Bengaluru FC started with a three-man defence against Chennaiyin FC in the final of the Indian Super League (ISL). There was no Subashish Bose who had picked up a yellow card in each of the two legs of the play-offs.
The only other left-back they had was 20-year-old Nishu Kumar, who had played 55 minutes in the midweek AFC Cup tie. Whether coach Albert Roca's decision not to start with him was down to fitness, inexperience or simply tactical is not known. Also the reliable and ever dependable Harmanjot Khabra was missing in action due to an injury.
The former El Salvador coach preferred deploying Boithang Haokip and Rahul Bheke as wing-backs while Erik Paartalu, Juanan Antonio and John Johnson formed the three defence.
However, Chennaiyin FC scored two goals from corner-kicks thanks to some poor marking after Sunil Chhetri had put them into the lead.
Roca brought in Nishu Kumar and Daniel Segovia as he switched back to a four-man defence. That didn’t help either as Chennai scored another through Raphael Augusto who was allowed ample space and time to pick his spot. Neither Lenny Rodrigues nor Bheke nor Victor Perez kept a check on him. Gregory Nelson was being chased by Chhetri who also gave up after a point.
Last season Roca deployed the three-man defence on several occasions in the I-League. Their most telling defeat, the 3-1 home loss to East Bengal, came when they started with Juanan, Sandesh Jhingan and Salam Ranjan Singh as centre-backs with Khabra and Sena Ralte as full-backs.
In the AFC Cup final in 2016, Bengaluru FC started with a four-man defence. However, around the hour mark, Roca switched it to three. Nishu and Alwyn George made way for Seiminlen Doungel and Udanta Singh. Cameron Watson, who was one of the key players in midfield along with Alvaro Rubio, was asked to join Juanan and Johnson at the back. Rino Anto and Udanta were used as wing-backs.
The idea was to stretch play, use the width of the pitch to create a few opportunities. While they did have a chance when Watson brilliantly created an opening for Chhetri which they couldn’t convert, Al Quwa Al Jawiya found more space to manoeuvre the ball in the middle of the park with Alvaro Rubio not being able to keep them in check alone.
Soon they conceded a goal when Kadhim played it for Radhi on the left. He made his way into the box and evaded Alvaro and Johnson with ease. Ralte came off his line to make himself big but Radhi centred it for Hammadi who had the simple task of slotting the ball into an empty net.
They could have scored a couple more and Bengaluru were struggling to come out of their own half. This was after Watson was taken off from midfield and deployed at the back.
Thereafter, Roca switched to a four-man defence again with the introduction of Salam for Rubio and Watson once again moved back in the midfield. Udanta won a free-kick and Watson’s delivery found Chekiyot Vineeth who fluffed his lines.
The point is that Bengaluru FC have struggled to adapt to the three-man defence model in big games against top sides. That ploy hasn’t worked for them for two seasons running. Perhaps the absence of Bose and Khabra had a telling effect on the ISL final.