We need to strike a balance and be patient: Papas

 Nilanjan Datta

A heat wave greeted the India Team for the U-22 AFC Championship as they landed in Muscat on Thursday (June 21 morning). The boys who have been preparing for over a week at the Al Wasl Campus in Dubai settled down fast as Head Coach Arthur Papas made them sweat in an afternoon practice session at the Sultan Qaboos Complex. In a freewheeling interview with www.the-aiff.com, Papas spoke at length about India’s new style of play, India’s Group, the squad, his philosophy on Jeje Lalpehklua and a lot more. EXCERPTS:

Since the time you took over the team, what are the changes which have taken place?
There have been subtle changes in the overall playing philosophy over the course of two weeks. It’s mostly based on developing a style which emphasises on ideas when we stay in possession of the ball. The idea is to be patient and wait for the correct moment for the build up or for example aim to penetrate from deep.

There are so many variables in football and it’s been about guiding the decision making process of the youth players by providing them a structure to work from within.

At the same time we have had to find a balance with this style because you cannot expect to perfect the system in just over two weeks. I have had to take into consideration the current conditioning of the players. I’ve understood the instincts of the boys from the practice sessions and the practice matches.

Arthur Papas with the boys at the first training session in Muscat
Are you impressed with the fitness level of the players as you head into the Championship?
The positive part stays that we have been able to keep majority of the players away from injuries. Apart from Bikramjit Singh who unfortunately picked up a minor ankle strain in our last practice match and unluckily had to miss out, the rest stay in good shape. Obviously we can’t deny that we will also miss some other very influential players who were injured prior to the camp. But the fact that we have been able to re-introduce players like Jeje Lalpekhlua and Deepak Devrani, both of whom are returning from an injury lay-off, I stay content.

Ideally we would like to have been much more match conditioned as we head to the Championship. Our friendly matches have served as a good opportunity to keep learning about our system of play and identify players.

You have insisted upon a new style of play since you joined as Head Coach. During this span of three weeks, how much have the boys been able to adapt to the new style?
I need to praise the players as they have shown tremendous maturity during the short period we have been together. They stay open to approaching the game with an open mind and understanding the various ways it can be played. There are still many areas which need to be improved and this can only be achieved by developing together our ideas with time.

As always I approach a tournament with the intention to win but at the same time I am looking at players who I believe have attributes can develop into Senior National Team Players for India. This means that maybe a slightly older player has missed out on selection in favour of a younger player who I think with exposure to these type of tournaments can further develop and in the longer term and become a better prospect for the Indian National team.

Understandably the draw couldn’t have been tougher for India. What do you expect from the tournament?
We are competing against some very good countries who have really improved their footballing level over the course of 3-4 years. It’s a position we intend to reach in the future. At this stage all our focus stays towards our first game against Lebanon on June 23. This is a critical game and a good start can provide us with optimism to look at qualification.

What’s the status of Jeje Lalpekhlua? How much of a role does he play in your scheme of things?
Jeje is a player I have much respect for simple for the manner he conducts himself on and off the field. He is the type of character you enjoy working with as a Coach. So far he has been slowly re-introduced into full training only since the last 4 days. As I had mentioned earlier, I will not be risking the long term health of Jeje or any other player. They are still young and I maintain that although the short-term success of our team would be a great achievement, it should not come at the cost of any of our talented youth players for the long-term. He has a great future ahead of him and needs the correct guidance to manage his body.

Will this be your toughest assignment so far?
Football assignments are not tough on a grand scale. They are challenging, sometimes rewarding and sometimes soul-searching. There are so many emotions involved and it engulfs your thought process to a level which is hard to be comprehended. It’s an unique 24×7 job.

However, I can’t say this is tough when I compare my life to some of the hardships that are a part of everyday life, eg seeing people begging on the streets, homeless and with no money. All that, I consider is tougher. I try my best to keep perspective at all times. I can promise I will give my utmost to help Indian football develop to a level much higher than its current state.

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