In Habas we trust? No longer. A bizarre end to ATKMB's one constant

ATK Mohun Bagan parted ways with Antonio Habas after a mediocre start to the 2021-22 Indian Super League season. Sandeep Shetty/Focus Sports/ ISL

"The match was... horrible. Horrible. We are in a bad moment, now. It is clear. We lost [our] identity. We have to recover immediately if you want to [make it to] the playoffs. The players have to know that. [If we don't] recover our identity, our idea, our proposal of play, it's impossible."

Six games. Two wins, two draws, two losses. 13 goals scored, 13 conceded. You could sense Antonio Habas' frustration was building up. For a man who made a career out of killing games 1-0, by forcing play into the tight boxes he wanted it to be packaged in, the end-to-end chaos of the past six games must have been a torment. So you could see the feverish rant about 'loss of identity' coming a mile off after the manic 3-3 draw against Bengaluru FC. This season, Habas' team has been extremely un-Habas-like.

What you couldn't really see coming, though, was the blandly worded press release on Saturday -- "ATK Mohun Bagan has released Antonio Habas as the head coach."

Why had it come to this so soon?

Habas has a storied history with the current club's management (and one half of its name). He is the only coach to win the ISL more than once in its short history, and the two times he did it were with previous iterations of this club. In 2014, he lifted the inaugural trophy with Atletico de Kolkata. In 2019-20 he did it with ATK, the season before Mohun Bagan came on board.

Last season, he lost out on the double by the proverbial whisker - losing out in the league stage by virtue of head-to-head against Mumbai City and a tense playoff final 2-1 against the same opponents. He was successful, he was trusted. When he said he didn't want any friendlies ahead of both this season and last, the club didn't question him, even though they were the only ones who didn't play any. What, then, had changed over the past six games that neither side felt it was in their best interests to continue such a happy association?

The key may very well lie in the off-season.

Habas lost Sandesh Jhingan to the lure of European football, while Arindam Bhattacharya and Javi Hernandez were let go. That's your primary centre-back, goalkeeper and trusted playmaker. In the topsy turvy world of Indian football, though, that's not much turnover at all and he was compensated by the club poaching Amrinder Singh and Hugo Boumous from his main title rivals. Big, big purchases. Add to that the excitement of Liston Colaco and the Finnish international Joni Kauko, and expectations never dipped. If anything, they were raised. This was a squad that was not just set up to win, but win well. The best Habas teams never used to bother about the latter.

It has to be said that it started well. Before the ISL kicked off, they played in the AFC Cup - where they coasted through the group stage with Boumous showing real signs of creating a sensational link-up with main man Roy Krishna.

Then came the knockouts, and FC Nasaf of Uzbekistan. Habas' men were chased out of the Markaziy stadium, 6-0 a kindness. It was the third week of September. The team didn't kick a competitive ball till the ISL kicked off in the third week of November. Requests to field a team, even if reserve, at the two oldest footballing competitions in the country - the Durand Cup and the Calcutta Football League went unanswered.

They showed no sign of rust early on, but the un-Habas-ness of the team couldn't have been starker. They swatted aside Kerala Blasters and then East Bengal with a ferocity that we were not used to seeing. They played with an ersatz totaalvoetbal vibe, players inter-changing positions at ease, everyone flooding forward at every opportunity. Hugo Boumous was running the games, but he didn't study the game at the Habas school of let-us-take-no-risk, stay-in-your-position.

And then Mumbai happened.


Never before had a Habas side conceded more than three against Indian opposition. And that itself had happened just three times: ATK 1 - 3 FC Pune City in 2014 (when he won the league), Chennaiyin 3 - 0 ATK in 2015 (in the first leg of a semifinal he lost 4-2), and ATK 1 - 3 Chennaiyin in 2020 (Habas reversed the scoreline in the final that year).

Against Mumbai City, he was lucky the damage was limited to five. In a league that has always been wildly unpredictable, Habas' teams were the constant. You could almost dictate what was going to happen before they even stepped on to the pitch. Sit back low. Use wingbacks for attacking and defensive width. Feed the main man up top as quickly and directly as possible. Sit back some more. But this... There was no template for what we were seeing from Habas' men this season.

Schooled by Des Buckingham's side, they lurched around for the next three games. They were outplayed and outfought in the defeat to Jamshedpur. They barely hung on in the draw against Chennaiyin. Lastly, the madness of the 3-3 against a Bengaluru side who have had a woeful start to the season themselves.

Even worse than the results, it was the performances that grated. You always saw Habas animated on the sidelines, demanding more, but you never saw him asking his players to keep their heads up. You never saw a Habas XI with slumped shoulders on the pitch. They may bore you into submission, they may play some terribly negative football at times, but they never stop fighting. This one seemed to, at the first sign of trouble. Loss of identity, clear as day.

Habas has been a divisive figure in a club that's fighting itself. The management, led by owner Sanjiv Goenka, see this as a merger between two companies they own. Mohun Bagan fans, though, maintain that no company can ever really own them. For many of the latter, Habas is an emblem of the corporate system, an ATK guy if ever there was one. His preferred style of play and snubbing of Mohun Bagan club facilities last season didn't help one bit. Meanwhile, for ATK fans, he will always be their champion.

It is such a divided legacy that it is mirrored in the wider Indian football ecosystem. Detested for his ultra-pragmatism, or adored for his pure ability to win trophies. Brushed aside as a man elevated to champion-status by the quality of his team, or praised as the master tactician who knew how to grind out win-after-win. Hate him or love him, though, it was impossible to ignore him.

He may return to the ISL, of course. His only stint outside the ATK ecosystem saw him finish sixth, outside the playoff spots, in 2016. He may want to prove - to doubters, to himself - that he can find more success in Indian football yet. For now, though, he will have to accept this most unpredictable departure in this most bizarre, Un-Habas, of seasons.