<
>

Brave and adaptable: Des Buckingham moulds history makers Mumbai City in his image

Rahul Bheke became the first Indian to score in the AFC Champions League with his 75th minute winner for Mumbai City FC. Mumbai City FC

Seven points. Second place. Two historic wins.

For a team that came in with the tag of underdogs, Mumbai City have done remarkably well in their maiden AFC Champions League (ACL) campaign: that Des Buckingham's side leave Saudi Arabia with regrets of not qualifying for the knockouts is a testament to their performances in the six games in Group B.

Mumbai came into this ACL campaign with many fearing for a defence that looked... unpolished, to put it mildly, as the team finished an underwhelming fifth in the ISL. To top it off, their preparations were disrupted, with Brad Inman contracting COVID (twice), and Igor Angulo picking up an injury, restricting him to just 59 minutes against Al Shabab in six games of the group stage. The same Igor Angulo that in Des Buckingham's own words, 'scores one goal in every three attempts on target - that's the reason he's our leading goal-scorer.'

Most managers would bemoan the absence of their main goal-threat. Yet, in testing times, Buckingham saw opportunity. The Englishman has a love of the unknown, encouraging his side to embrace it, not fear it.

An "excited" Buckingham utilized the chance to test his young Mumbai squad with a different style of play, practiced and perfected over two friendlies prior to the ACL proper, in Abu Dhabi. "We set up slightly differently - which was a back four, with two holding midfielders in [Ahmed] Jahouh and Apuia, and a slightly different boxed midfield - which was to have two sixes and two 10s. Cassio was to come in and play one of those 10s alongside [Lallianzuala] Chhangte, who we moved inside. And then we adapted our forwards, which were Bipin [Singh] and young Vikram [Pratap Singh]. Instead of them playing wide like they normally would in a three, we brought them slightly narrow and played without a recognised centre forward."

For 45 minutes in their opening game against Al Shabab, Mumbai embraced the unknown, and troubled a side that many feel can go on to win the competition. The other 135 minutes against Al Shabab were a reality check, if a tad harsh, as Mumbai conceded 9 goals. Buckingham acknowledges the gulf that still has to be bridged, saying, "At this level, we need to setup and be very smart about how we defend because if we leave space or we leave gaps they're more than capable of taking advantage of those and they [Al Shabab] can be ruthless at this level."

While Al Shabab were ruthless, Air Force Club and Al Jazira were not. Mumbai took advantage, with a historic 2-1 win (the first by an Indian side in the competition) over Air Force Club, followed by a 0-1 defeat and 0-0 draw against Al Jazira. The two games against the latter proved to be the difference, as Buckingham noted, saying "We set up three different ways across five games in terms of our shape and structure. I actually sat in the press conference [after the 0-0 against Al Jazira] and said that we were disappointed not to come away with a win, rather than a draw. Throughout those four games in particular, I felt that the football that we've played that got us to the final third has been very good."

Had they won either of their games against Al Jazira, Mumbai City would have qualified for the knockouts of the ACL which would have been another step into the unknown - both for the club and Indian football. As it turned out, Mumbai ended their campaign with a 1-0 win over Air Force Club, as a defence that hitherto looked ungainly suddenly could be relied upon to defend a narrow lead.

It's progress, and a far cry from the streaky Mumbai City side we witnessed in the ISL, a reflection of the time spent training outside the bio-bubble in Abu Dhabi. Naysayers of Mumbai's achievements sweep it away by alluding to their financial muscle, being backed by the City Football Group, but it's easy to forget the players that populate the squad - a young side that lacks the experience of continental competition. Mumbai's youngsters, though, never looked overawed - with Apuia in particular, standing out as he controlled the midfield, even when the opposition contained players of the caliber of Ever Banega - who shared many a pitch with Leo Messi for Argentina.

Buckingham's CV is littered with success of working with the U-23 age group, and his pride in his youngsters is evident. "I've been so proud of those young players, in how they've gone up against some very good teams, some very good individuals within those teams, and been able to show what they can do. An example would be young Apuia - how he really took control of that midfield. But that's just one example of the eight or nine [young] players that we have here. We're very clear about what we would like from them, and then it's about providing a supportive and positive environment for them to go out and showcase what they can do. That's what been pleasing and I'm convinced they'll do that again."

Do that again in the next edition of the ISL, and Mumbai will fight with Hyderabad FC for the right to play in the AFC Champions League once more, should a league shield materialize. If an ISL with home and away games takes place next year, it will be another step into the unknown for Buckingham, but as ever, he will relish it. His attitude is trickling down into the football that his side is beginning to play - brave, adaptable and if everything goes right, successful. A trophy would be a welcome step back into the known.