Sunil Chhetri might be the face of Bengaluru FC, but much of their recent success has been built on what goes on before the ball reaches their charismatic striker.
For every Chhetri goal, Udanta dribble, or blistering Ashique Kuruniyan run, there's a towering header from Juanan, a crunching tackle from Erik Paartalu or someone getting trampled over somewhere on the pitch by Dimas Delgado. Most BFC games feature more from the latter collection, and most teams tend to get overwhelmed by how good they are at it.
ATK Mohun Bagan aren't most teams. On Monday, Antonio Habas' side schooled BFC in their own modus operandi, and did it without making it look like a wrestling match.
Habas' own brand of football has been the subject of much debate. His team rarely comes out to entertain. They come out to win, and they're really good at it. But, in the process they almost grind the game to a halt. They sit back, wait for the opposition to open gaps and then pounce to go ahead. Then they sit back again, and rarely show any desire to stand back up.
Monday was different.
While the scoreline was a familiar, '1-0 to the ATKMB', the execution was quite un-ATKMB-like. Not only did they outmuscle and out-roughhouse BFC all over the pitch, every time they got the ball in the opposition half, they moved it quickly, incisively, and with the sole purpose of finding a goal.
But the most surprising part? They continued to do it even after going up.
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Edu Garcia, at the heart of the majority of ATKMB's build-up play, epitomised their mastery in both aspects of the game. Every time he received the ball near the halfway line, he'd be hounded by at least two BFC players, but somehow always found a way past them, using his dribbling and upper body strength with equal effectiveness. "We like to study our opponents both offensively and defensively before each game," Garcia said after the game. There was never any doubt about their ability to neautralise their opponent's threat. But this performance was proof that they're also capable of doing much more in the opponent's half.
For BFC meanwhile, the signs of regression have been there for a while, but this was arguably the first time that all of their flaws - often papered over by moments of individual brilliance or opponents' weaknesses -- have been exposed so thoroughly this season. They simply couldn't match ATKMB's intensity in any area: Delgado and Paartalu, normally so devastatingly imposing, either lost tussles or fouled in frustration. Chhetri, so deceptively strong in one-on-ones and aerial duals, was outjumped and shrugged off. Udanta was so invisible he was subbed at half time. Deshorn Brown rarely saw the ball and Cleiton Silva just kept running into a Sandesh Jhingan-shaped wall, without so much as making a dent.
So comfortable were ATKMB, in fact, that Pronay Halder did not commit a single foul in the 73 minutes he spent on the pitch. And that Arindam Bhattacharya sleepwalked through the game, getting so bored at one point that he decided to pass it straight back to a BFC player from a goal-kick. And it still remained 1-0.
"Today, the team had personality to win," Habas said after the game. That behavioural change, the confidence was on display in nearly every single ATKMB player, perhaps none more so than Manvir Singh, a player reborn this season.
Playing on the right wing instead of the usual left, Manvir was a constant threat all evening, and particularly a nightmare for left-back Rahul Bheke. If he had been a little more clinical in front of goal, the winning margin would have been a little more comfortable.
Perhaps with players like Manvir, Habas finally has the option to explore different tactics. Perhaps it was the return to form of David Williams, the goalscorer, that transformed their style. Perhaps BFC played right into their hands. Perhaps it was a one-off. What is clear though is that their loss against Jamshedpur a fortnight ago was indeed a one-off. And no matter which ATKMB show up, they are still the team to beat.