Indian footballers have improved their passing accuracy and possession of the ball, besides becoming more technical, chief coach Igor Stimac has said after India progressed to the third and final round of the World Cup 2022 and AFC Asian Cup 2023 qualifiers.
"We have improved our passing accuracy and possession. We have become more technical. I really am grateful that the players did their best out there on the pitch. But we all need to understand that it takes a lot of work and patience to do this," Stimac was quoted as saying by the All India Football Association (AIFF) website.
"I said when I joined two years ago, that there will be some suffering on the way, and I stand by it. That's the only way we can go through this transformation. I was brought in to change the game from a defensive, counter-attacking style to a more progressive version of football that involves us improving our passing and having more control of the game," the 53-year-old coach said.
India finished at the third position in Group E with seven points from eight matches, and progressed to the third and final round of qualifiers. They won only one match, lost three, and drew four games. They scored six goals and conceded seven to end up with a negative goal difference.
Stimac said that one of the biggest reasons why he took up the India job was because of the challenge of turning a defensive, counter-attacking unit into one that plays football that is more technical.
"I took this job for one simple reason. One of the biggest challenges in football is to transform a zonal defending and counter-attacking team. The first step is discipline in zonal defence, and we have shown that," he said.
"We've had some issues due to injuries to players like (Sandesh) Jhingan towards the start of the qualifiers. But you also need to keep in mind that we only played two home games, technically, facing the Asian champions [Qatar] twice -- that too at their own den -- Doha. We did well, all things considered."
Stimac has brought a lot of fresh blood into the team in two years, and amongst them, he feels that midfielder Brandon Fernandes stands out as one who has helped with this transformation into a more technical team.
"We have had many new midfielders like Sahal Abdul Samad, Liston Colaco, and Lallainzuala Chhangte. Anirudh Thapa was already there in the national team when I had come in. It takes time for these guys to settle, and they all have their strengths and their limits, so we need to be realistic as well," he stressed.
"But if you see Brandon, he has done very well -- he is technically educated, and provides a lot of passes. He's also great to have for the set-pieces as well."
Some players have remained a constant, much like a backbone, in the India starting XI. Stimac believes that these players, despite some of them being seniors, have improved their game over the last two years.
"What I am proud of is that a lot of players are better than what they were two years ago. Sunil Chhetri is better than two years back, and so is Gurpreet Singh Sandhu," he said.
"Sandesh is twice as good today, than what he was two years back. He is one of the best defenders in Asia. With a bit more work on a few things, he can become the best."
Stimac said that there was need to strive constantly for improvement.
"We also need to keep pushing, keep speeding. The process will go on now, with the work AIFF has done with the Baby Leagues, and Grassroots football. It will take maybe 10-12 years to take effect, but it will happen."