ATK Mohun Bagan are off to a flying start in the Indian Super League 2020 and the 3–5–2 of Antonio Habas has been a highlight with majority of the teams not finding it comfortable to break it down. In more recent games, ATK have experimented with a 4–4–2 as well as a 4–3–3 but it is with the 3–5–2 that they have seemed the most solid so far. We shall have a look at the same in a detailed manner with focus on the following aspects:
1. Formations & Preferred Starting XI
2. Approach in Possession
3. Approach without Possession
4. Weaknesses in ATK Mohun Bagan’s 3–5–2
5. Using the 3–3–3–1 to beat the 3–5–2
6. Possible Solutions for the opponent when in Possession
7. Possible Solutions for the opponent when not in Possession
Formation & Preferred XI with 3–5–2
Let us start with the most basic details of ATK Mohun Bagan. As you can see, this has been their preferred eleven, a very typical 3–5–2 formation with a back-three of Pritam-Tiri-Sandesh, Prabhir & Subhashish as wing-backs, a midfield-trio of McHugh as the ‘6’ with any two out of Jayesh Rane & Javi Hernandez as advanced midfielders, then followed by two strikers out of which one is always Roy Krishna and the other being any one out of Williams, Manvir Singh or Brad Inman.
Other central-midfield options include: Edu Garcia, Glan Martins & Michael Soosairaj. All of these players have been tried out in the first 4 games in an attempt to figure out the best combination. But it looks like Javi-McHugh-Edu has been their best midfield till now.
Goalkeeper: Arindam Bhattacharya has started all games for ATK Mohun Bagan and he has done a good job with 17 saves from 7 games. He also has the most cleansheets in the league this season with 5.
Approach in Possession
ATK Mohun Bagan’s shape becomes a 3–1–4–2 when in possession with the three central defenders spreading apart wide and the wing-backs pushing higher up the field. McHugh stays deep along with the central defenders with the advanced midfielders (Javi & Rane) occupying more attacking positions. Rane generally offers support to McHugh with Javi pushing higher up. The two strikers are responsible for depth and they try occupying the opponent’s central defenders.
On contrary to what most believe, ATK Mohun Bagan don’t depend entirely on counter-attacking football and attacking only after absorbing pressure from the opponent. This season, they have been proactive in attack, trying to make use of the best abilities in the team.
Tiri: The Playmaker
The most important player when ATK Mohun Bagan are in possession is Tiri. The central defender is single-handedly responsible for progressing the ball from first-third to the next two-thirds of the pitch. He has got one of the best passing range among central defenders in the Indian Super League.
Despite being solid defenders, Pritam (RCB) & Sandesh (LCB) are not most comfortable when it comes to progressing play into advanced areas and they entirely depend on Tiri for this job. Tiri is capable of playing the ball to any area of the pitch in any angle, whether its short or long or between the lines or directly to the striker, he is a complete package in passing. Here is a 1-minute video showcasing his passing from this season:
As you may see, the others around Tiri (Pritam, Sandesh, McHugh) are there to attract the opponent’s pressure or move the opponent to one side and set up the team before Tiri decides to progress the ball into the last two phases of the pitch. A very common pattern you may see is Tiri’s long diagonal ball to right wing-back Prabir Das as he has got a good acceleration, pace and decent ball control and is a major source of attacking for ATK Mohun Bagan.
Central midfielders move wide and strikers drop in
Another common way of progressing the ball from first phase to the next two phases is by using the movement of the advanced central midfielders and the two strikers, basically: Rane, Javi, Roy Krishna & Edu Garcia. These are the four central players in the attacking phases of the pitch and hence, a lot depends on their behaviour to progress the ball centrally.
It is a fast movement but try noticing what happens here: As Pritam (RCB) receives the ball, look at the central areas where central-midfielders Edu Garcia (№10) & Glan Martins (№14) make runs away from the central areas to create space for Roy Krishna to drop in and receive.
