The scoreline reads 0-0. It is the 80th minute of India’s 2022 World Cup qualifying match against Qatar in Doha and the visiting team have nearly spent the entire game in their own half. The legs have grown tired, the jerseys are soaked in sweat and the Indian players are gasping for breath.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, a erratic cross from a Qatari defender opens up an opportunity for the Blue Tigers. Rowllin Borges picks out a loose ball and finds Manvir Singh, who is tightly marked by one defender with two others closely watching him.
Udanta Singh, is positioned deep, almost a centre-back and looks like he is out of gas. But in a matter of seconds, gets on his bike and sets off on a lung-busting run down the right flank. He eventually gets tackled by his marker but the winger gets up, fights for the ball, plays a lovely one-touch move with Anirudh Thapa before curling his shot inches wide of the Qatari goal.
It was, by far, their best moment of the game and though it wasn’t converted in the end, India scripted one of their best performances in recent times, a goalless draw against the Asian champions that drew widespread praise.
That historic result came at a time after critics constantly doubted the fitness levels of the team.
But until few years ago, one wouldn’t have expected the Indian team to display similar fitness levels. A striker tracking back with intent, full-backs marauding up and down the pitch and midfielders running all day.
It has all started changing due to a fitness revolution that has quietly come to Indian shores. Just as Indian players have transformed their diet, their training regimen has also undergone a complete revamp thanks to the growing influence of European fitness coaches.
Tracking data with GPS
The workload of footballers is closely monitored with the help of the Global Positioning System, a data tracking device that contains various sensors. It monitors distance covered, heart rate, metabolic load, high-speed actions, directional changes, field positioning, acceleration, deceleration and many other components.
The Indian football team started using it in 2015 after it was introduced by former coach Stephen Constantine with the help of sports scientist Danny Deigan. Ever since then, the practice has continued and it has now become common even with clubs in the Indian Super League.
It helps analysts understand whether a player is fatigued and needs to be substituted. Then looking at overall data on offer, fitness coaches can monitor the workload and decide whether they need to increase or reduce the intensity during training sessions.
“The player load (in GPS) helps us estimate the high intensity during the games like jumping, turning and small speed. When developing training for speed resistance or strength conditioning on the pitch, we include short and compact exercises involving more traction. The ratio between acceleration/deceleration helps us gauge how much the players are tired because of the eccentric movements,” said Mumbai City FC strength and conditioning coach Marco Leite.
The Portuguese trainer also added that their training sessions are usually short, lasting for around an hour long but loaded with a lot of high-intensity exercises. There is a rest period of only 30 seconds between exercises.
From a tactical point of view, the GPS tracker also helps coaches understand if players are making an impact in the right areas of the field when it comes to their positions. Using data from the 2017-’18 ISL season, the fitness of Mumbai City players has vastly improved in their latest pre-season.
Injuries during high-intensity training are inevitable so fitness coaches must strike a balance. As Leite says, ‘too much water kills the plant.’ More than training, it is the recovery that aids the physical development of a player.
“Most important form of recovery is sleeping. Ice bath, foam rollers, a good balanced diet and a good recovery session also play a part. A recovery session of maximum 10-20 minutes where there is more focus on coordination and reaction is good. From my experience, players feel better when they do speed and dynamic exercises rather than just mundane ones like running (for endurance) where they are not alert,” said Leite.
Leite recalls how midfielder Raynier Fernandes felt strain in his hamstrings and wasn’t fully fit to play full 90 minutes last season. The pressure was there because the youngster did single leg unilateral deadlift exercises in the gym but without the knowledge of Leite. He then recommended Fernandes do that exercise only during specific days of the week.
“I didn’t know why he had a problem with his hamstring. I then noticed he did exercises with us on the pitch and also went to the gym and that’s the reason why he felt a lot charge in those muscles,” he added.
A typical recovery session at Bengaluru FC consists of three parts – cycling for lower body, upper body strength training along with core and abs, formulated by strength and conditioning coach Mikel Guillen.
The ISL schedule is such that players play multiple games, sometimes within three-four days apart from battling jet lag and travel fatigue, so rest becomes paramount. While rest days alter depending on the schedule, Guillen conducts the recovery session after a match day. A day before the game, players are in the gym for injury prevention exercises.
“The following day after a match we do a recovery session for the players who played more than 45 minutes. The next day after that is an off. The day after that we do more of strength training, with weights in the gym and training sessions focusing on acceleration, deceleration, jumps, short jumps. The last day is for endurance,” Guillen told Scroll.in.
FC Goa strength and conditioning coach Manuel Saybera prefers club players doing strength training with weights in the ground over spending time in the gym. Since the lower body is more susceptible to injuries for footballers, the Spaniard doesn’t incorporate many exercises involving muscles such as the hamstrings, abductors and quads.
“(Developing) strength is the best vaccine against injuries. We avoid particular exercises to protect the ankles, knees. But also if you don’t work on these muscles, injuries will follow,” Sayabera said.
General strength training includes endurance running, shuttle runs, interval training and most of it is done in the pre-season, to get players geared up once they are back from their breaks.
“We work on general strength to prevent injuries, but there are a lot of different kinds of strengths you can work on – for fight, strength for shooting, jump and sprint,” he revealed.
With the influx of Spanish coaches in the ISL, who favour the possession game, Indian players are growing familiar with keeping the ball at the feet. India coach Igor Stimac has also implemented a similar philosophy in the national set-up and though the transition may not have been smooth one given the history of playing direct, players are becoming technically better. The training drills have also evolved alongside tactics.
“Compared to before under (Stephen) Constantine we used played direct but now training is more of passing drills and rondo (where players keep the ball in a circle while a smaller group tries to retain it). Every training session during the national camp now starts with a rondo. The endurance training has reduced,” Borges said.
Sayabera, a vital part of Sergio Lobera’s coaching staff at FC Goa, said the key to playing such as style is first developing the confidence of a player with the ball. The club practices drills ranging from rondos, possession and positional games – a 6v6 drill where players have to keep the ball but in the natural positions. In a possession game, one team tries to keep the ball while the other tries to recover.
Sayabera maintains that for this drill helps players work on four different parameters –physical, technical (pass, jump, tackle), tactical (positional play, transition from defence to attack) and psychological (decision-making).
“The targets keep changing daily in regards to what they need to do with the ball. We want players to make quick decisions through these drills,” the Spaniard said.
In contrast, ISL champions Bengaluru FC plan their playing drills after analysing their opponents.
“Coach Carles (Cuadrat) studies the opponents, the good and bad points they have and we design the exercises and tasks according to how we want to play the next game. Things like playing in our half and of the opposition, how the team has to function with the ball and without it,” he said.
Though there is still a long road ahead, the progress in Indian football fitness standards has been quite commendable. It would be unfair to compare European stands to our own, nevertheless, Indians have shown the eagerness to learn and adapt to new methods be it diet, fitness routines or recovery. A huge off season break may be the reason why we are still lagging behind but with the changes coming in now, the signs look promising.