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Beyond tiki-taka: The story behind Chennai City's remarkable turnaround

Edwin Vanspaul had a worrying question for technical consultant Akbar Nawas after Chennai City's penultimate I-League game last season.

"Tell us what to do, otherwise we are going to get relegated."

That penultimate game -- a 7-1 drubbing against East Bengal -- had left Chennai bottom of the table with 16 points. Churchill Brothers, above them, were on 17 points, with two games in hand. Chennai's last game was against league leaders Minerva Punjab.

Akbar told Edwin, a Tamil Nadu player who played on the wing last season and plays as a right wing-back now, not to worry. "It's okay," he said. "Be confident, be patient. We train, we train, we train. I'm sure we will stay in the league."

Chennai beat Minerva 2-1 in the last game and Edwin even provided the assist for the first goal. Churchill lost their last two matches and Chennai stayed in the league.

In March, Akbar was appointed head coach. Fast-forward eight months and Chennai are top of the league. Unbeaten after six matches, even after losing their best player -- Michael Soosairaj -- to the Indian Super League.

How did this happen?

'It's not about tiki-taka'

Akbar Nawas loves his football. He always, he says, wants his players "to elevate their understanding of the game". He tried doing that by focusing on the details. "Tactically many things needed to be taught in a short time," Akbar tells ESPN. "I started to devise training programmes to elevate their knowledge of the game. Teaching them the attacking part of the game alone can take one season and the defensive part can take another.

"It's not about tiki-taka, my philosophy is about building intelligent players to react to the dynamic situation that a game presents," he says.

Akbar is a student of the game. After an ACL injury at the age of 24, he hung up his boots to take up coaching. Since then, he has been to Ajax, FC Metz and Atletico Madrid to learn and watch their best practices. After a coaching career spanning 20 years, he has brought wisdom into the Chennai dressing room, as well as joy out of playing measured, attacking football. It is a style of play, he says, he had always loved as a player, "always wanting to go forward and score goals even though I was wing-back."

The runaway leaders this season, Chennai have a seven-point lead at the top, with 15 goals scored in the first six games. It is a style of play that has appealed to players like Edwin, who has been with the club for two years. "He says, 'I need players like you to go and control the game,'" Edwin says. "We (wing-backs) get the ball quite often and then lay it forward. We try to play fluid football."

'Whatever happens, keep the ball'

Akbar learnt the nuances of football education in his hometown, Singapore. He began with Slobodan Pavkovic, the current technical director of the Football Association of Singapore (FAS), working in training methodology and structure for close to six years. He met his "friend" Jordi Villa (his assistant at Chennai City now) in the Philippines, when he was coach of Global Cebu last year, sharing notes and discussions about training the Barcelona way, six months before he could attempt to fit it into his own training methodologies.

Repetition, Akbar says, is important in training. "Detail is also key to help players understand and improve." Example: he told his players to face the opponent's goal while receiving a pass from the back line, so they have better passing options. "Creating space for teammates as opposed to only creating space for himself," he says.

Video sessions were key for players to understand Akbar's meticulous methods. "He (Akbar) and Villa both showed us the Pep Guardiola formula," Edwin says. "So you have to play on the lines in tough situations. Whatever happens, you have to keep the ball. This is what they said. He makes us play in very tough situations in training, like four defenders with six attackers. We have to keep the ball whatever the situation. That's what his philosophy was. Whatever happens, try to see the free space. Find space, touch the ball and pass."

One would argue that you need technically gifted players to play such demanding, detailed football. During his first year at Bengaluru FC, Albert Roca had said if a team didn't have the players to play the passing game, they had to adapt and change things. Akbar has a different approach.

"If players are not good with the ball, we train them judiciously with repetition till they believe in themselves. It takes time and mistakes will happen. The question is, do you ditch it after the setback or persist? We chose to persist. Of course at this level, results are key but I have a good owner who understands what I'm trying to develop here."

For Chennai's players, losing the ball results in harsher punishment than losing a game. It happened in gameweek five when they lost the ball due to the high press and Aizawl almost scored in less than a minute. Chennai looked rattled and ditched their passing game in the first half, much to Akbar's dismay. "I was angry and had to push my team to play the way we wanted to," he says. Chennai went on to score two in the second half and won the game.

"If the defence loses the ball, we have to get the ball immediately after five to 10 seconds. My passing ability is high this year. This is what every footballer wants so I am enjoying this year," Edwin says.

'We did our homework last season itself'

Chennai's success story this season can be traced back to Akbar's smart recruitment of foreigners. Akbar and Jordi travelled to Spain and picked the four Spaniards who have elevated Chennai's game this season. Three of them -- Pedro Manzi, Sandro Rodriquez and Nestor Gordillo -- have been directly involved in 14 of the 15 goals they have scored.

"I think we did our homework for this season last season itself," says Rohit Ramesh, the team's owner. "The objective was not to watch a player on YouTube and pick him. We decided to invest wisely -- scout the players well even if it meant extending the trip by seven to 10 days."

The local players were scouted from the Chennai Football Association's Senior Division League, Chennai's local league. Local players like Edwin himself, Alexander Romario, Pravitto Raju, Charles Anandraj, Ajith Kamaraj and Ameerudeen Mohaideen have improved tremendously under Akbar. First they had to undergo a 10-day trial to prove they belonged in Akbar's team and could play the Akbar way.

The team that had felt like "different parts", according to Edwin, now feels like family. "Last time, we didn't have good communication with foreigners and all other players who are not playing. Now, they even made us speak in Spanish. Passalo is to pass the ball. Calma (calm) means keep the ball, play easy. Something like that," he laughs.

Edwin says he has worked with many famous "south Indian" coaches, but believes the overseas coaches have brought a more informal and accessible style. "They talk like a normal person. I share everything with him. Talk to him (Akbar) normally as a friend. Coaches like these can make the players so happy," Edwin adds.

The season has just begun, but Chennai look like the hungriest team in the league. Akbar is making the players tick and, hopefully for him, Edwin won't have to ask him about relegation anytime soon.