For better understanding, let us have a closer look at what is happening here via this image. The two central midfielders are usually marked by the two central midfielders of the opponent who are in a 4–2–3–1 or 4–4–2, which is usually the formation when not in possession for many teams in the ISL. So once the two central midfielders get the attention of the opponent’s central midfielders, they move wider towards the wing to pull the opponents out of position and create a gap in front of the defence.
Dark Red: ATK Mohun Bagan & Orange: Opponent
Once that gap is created, there is space for the strikers to drop in and receive the pass from Pritam, Tiri or Sandesh. This is common especially with Roy Krishna as he shows movement both ways: Dropping deep into space or running behind the opponent’s defensive line as well.
Here is a look at Roy Krishna’s touchmap in ISL 2020–21
(Data till first 4 games of ATK):
Viz Courtesy: @DrMukherjeeS on Twitter
The blue circles represent the passes he has successfully received in ISL so far while the red circles represent passes attempted to receive but failed. You can see many successful & unsuccessful passes which deep in midfield as well while only one pass he has received inside the box.
Wing-Backs connection with Central-Midfielders
As with any of the 3–5–2 formation, the wing-backs play a very important role for ATK Mohun Bagan as well. We saw how Tiri tries to find the wing-backs in the final-phase with his direct, vertical passing. If that option is not possible, ATK try to move the ball into the second-phase of the pitch into their central-midfielders. However, the central midfielders don’t offer much verticality or penetration into the final-third. They are mostly positioned in wide half-spaces and then prefer to play combinations with the wing-backs.
From an aerial view: The central-midfielders are usually in the half-space corridor, wide enough to form a triangle with the central defender and the wing-back. The central-midfielders usually act as connectors between the central-defenders and the wing-backs to progress the ball into the final phase.
Among the wing-backs, Prabir Das is much more attacking as compared to Subashish on the left. Because of this, the right central-midfielder is usually holding back to cover for Prabir. However on the left, the central-midfielder is a lot more attacking and makes runs out-wide or behind the defence and into the penalty area.
As you can see, the central-midfielders have a good number of passes into the final-phase of the pitch but not many into the penalty area. But the wing-backs Prabir & Subashish have a combined total of 23 pass attempts into the penalty area as compared to all the central-midfielders, who don’t even have 10 passes into penalty area together.
Note: Prabir Das also has 6 touches in the penalty area in this ISL which is more than any defender or midfielder of ATK Mohun Bagan
Approach when not in Possession
ATK Mohun Bagan are in a 5–3–2 formation without the ball and are usually in a high to medium block with the two-strikers and the three midfielders maintaining a compactness in the middle. They mostly try to stop the opponent playing out from the back smoothly and start pressing the opponent in the attacking third of the pitch.
High press on the flanks
Here is a sample snapshot of how they apply pressure very high up the pitch when their opponent tries to play out from the back. Many teams in the ISL use the right-back and left-back frequently during build-up in the first phase of the pitch. Since ATK Mohun Bagan have an extra defender at the back, they are able to create problems when their opponent does this. ATK send their left wing-back or right wing-back all the way up the pitch to close down the opponent’s full-back while the other four defenders slide across the pitch to maintain a back-four.
As you can see in the image above, right wing-back Prabir Das would go and close down the opponent’s left-back while the other defenders slide across the pitch and maintain defensive balance. The same would happen on the other flank with left wing-back Subashish closing down the opponent’s right-back and the other defenders sliding towards the right. Once the opponent’s full-backs are closed down, they find it difficult to play it back to the central-defender as well because ATK’s two strikers directly mark the opponent’s central-defenders. This is true especially with Roy Krishna as he is very quick and aggressive in his pressing.
Pressure in central areas in 2nd phase of the pitch
This has forced opponents to use faster passing and channel it in the central areas to progress the ball quickly. Once the opponents are forced to play through the centre, ATK’s three central-midfielders maintain their narrow shape and go for high pressure.
