Albert Roca's legacy: Asian success, grooming young talent
Albert Roca's tenure as Bengaluru FC (BFC) coach ended just the way it began -- with a continental win and progress in a tournament not many would have predicted ahead of the game.
The 1-0 win over Tampines Rovers of Singapore in the AFC Cup quarterfinals of 2016 was massive because it gave BFC a toehold in the competition despite their new coach having been in charge for just over a month. Wednesday evening was a minor miracle, given their fate was dependent on Aizawl FC pulling off a result against New Radiant, Maldives -- BFC's only continental nemeses this year.
It is perhaps the confidence in AFC competitions that will be the biggest legacy of Roca -- who has announced his decision not to renew his two-year stint at the club due to personal reasons, as per the club's media release.
Possession, control and efficiency
The first squad that Roca took to the AFC Cup final in 2016 was not dissimilar to the last that he has led to the AFC Cup knockout stages for the fourth consecutive time. The engine room of the team is in the midfield, with Spaniard Victor Perez orchestrating it just the way Alvaro Rubio did in the initial days.
With BFC going from the I-League to the Indian Super League (ISL) in 2017-18, it was incumbent on Roca to incorporate more foreigners, but the core of the team remained similar. Cameron Watson gave way to Erik Paartalu in the AFC players' quota, and Miku was a significant acquisition as a striker last autumn. The pattern of play remained similar throughout though, with BFC keeping the ball more than their opposition and controlling the pace of play for the most part. They did it in difficult underfoot conditions in Dhaka last evening as well, with Nishu Kumar's two goals in a 4-0 win underlining the attacking capacity of the team.
Accent on youth
Roca's predecessor Ashley Westwood was the first to have given a break to youngsters like right-winger Udanta Singh, but it was in Roca's reign that some of the young Indian players took flight.
Roca has fielded Nishu often, especially over the last one year, and the left-back has gradually added a lot of attacking dimension to his game. Young forwards Daniel Lalhlimpuia and Thongkhosiem Haokip have made some frequent starts, especially in AFC tournaments, under Roca, who has backed them to the hilt.
If you look at the BFC backline now, there are Indian players adept at playing across all positions. Rahul Bheke, Subhasish Bose, Zotea Ralte and even Sandesh Jhingan during his stint with BFC occupied almost all the positions in defence and would be among the first names you could recall in some heroic performances. The defensive solidity, which often flew under the radar because of the attacking nature of BFC, was one of the key reasons Roca's team lost less than half of their 14 continental matches away from home -- in Jordan, Qatar, North Korea, Tajikistan and Malaysia -- and never by a margin greater than two goals.
Roca was frequently asked, especially after the team was redrawn following the ISL draft, if he had a good record with a young BFC team because of his background of working with younger players in Barcelona.
In many respects, Roca's successor will need to have the same patience and belief in youth as he did. The AFC Cup's knockout stages begin in August, and in that sense there is time for someone to fit in to the role. However, he would do well to pay heed to Roca's words towards the end of the forgettable I-League campaign in 2017, one that saw BFC finish outside the top two for the only time in their existence.
"Well, I guess it is difficult when someone is coming from another country with an idea, and to put that idea [into effect] in such a short time," he had said after beating DSK Shivajians 7-0, the biggest win of the season for any team. "Sometimes you have games where I am happy for the result, and the performance, but the most difficult thing for the coach is to keep the team playing like this. Perhaps we are not ready for that kind of performance every game. But we had to show our supporters and ourselves that if we do the things well, it will give us results."