The Darby Stor(e)y

Crash Without Trace

Mohun Bagan AC, the national club of India, has recently crashed out of the Federation Cup at the preliminary stages. The competition is the 2nd most important tournament in India, after the I-league, with the winner going on to play in the Asian Football Confederation’s (AFC) Champions League. The most successful team in the history of the Federation Cup – 17 final appearances with 12 winner’s glory – crashed out of it after losing two and drawing the last insignificant game of its group matches.

The Prelude

Things were shaping up nicely during the transfer window. Odafa Okoli, the Nigerian goal machine, the most prolific goal scorer in Indian club football, was snatched up. Sunil Chhetry, the gen-X poster boy of Indian football was also roped in. Add Jose Ramirej Barreto – the evergreen Brazilian who has made the club his second home – to the mix, and the Bagan fans would have been elated to have a dream front three. Amidst all these gung-ho approach in the attacking third, the team was lacking in solid defenders big time. More on that later. Steve Darby, the well known face in the ESPN & Star Sports expert panel, was appointed the coach of the team in late July. This is quite normal in this part of the world where the coach is handed over a team built by the officials and is then expected to create magic on the field. The poor Englishman has lost his job barely within 3 month of taking charge of the team. Agreed, he has a lopsided team, but he has done enough to expose its wafer thin defense.

Let’s Try Out

Steve Darby did not have much time to tinker with the team. He could not have known the comfort level of his players, but he surely knew his own. So, the once-an-assistant-to-Bob-Robson opted for a strategy he is most comfortable with. Welcome back 3-5-2, a formation once immortalized by Carlos Billardo in the 1986 World Cup, but since then discarded by modern coaches due to its obvious drawback. So, Mohun Bagan lined up as below:

3-5-2- As confused as it can get

Indian players are used to play in a traditional 4-4-2 (and its flatter, diamond and other variations). They know very little of this unique system. The system deploys 3 centre halfs, 2 central midfielders, one advanced playmaker, 2 wing-backs and 2 forwards. Now, the wing-backs should ideally be the quickest and fastest in the team, as they have to cover the entire length of the pitch constantly. They would drop back while defending and will provide width going forward. Asking for such a stamina from Indian players – and the wing-backs are not actually young kids here – is a bit too much. Then again, the centre halfs require strong understanding among themselves. One of them, Rakesh Masih, was excellent at a midfield position for the last 2 seasons. Suddenly, he has been drafted into another role and he seems all at sea. All is at sea for another man too – Simon Storey, a foreign recruit, who is rapidly getting popular among the fans….of the rival teams. Conceding 8 goals in 3 matches proves a point.

The Killer Blow

The Englishman was not going to bow down. Once an apprentice at the Liverpool academy, he was quite adamant in his approach. In face of increasing pressure from the fans and supporters, the club officials appointed a 3-man technical committee to hawk his movements. Darby thought enough was enough and openly criticised the club officials. There was no turning back from that point. He was released of his services, err…sacked, soon after.

The Road Ahead

A system works well only if it suits the players. A 3-5-2 formation is most likely to help teams who play counter attacking football, drawing opposition into their own half, like Napoli in Serie A last season. Mohun Bagan, a team always expected to win and dominate matches, is well off not using it. Playing against a lone striker will further complicate things for them. They will have a redundant centre half and voids to fill in the midfield area. So, it seems Mohun Bagan will soon revert to a more familiar 4-4-2 (or its near variant 4-4-1-1) formation, more so since the captain of the ship has been discarded. Clubs in India have a sick mindset: “Since I cannot change the players in the middle of a season, let’s change the Coach.” Chopping and changing coaches won’t do any good.  Darby deserved the time to settle in. He has made some mistakes in assessing the ability and flexibility of his squad, but that is natural. Coming into a new country, new club is a tricky affair and he did not have the opportunity to build a squad either. If persisted with, who knows, he might have emerged as the man to end the trophy drought at one of Asia’s oldest clubs!


Debojyoti Chakraborty is a hardcore Manchester United & East Bengal fan. You can reach him at