Here is another snapshot trying to show what happens usually. The opponent’s full-backs are always kept at a close distance by ATK’s wing-backs Prabir Das & Subashish. Once opponents are forced to try central routes to progress the ball, ATK Mohun Bagan’s two strikers and three central-midfielders try to form a high-pressure zone between the five of them. This is to stop the opponent from using his central-midfielders as any pass which enters into this zone would mean rapid high pressing from the five ATK Mohun Bagan players (2 strikers + 3 central-midfielders)
I have slowed down the clipping for you to be able to carefully observe the same here. Odisha try to move the ball higher up the pitch using their central-midfielder and you can see the pressure from the five ATK Mohun Bagan players (2 strikers + 3 central-midfielders).
Note: Try noticing how the three midfielders of ATK Mohun Bagan are very high up and narrow as well to try to squeeze the space for Odisha’s central midfield
This is the shape we were discussing earlier on as ATK Mohun Bagan wait for the cue to apply high pressure, which is a pass by the opponent to their central-midfielder. Here is what happens after the pass is made by the opponent into the central zone:
As you can see in the snapshot above, there are five ATK Mohun Bagan players (the 2 strikers + 3 central-midfielders). You would also notice how the five players are just meters away from each other while trying to press.
This is evident even in terms of numbers as McHugh’s aggression has led him to have the highest number of fouls in the ISL this season with 20 in 7games. He is also among the top three for number of tackles in the ISL this season with over 45.
The Long Route taken by ATK’s opponents
The third alternative for opponents to attack ATK Mohun Bagan would be to take the long route, which is to hoof the ball over the top to by pass the five central players and directly challenge their back-three of Pritam-Tiri-Jhingan. This is a very uncertain way of attacking as a lot depends on whether the aerial battle or the second ball is won by the attacker against that back-three. The three central-defenders of ATK Mohun Bagan average almost 70% success in aerial duels. (Data till first 4 games)
But if the opponents aren’t able to cope with the pressure from ATK Mohun Bagan on the flanks and in the centre, then they choose to go long and lose possession very often. Hence, this has been favourable to ATK Mohun Bagan in the five games so far and if we have to summarize their off-the-ball approach in one line then we could say…
Stay compact with the two strikers and three midfielders, protect the centre while push wing-backs high up to close down opponent’s full-backs and force them into taking risks and win back possession
Weaknesses in ATK Mohun Bagan:
a) Over-Reliance on Tiri:
This has been a pretty obvious factor when we look at the ATK Mohun Bagan’s ball progression from the first phase into advanced phases of the pitch. Except for Tiri’s vertical or long-passing, they are left with no solid plan to progress the ball. His absence against Jamshedpur showed clearly as ATK struggled to create chances from open-play. Whenever Tiri is given time & space on the ball, he is able to scan for the best possible option and execute the pass as well.
b) Lack of Variety in Final-Third:
Again, this point is in connection with the previous one. ATK Mohun Bagan are limited in terms of having variety and different dimensions in attack. A major source of creating chances is from the flanks using their wing-backs. You may remember the numbers about passes into penalty area, which was dominated by Prabir Das & Subashish and the midfielders’ contribution being significantly less. ATK have scored a number of goals against the run of play, from set-pieces or individual brilliance. The chances created from open-play have been quite limited.
Out of Possession
a) Narrow First-Line Press:
The first-line of pressure from ATK Mohun Bagan is of the two strikers. It is always difficult to cover the entire width of the pitch with two players. Hence if ATK’s opponents are able to have enough width while playing out from the back, then it is possible to stretch the two strikers wide and open up space to progress the ball further.
b) Space between Defence & Midfield:
We had seen earlier how the midfield-trio pushes up and maintains a narrow compact pressing trap in the central area. As the three-midfielders push higher up, there is space created between the defence and midfield as the three central-defenders stay with the attackers. Ideally, they are supposed to be pushing up along with the three midfielders to avoid this space getting created but often not the case.
