Unpredictable, chaotic, fun: ATK Mohun Bagan 2.0 are scary

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You thought you knew Antonio Habas, didn’t you? Years in the ISL and you just knew how his teams would set-up, just how they would play. That solid back three. Promising young wingers converted to hardy wingbacks, emphasis very much on back. Get a goal and then just sit. Or just sit, goal or not. You were joking on twitter, weren’t you…. “Ha ha, let’s just file the report now: ‘1-0 to the Roy Krishna’. Why wait for the match to be played and all? Ha ha”

Yeah, well.

The ATK Mohun Bagan of 2021-22 is a different beast. Roy Krishna continues to do Roy Krishna things, but nothing else is the same. Liston Colaco works hard down his flank, but he’s closer to the opposition penalty box than the halfway line most of the time. Ditto Manvir Singh on the other wing. Joni Kauko, nominally a central midfielder, spends most of his time at the edge of the opposition box. Deepak Tangri is a centre-back at times, a central midfielder at others. Hugo Boumous does whatever he wants, whenever he wants.

The old Habas would have spontaneously combusted at Boumous’ lack of discipline, Habas 2.0 encourages it. The whole thing is properly disconcerting. What, for example, is Pritam Kotal — who starts as a right centre back — doing overlapping Manvir Singh to provide crosses for Krishna from the byline? Why does Krishna pop up deep in midfield and thread though passes to Manvir and Kauko? If Amrinder Singh does a Rene Higuita now, you’d just nod along and say ‘Oh, yeah. Of course. What took him so long?’

Evidently, instead of sulking and hunkering down after the humbling in the AFC Cup, Habas spent the autumn taking a sledgehammer to his plan A. By the time he was done, what was left was this chaotic, utterly fun take on totaalvoetbal. The team is remarkably fluid now. 3-4-2-1 becomes a 4-2-3-1 turns into a 4-1-1- 4 flows back into a 3-5-2 with a smoothness that is unnerving. It’s early days, of course, but from what we’ve seen, the attackers seem to be having fun and yet the defenders are rarely isolated. That’s a rare, rather special thing.

Off the field, ATK Mohun Bagan have been in turmoil — the question of identity and history and emblems and values debated fiercely. Habas has insulated himself from all that, built on his old side, identified his one glaring weakness and went about fixing it in a most unorthodox manner.

Last season, it took them seven games to score seven goals. It’s taken them two this time. They were too good for Kerala Blasters on opening day last Friday, and they were way too good for old rivals SC East Bengal this Saturday. The big derby was more of a glorified training session of attack v defence than anything else. Where Habas has been able to shut off the noise from outside, Manolo Diaz’s team appear to mirror the almighty mess they were in this summer. On the field, Diaz’s men were barely able to keep up with the eternal rival. ATK or not, that must hurt the millions in red and gold ever so much. For now, though, all they can do is watch and wonder and hope someone can stop this maroon and green carnival of chaos.

It’s not going to be easy. Everyone’s been conditioned that Habas has his sides play one particular way, there have been plans drawn up based on that idea, an entire off-season spent seeking a way to break down the fortress. None of that matters now. This is not that team. They were always dangerous but their unpredictability makes them exponentially more terrifying.

There is still a long way to go, a packed schedule and some ambitious sides (hello, Mumbai City) to face, but who in this division can actually stop ATK Mohun Bagan steamrolling their way to glory?



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