The tag of ‘favourites’ had been bestowed upon Bengaluru FC long before we saw the ‘race for the play-offs’ madness in the last week in the league phase of the Indian Super League (ISL). Albert Roca and his band of men have taken the ISL by storm in their maiden campaign, finishing eight points ahead of runners-up Chennaiyin FC.
The Blues have lorded over the rest of the league, beating each and every opposition on their way to finishing comfortably at the top of the standings as we head into the play-offs.
With 13 wins from their 18 games, their Spanish tactician has drawn praise from all quarters. The heady compliments have not always been there for Bengaluru’s second-ever manager in their nascent history.
Taking over the reins of the club from Ashley Westwood in 2017 was never going to be a cakewalk despite the pedigree of the former Barcelona assistant coach. The Englishman’s two league titles, a Federation Cup, and a significant indent into the continental AFC Cup were always going to be a tough act to follow for any coach worth their salt.
His first test came at the continental level where he built on took the Blues all the way to the finals, the first for any Indian club. They ultimately tasted defeat at the hands of Iraqi club Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya in the summit clash but history had already been created.
His introduction to the I-League though, was another story. Under Roca, the defending champions came flying out of the gates with three consecutive wins but a wretched run of only one victory in the 12 subsequent games had Bengaluru struggling at the wrong end of the table for the first time ever.
Thankfully for him, four wins on the trot to close the campaign catapulted Roca’s men to the fourth position. A victorious Federation Cup campaign was the saving grace for Bengaluru in an otherwise trophyless season.
So when Roca was retained to lead the side into their first season in the ISL, the pressure was well and truly on the Spaniard to deliver. With the league now in its closing stages, the imprint of Roca on the Bengaluru side is for all to see.
While the JSW-owned side’s attack has been in the limelight throughout the season, a large part of Roca’s success has been built from the back. Having conceded only 16 goals in the league-stages, the side has by far the best defence.
The capture of India No1 Gurpreet Singh before the start of the campaign has been a coup as expected.
In central defence, John Johnson has been a handy servant, continuing from his days under Westwood. However, the biggest pillar has been Juan Antonio, bought by Roca in his first season with the club.
The Spaniard has been marshalled the defence admirably in the company of Johnson, and often without him when Roca has opted to go with just one foreigner in defence. Roca has got a ball-playing centre-back which fits in with his philosophy. The likes of Subashish Bose, Rahul Bheke and Harmanjot Khabra have all fitted in aptly in this department.
Having come from the Spanish and Barcelona school of thought, Roca’s biggest imprint in the side can be seen in the make-up of the squad. Juanan has been joined by five other compatriots over the course of the season, including Edu Garcia.
Midfield orchestrator Eugeneson Lyngdoh is no longer at the club. In his stead, it has primarily been the Spaniards who have pulled the strings in midfield. Also added has been the physically imposing Australian Erik Paartalu, whose goals from set pieces have been vital in Bengaluru’s march to the top. Simply speaking, Bengaluru’s recruitment prior to the season has been top notch.
For a side which was largely reliant on the goal-scoring exploits of their talisman Sunil Chhetri, recruiting the league’s best-paid foreigner in Miku has paid huge dividends. The Venezuelan’s 14 goals have greatly lightened out the burden on the India skipper who himself has chipped in with 10 goals of his own.
With quality ball-playing options to fall back on in all areas of the pitch, Roca has been able to impart his technical touch to the side to maximum effect, aided in no small part by his army of Spaniards.
The fact that Bengaluru have not shied away from selling one of their best-performing midfielders in Edu Garcia ahead of the crucial play-offs speaks volumes about the quality brimming through Roca’s side.
Personnel can be inter-changed with minimum hindrance with how well drilled the unit has now become. Adept at playing on the front foot and equally comfortable sitting back to launch quick counter-attacks, Roca’s Bengaluru have carved their own identity.
The solid foundations laid by Westwood and his assistant coach Pradyum Reddy have not been allowed to erode away but have on the contrary been built upon. The solid spine in the form of Chhetri, Johnson and Udanta Singh is still there, but the supporting cast around them has changed.
It is like Roca has taken the best of Westwood’s legacy and combined it with his own expertise to create an even more deadly beast. It would not be a far-fetched statement to say that Bengaluru are playing the best football in their history.
At the end of the season, it will be the trophies which will do the talking. But for now, a cloud of inevitability surrounds Bengaluru’s first ISL campaign, and they could very well break the jinx of previous league-stage winners not ending up with the title.
The success might not be anything new for the Blues should they win the title, but Roca’s legacy will be his own, and not an offshoot of his predecessor.