Here is an example:
The red-shaded area is the space which gets created when ATK Mohun Bagan’s first two lines of pressure are beaten. Odisha, ideally should have had players in this area to take advantage of the situation but as you can see, they don’t overload in this area and instead go for a shot and the attack ends in a goal-kick
Possible Solutions for ATK Mohun Bagan’s opponents:
A possible solution for an opponent might be to alter their shape a little bit to take advantage of the inherent weaknesses in ATK Mohun Bagan. The reason being that facing ATK’s 3–5–2 is going to be an entirely different challenge as it is a team with a completely different shape, structure and approach than the others in the ISL. Hence switching to a back-three can provide the opponent with many advantages in terms of numerical superiority in key areas.
Now that we also had a look at the major weaknesses in ATK Mohun Bagan’s 3–5–2, which is a lack of width in first line of pressure and space between the lines of defence and midfield, a change in shape can allow the opponent to make the most out of these two weaknesses. Let us have a look at how it can work:
Splitting ATK’s first-line of pressure
Switching to a back-three provides a direct 3v2 advantage in the first-phase of the pitch. Till now, ATK Mohun Bagan’s two strikers have been able to press the opponent’s centre-backs directly man-to-man and also ensuring shadow-cover on the opponent’s central midfielders. This can be overcome comfortably with three players at the back who are positioned away from each other across the width of the pitch.
When ATK Mohun Bagan were up against teams of back-four, we saw how Prabir Das & Subashish could go all the way up the pitch and close down the opponent’s full-backs. But with a back-three supported by two wing-backs, there would be no way to close down the right and left center-back without losing organization.
As you can see, ATK Mohun Bagan’s wing-backs would be occupied by the opponents’ own wing-backs. It would also be risky for ATK’s central-midfielders to come up the pitch to close down the right & left central-defenders as the opponent’s attacking midfielders in half-spaces would be let free.
This already makes it difficult for ATK Mohun Bagan as they would be forced to move away from their usual high-press in the central areas and rather sit deeper to absorb pressure. There is a lot of possibility for ATK Mohun Bagan to be pulled out of position in case they choose to apply high pressure because of the numbers advantage.
Utilizing the Space between Defence & Midfield
While this picture was already posted a little earlier while explaining about the shape, I would like to bring it back to your attention to focus on what happens in the final-phase of the pitch. We had seen earlier how ATK Mohun Bagan have a tendency to leave out space in between midfield & defence. No team in the ISL were visibly trying to take advantage of this space by overloading this space and the right & left half-spaces.
Overloading these areas with players who have positional intelligence could cause a lot of trouble for ATK Mohun Bagan when they are trying to defend. If ATK want to be careful, it can result in their three central-midfielders getting pinned back in front of the defence, which would allow the opponent to keep control of the ball, maintain possession and break them down eventually.
Practical Examples of ball-progression using the 3–3–3–1
From the Right-Flank
In the above snapshots, you can see how the 3–3–3–1 formation could provide a numerical advantage without taking too many risks. The right central-defender can play it to the right wing-back who would attract pressure from ATK Mohun Bagan’s left wing-back. That is a space that can be utilized by the opponent’s right attacking-midfielder by playing a pass directly or a quick combination with the other attacking-midfielder or the ‘6’.
P.S. — The same move can be replicated on the left-flank as well
From the Central Channel
This can be another possible move when the opponent want to take the central channel. Once the two strikers are split wide apart, the ‘6’ can drop little deeper to receive the pass from the central-defender. Once he receives and makes a turn, he can try to connect with the three attacking-midfielders behind ATK Mohun Bagan’s midfield. With quick passing, intelligent movement and the right body positions to receive the passes, it is possible to slice through ATK’s pressure from the centre itself.
