US, in Europe, and also in India.

What does all of that tell us?

You need to look at the current scenario to understand it. Even during the second wave of the pandemic which didn’t allow us an ideal preparation, the boys worked their socks off against Asian champions Qatar despite being down to 10 men in the 18th minute. The intensity was extremely high. Most significantly, we also had our chances in the game.

In less than four complete days we recovered fully and even as we kicked off against Bangladesh at 5pm in the heat, we sustained the momentum, dominated, didn’t allow them a single shot on goal, and scored twice towards the end.

What are you hinting at?

It only substantiates that the strength and conditioning process of the current crop has improved drastically. In comparison to us conceding in the dying minutes, we are now going on and on till the end and making use of every minute — and even scoring towards the end. The mindset is different, the approach is top end – exactly what it should be in top-flight football. Currently, we are far more compact.

There are also individual tailor-made programmes sent to all the players for the time they are away from the National team set-up. For the entire pandemic, we have been keeping a close tab on all.

What do you feel about our chances of qualifying for the 2023 AFC Asian Cup – China?

Even if we didn’t earn any points from our current campaign in Doha, we still would have our chances to qualify for China, and I am extremely confident that we will.

But didn’t we let the momentum slip after the first match against Oman in Guwahati and that fantastic draw against Qatar in Doha?

We have been hot and cold. The expectations after the Oman match in Guwahati were sky-high. Adding to that, if the away result against Qatar was an achievement, we underachieved against Bangladesh at home. But we were hit hard by the injuries to some key players – Sandesh Jhingan, Rowllin Borges, Amarjit Singh, and a half-fit Brandon Fernandes, who came in only in the second half in Kolkata.

International football hits you hard – matches get over even before you wink. That’s been the lesson for a whole lot of newcomers, and it will stay with them forever for them to help them mature into better players, and Indian Football getting represented by top quality players.

Club coaching has changed a lot in recent years. How much of it does benefit the National team?

It certainly has, and an entire generation is benefiting from it. But from the National team point of view, the upbringing of certain players in the system needs to improvise more. The National team camp is for a limited duration in comparison to training at the respective clubs.

What do you mean by ‘needs to improvise more?’

I don’t want to take names but many National team players who were expected to improve on the basics haven’t been able to do it. I reiterate, there isn’t much time for us to regulate it during the short period at the National camp. It needs to be done at the club level – and that would benefit the entire footballing setup.

At the same time, various clubs have different playing styles in comparison to the National team – which means that not everyone will be in sync to the adjustment to the totally different style of football in the National team.

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