Going into the AFC Asian Cup 2019, even the staunchest of Indian fans would not have expected India to turn up with a style of football that has left many surprised.
Yes, India were 97th in the FIFA rankings and were the second-highest ranked team in Group A. But the expectations were that the Blue Tigers would be found out by the likes of Thailand and Bahrain.
But what has turned out has come as a pleasant surprise. After a 4-1 thumping of Thailand, India gave UAE a proper run for their money before falling to a 2-0 loss which felt undeserving.
These two uplifting performances were not just down to the superior fitness and extra motivation the players might have had for this particular competition, but also due to the tactically competitive way in which the team was set up by coach Stephen Constantine.
They were not overwhelmed by superior opposition and stuck to their plans well, keeping their defensive shape well while pressing in unison to put the opponents out of their comfort zone.
One key factor that highlights the fact is the work that Gurpreet Singh Sandhu has had to do in the competition so far. In 2011, the last time India played the Asian Cup, Subrata Paul made a name for himself after coming up with several spectacular saves for India despite losing all three group games, conceding 13 goals in the process. For that was the kind of pressure the defence and Subrata were under in that tournament.
Understandably, the expectations were that Gurpreet would be the key performer for India and many expected him to come under a barrage of shots, just like how India's friendly against China in October (0-0) transpired.
But this time around, Gurpreet has had a lot less work to do. In the first game against Thailand, the Bengaluru FC custodian faced just three shots on target and conceded from one.
The UAE game was even better for him. Despite India losing by two goals, those strikes were they only time the celebrated UAE forwards could get a shot on target. More importantly, India had more shots on and off target in both these matches!
Surprising, isn't it? It just goes on to highlight the how tactically well-drilled this India team is.
If one takes a closer look at the Thailand match, after seeing the Thai midfiedlers enjoy a lot of time and space in the first half, Pronay Halder and Anirudh Thapa cut off their supply lines, hustling the midfielders off the ball. That helped India absolutely dominate the Thai team in the second half.
That tactical flexibility and awareness was on display in the UAE match as well as the Emiratis were outplayed in the first half before they asserted their quality in the second half. UAE's slow defenders had a lot of trouble dealing with the pace of Udanta Singh and Ashique Kuruniyan and one saw the defenders and midfielders always trying to find the aforementioned duo in space.
Unfortunately, poor finishing let India down in that game but the confidence and tactical astuteness from the team was nothing like how any Indian team in the recent past have shown.
Constantine's preference to start with Ashique in place of Jeje Lalpekhlua in attack has also shown the Englishman's shrewdness. Jeje lacks pace up front and the Englishman has opted to convert the lanky Ashique into a striker. The result has been that Chhetri has had a lot more space with the defenders wary of Ashique who has been playing on their shoulders, always on the lookout for an opportunity to run.
It has come as a breath of fresh air from Constantine but it has come at the right time for India. The Blue Tigers have not been overawed like a deer caught in headlights in the Asian Cup. But thanks to the tactical awareness and flexibility, they are finally living up to their nickname - Tigers waiting to pounce on their prey.