After 116 matches that involved 341 goals, the Indian Super League final comes down to two old foes, in the form of Bengaluru FC and ATK Mohun Bagan. Right from the former's inception, the pair have contested titles amongst each other, with no love lost between the fanbases of both sides as they clash in the ISL final.
There's already plenty of ink about to be spilled on the narrative battle between them, but ATK Mohun Bagan vs Bengaluru FC on the football pitch is a story in itself. When quizzed if the game was a psychological battle rather than a tactical one, BFC boss Simon Grayson quipped, "No. It's what happens on the pitch, not between your ears."
Here's how that tactical battle might take place:
How ATK Mohun Bagan can maximize their threat
To no one's surprise, Juan Ferrando is set to rely upon Dimi Petratos once more, but has a bit of a quandary. Petratos loves to drop deep and begin attacking moves, which would have been perfect for a fully-firing Liston Colaco and Manvir Singh. The Indian duo have struggled for goals this season, with the former facing a battle to start. It's thus become imperative that Petratos is on the end of things too, if ATKMB are to score.
Hugo Boumous's penchant for driving runs might prove crucial here, especially if he's required to drop deeper while beginning ATKMB's attacking phase of play. It can draw defenders too him, creating space for his teammates, and if Ferrando instructs his forward line to stretch the pitch on either touchline, offers space for Petratos to burst into centrally as well. It places quite the burden on Boumous' ability to shrug off defenders, but when he's in the mood, that's almost a certainty.
Another avenue of transition that ATKMB have exploited recently is long balls into the channels, especially when opposition fullbacks/wingbacks are caught high up. It can work on Manvir Singh's side of the pitch, with Petratos likely to burst beyond him. However, the opposite wing doesn't require as much cover, with Liston/Kiyan Nassiri not suited to holding the long ball down - thus BFC can concentrate defending this on Manvir's side alone, which can make things predictable.
How Bengaluru FC can stop ATK Mohun Bagan's threat
Simon Grayson has relied on his three-man defence during BFC's renaissance, and he's unlikely to change things. It's refreshingly uncomplicated, with Sandesh Jhingan, Aleksandar Jovanovic and Bruno Ramires only tasked with defending and not fancy notions of bringing the ball out of play under pressure. If in doubt, clear it out. Between the three of them, they should have enough to suffocate the wily Petratos, although Bruno might require support from Naorem Roshan Singh in dealing with Manvir. Prabir Das can bomb forward with glee, especially if BFC are gambling that Liston's lack of form continues. However, if Kiyan starts in his place, it could require Prabir to mark him quite tightly as Nassiri's ability to drift into dangerous spaces is quite underrated.
This final could hinge on Suresh Singh Wangjam's proficiency at snuffing out the opposition #10. He was incredible at it over both legs against Greg Stewart, although the Scot did have his moments. Boumous is a similar battle, but Suresh's proclivity to getting under the skin of the players he marks tightly might put the ATKMB creator off his game. Javi Hernandez and Rohit Kumar are both adept at dropping back and helping out, which ought to cover BFC's issues in defence.
How Bengaluru FC can maximize their threat
Sometimes, the obvious answers are the best answers. BFC have based their run to the final on sitting back and countering with speed, and in Sivasakthi Narayanan and Roy Krishna, they have arguably the best weapons in the league for that tactic. The duo have bags of speed and caused ATKMB plenty of problems in their most recent encounter. Vishal Kaith might be required to channel his inner Manuel Neuer and smother Siva if he bursts past the backline once more.
Yet, Siva isn't just the tip of the arrow anymore. Like he showed against Mumbai in the semifinals, the youngster can beat a marker and provide, assisting Javi Hernandez with a delicious cross. It could complicate matters for ATK Mohun Bagan, who now would have to deal with both of BFC's forwards dragging their centre-backs wide, while any of BFC's midfielders or even wingbacks can provide an underlapping run.
Javi and Rohit have the requisite nous to time late runs into the box, and if ATKMB's defensive midfielder's are otherwise occupied during a quick transition, Bengaluru FC will strike. Set pieces might also be an avenue for BFC to exploit, with 2 of their 3 goals in the playoffs coming from that route.
How ATK Mohun Bagan can stop Bengaluru FC's threat
That Juan Ferrando fashioned the league's second-best defence is not something most people would have expected when he replaced Antonio Habas last season. Yet, the Catalan has overcome plenty of obstacles to build a side that can withstand intense pressure, as they did against Hyderabad FC in both legs of the semifinals.
Slavko Damjanovic ought to retain his spot in defence alongside captain Pritam Kotal, given his stellar display against Javi Siverio and Bart Ogbeche. Brendan Hamill also suffered in dealing with Sivasakthi Narayanan's pace in the most recent encounter between the two teams, which might relegate him to the bench. Damjanovic in no speedster himself, but appears to be cannier when dealing with pacy forwards, which Bengaluru have in abundance. Roy Krishna's runs into the channel have already caused ATK Mohun Bagan plenty of trouble, but with two defensive midfielders also in support, Juan Ferrando's side could limit their former star from shining bright.
In Subhasish Bose and Ashish Rai, ATKMB have two fullbacks who can comfortably deal with BFC's wingbacks, however extra runners might cause complications. Simon Grayson prefers that one of Javi Hernandez or Rohit Kumar run into the half-space between opposition centre-backs and fullbacks, which can cause its fair share of consternation. Carl McHugh and Glan Martins will be doubly important in snuffing this danger out, with the latter's pitch coverage likely to prove crucial as it did against Hyderabad. However, it unbalances Ferrando's side in attacking transitions, with Hugo Boumous required to drop deeper. ATK Mohun Bagan will have to walk a tightrope in deciding when to attack, because BFC are great at pouncing in transitions.
The X factors - substitutions, extra time and penalties
It seems almost derisory to Sunil Chhetri's career to limit him to being an X-factor, when he's so often been *the* factor. Yet, the BFC legend has dragged his team to the final, and you wouldn't put it past him scoring a late, controversial goal once more. He's Simon Grayson's ace in the hole, and when you consider Juan Ferrando's trump card off the bench might be a declining Fede Gallego, this could decide the fate of the trophy.
Both teams needed extra-time and penalties to reach the final, which could result in tired legs and mistakes creeping in. ATKMB are arguably better at withstanding pressure, but BFC are no shrinking violets when it comes to extra-time either. Gurpreet Singh Sandhu and Vishal Kaith were heroes in their respective penalty shoot-outs, with little to decide between the pair if they face off - just like this entire final.