What goes into making the fittest Indian team in history
To beat Bahrain in their final Asian Cup group stage match, India's best clue could simply lie in how they can recreate their fitness and physical intensity of the first match against Thailand.
India's strength and conditioning coach Danny Deigan offers an interesting insight, based on physical performance data in the four years that he's been associated with India.
"Our highest outputs over the last four years were against Myanmar away in that first [Asian Cup] qualifier and then the match against Thailand," says Australian Deigan, who along with his assistant Joel Carter have been credited with making this arguably the fittest Indian side in history. "Our numbers [against UAE] were a little bit lower, but then you need to remember this isn't just our performance. Football is so complex -- there's so many different areas coming in -- tactics, technique, taking your chances, so it doesn't directly correlate [with results], but it can give an indication of where players can best be used tactically."
The Indian players run an average of 10-12 kms in a game, and anything between a fifth to a third of that is done at high speeds. Each player ends up performing an average of 30 sprints in a game, with an average of 140 accelerations and decelerations per game, all involving sharp changes of direction and within small spaces. Positions like central defence obviously require less travelling, while the wide players perform most of the sprints. Udanta Singh, who alongwith Anirudh Thapa has greatly contributed to improving the Indian team's numbers, performed one such explosive sprint inside the first minute of the second half against Thailand and changed the complexion of the game with his assist for Sunil Chhetri.
If India's performance against Thailand was refreshing for the energy they put in for 90 minutes, Deigan credited it to India being the first country to reach UAE on December 20. "We had some good time to adjust, and that might be why we started the tournament in such a quick fashion. Playing a third game inside nine days is a little different from what they would normally do with their clubs, but we've focused on this in our training," says Deigan. "We've pretty much simulated physically what an Asian Cup looks like, so the players know what to expect this third game."
Part of that simulation is to increase the intensity of the training at different times of the session -- sometimes the hardest bits are done right at the beginning, sometimes they fall in the middle, and often they are pushed to the limit when they are fatigued right at the end. India haven't flagged physically in either of their games -- they scored three second-half goals against Thailand and also hit the post off a set piece late in injury time against UAE.
There's a separate analytical team that has been helping coach Stephen Constantine with information on all current and prospective future opponents at this Asian Cup, so Deigan doesn't involve himself with the football aspect of planning for games. His inputs can prove to be invaluable, though. For instance, having worked with Ashique Kuruniyan during the latter's U-19 days in 2015, Deigan tipped Constantine off on how dynamic Ashique's outputs can be, which allowed him to be elevated from winger to striker at this tournament.
With the strength and conditioning staff looking after their physical needs -- Deigan says Sandesh Jhingan has recovered from a bump on the head after a clash of heads with UAE's Ismail Ahmed Mohamed -- India know even a draw against Bahrain will take them through to the round of 16. But in a tournament of small margins, India need to make sure they keep the intensity up for 90 minutes in order to make history.