Antonio Habas is one of the most successful coaches in Indian football in recent times. The Spanish coach has won the Indian Super League (ISL) title twice and has guided his teams to the play-off twice in five seasons of his coaching stint in the league so far.
Yet the veteran coach has often been on the receiving end of criticism for being too pragmatic and not playing attacking football which the purists of the game appreciate.
It is true that Habas values more the end result than the means to achieve it. His records in the ISL suggest that his teams have never topped the charts at the end of the league but they manage to go all way when the knock-out stage arrives.
While this method has got him accolades in the past but with the changed rules of the league, which rewards the league toppers with a AFC Champions League (ACL) group stage slot, It became imperative that the club finished first in the league.
After missing out on the ACL slot with ATK last season against Sergio Lobera’s FC Goa, though they won the ISL trophy, this season once again Habas’ ATK Mohun Bagan failed to top the league and missed out on a place in the continent’s biggest tournament.
Last season ATK were behind FC Goa for the majority of the season and in end, finished five points behind the Gaurs. But this season the circumstances were different and in fact, at the business end of the season, it was the Mariners who were favourites to grab the top position. With two matches to go in the league stage, the Green and Maroons were five points clear of Mumbai City and were in the pole position but a draw in their penultimate clash against Hyderabad FC and then defeat against Mumbai City in their final league game forced them to end the league stage as the second best side.
One of the reasons why once again a Habas team failed to finish at the top of the charts is vastly due to the coach’s approach to matches in the initial stages of the league. There was too much pragmatism despite having a strong attacking unit in the initial matches.
Let us take their first phase clash against Mumbai City. ATK Mohun Bagan went into this top of the table clash with 20 points, two behind leaders Mumbai and had the golden opportunity to get the three points and end the first phase at the top of the table. The match had all the recipe for a mouth-watering encounter but Habas chose to go ultra-defensive mode. The excessive pragmatism cost them three points and a poor head-to-head record which proved to be the decisive factor in determining the league winners.
In fact, in the final clash, ATK Mohun Bagan had once again gone into a shell and did not go all-out for the three points for a major part of the game.
It is true that the former Bolivia national team manager did take a more aggressive approach in the second phase of the league once Marcelinho arrived on loan from Odisha FC in the January window. They had even taken a strong lead over the Islanders but eventually fell short, thanks to an inferior head-to-head record. Probably, a bit more initiative in some of the matches could have seen them convert more points and finish top.