From the Left-Flank
Yet another way to play out from the back but this time, it is a move from the left-flank. First, the right & left central-defenders can split wide (as you can see in the first picture). Then if the left central-defender receives the ball, he can carry the ball forward till he attracts pressure from ATK Mohun Bagan’s midfielder. Then one of the attacking-midfielders can make himself available to receive the ball directly from the left central-defender
P.S. — The same move can be replicated on the right-flank as well
Possible Solutions for ATK Mohun Bagan’s opponents:
When not in Possession
The 3–3–3–1 formation can fall back into a 5–4–1 with the diamond in midfield being retained. The only difference would be the wing-backs falling back to join the three central-defenders and form a back-five. However, there will be some defensive diligence required from the three attacking-midfielders of the opponent.
Just like a variety of advantages that the opponent could gain while in possession, this shape will provide with them with some key advantages when they are without the ball. Let us have a look at how:
Basic Numerical Advantage in the final-phase
The most important advantage here would be the 3v2 that the opponent can enjoy against ATK Mohun Bagan’s two strikers. We saw earlier how ATK’s strikers, especially Roy Krishna tends to drop deep into space to receive the ball. In case of three central-defenders, one defender can follow Roy Krishna even when he drops deep without worrying about a space being created as there would be four defenders to compensate. This can allow the opponent to mark Roy Krishna tightly and not let him any time or space on the ball.
Similarly, we saw how ATK Mohun Bagan’s central-midfielders tend to go out wide to connect with their wing-backs and pull out the opponent’s central midfielders into wide areas, along with them. This usually opened up space in front of the defence as many teams used two central-midfielders to screen their defence. In this case, even if two midfielders of the opponent follow ATK’s midfielders into wide areas, there would still be a ‘6’ in front of the defence.
Possible Issue with a back-four
With a flat back-four defence, one major problem apart from the central-midfielders getting pulled out of position happens when ATK Mohun Bagan’s wing-backs are in possession. Here is a sample when ATK’s left wing-back receives the ball. If the opponent’s right winger fails to track back, it is easy for their opponent’s right-back to get attracted to close down the left wing-back. When the right-back is pulled out of position, there is a space created for the ATK striker to run into. This can happen very less when it’s a back-three supported by two wing-backs as the wing-backs would be in charge of ATK’s wing-backs, avoiding confusion.
Closing down the Ball-Progressor in the back-three
It would be absolutely important to close down ATK’s Tiri when they are in possession as they are heavily reliant to progress the ball forward. While many teams have been hesitant to apply heavy pressure on Tiri, it would be interesting to see what ATK do with their play-making central-defender under constant pressure. Without any doubts or second thoughts, the opponent’s striker may need to close down Tiri as quickly as possible and not allow him any time or space on the ball.
In case of ATK Mohun Bagan, it is Tiri. In case of another team, there would be another defender who will be in charge of ball-progression owing to his passing-range being a notch above the others. He could be in the centre of the three or the right center-back or the left center-back. Who so ever it is, he needs to be given no time or space when he is in possession.
Even if Pritam (RCB) or Jhingan (LCB) are allowed a few more seconds on the ball than usual, it would still be okay as they aren’t the best of passers. But despite that if Pritam or Jhingan need to be closed down, it would still be possible with a slight rotation.
The attacking-midfielder on Pritam’s side can go to apply pressure on Pritam while the other two midfielders of the opponent can slide across and take up the marking duties of the other players. This is the advantage of having three central-midfielders in front of defence as compared to two.
Now let us have a look at other situations for example, Pritam (RCB) passes it to Prabir (RWB):
Here ATK’s right wing-back Prabir could be in possession but the opponent can still remain well-positioned as the left wing-back would directly close down Prabir with one attacking midfielder marking McHugh and Angulo marking Tiri.
The same could be repeated on ATK’s left-flank as well: Tiri & McHugh tightly marked with Jhingan having space and time on the ball but no promising passing option available.
So to summarize the entire defensive strategy in one or two lines, we could say…
Allow 2v4 disadvantage in the first-phase of the pitch with Angulo & one attacking midfielder marking tightly on Tiri & McHugh while Pritam & Sandesh receive time & space on the ball. Enjoy 8v6 advantage in own half with 3 midfielders and 5 defenders taking care of ATK’s remaining players