Inspired by Jugen Klopp, East Bengal manager Robbie Fowler ropes in a set-piece coach, a first in Indian football

October 30, 2020

FootballIndian Super League


After being in a rut for decades, East Bengal, one of India’s oldest football club, is innovating. And at the helm is a manager who found inspiration in Liverpool’s Premier League-winning campaign last season.

As the Reds’ juggernaut rolled on, what caught Robbie Fowler’s attention was a subtle behind-the-scenes change at his former club. Jurgen Klopp, he noticed, had hired a coach only for throw-ins. “Someone primarily who will look after throw-ins,” Fowler repeats, in awe of Klopp’s attention to detail. So immense, and immediate, was the impact of this that Fowler, a Liverpool legend who was the manager of Brisbane Roar at the time, wondered why no one else followed suit.

So, when East Bengal appointed him as the manager earlier this month for their Indian Super League (ISL) debut, Fowler promptly brought on board a specialist, Terence McPhillips, not just for throw-ins but also free kicks and corners.

McPhillips will be the Red-and-Golds’ ‘set-piece coach’, a new breed of specialists who focus primarily on preparing players for dead-ball situations, which are increasingly becoming a way to score goals. “We know set pieces are important … you look at the stats of goals for and goals against. We need to try and use that to our advantage. So the set-piece coach will look at throw-ins, corners and free-kicks both for and against,” Fowler, 45, tells The Indian Express.

This is the first time an Indian club will employ a set-piece coach, which is still an evolving role globally. Manchester City and Arsenal are among the few top teams in Europe, who have a dead-ball specialist in their coaching staff. It isn’t surprising to see two Premier League sides warm-up to this concept, given that set-pieces have largely been seen as an English approach to the game.

And by extension, an Englishman introducing the idea in the Indian league, which has an overwhelming Spanish influence, is understandable.

But Fowler insists East Bengal will not be a team that ‘will primarily look for set-pieces’. He wants his team to play possession football, with quick, short passes and create intricate triangles.

To enhance his ideas, the former Liverpool striker, who was twice named manager of the month in the A-League this year, spent a lot of time during the lockdown watching a different sport – hockey.

Football has a long history of looking at hockey for tactical inspiration. Fowler says he saw a lot of international games, including the FIH Pro League matches in The Netherlands, and was amazed at how swiftly the players interchanged positions, passed the ball and created spaces.

“The speed at which they move the ball, I know it’s a different ball… we can take a little bit of inspiration. If you are moving the ball quicker, then it takes the opposition a little bit out of their comfort zone, create pockets of space and you can capitalize that way,” Fowler says.

“From a defensive point of view, you get a lot of bodies trying to not concede a goal. You look at the fitness and work ethic of these teams, it is really, really good. This is what we want to do.”

Whether Fowler has the time and resources – in terms of quality of players – to execute his vision is a different question. East Bengal’s last-minute entry in the ISL means they had little time to assemble a squad, and even less to practice together. Fowler is still in quarantine at a hotel in Goa and will have just about three weeks to prepare for a five-month season.

Maybe this is where his team of specialists will have to step-up: assistant coach Anthony Grant, who has had a long career in football first as a player and then a coach; former India captain Renedy Singh, with his in-depth knowledge about Indian players, the conditions in Goa and intel on other ISL teams; goalkeeping coach Robert ‘Bobby’ Mimms, who was earlier associated with Jamshedpur FC and ATK; Michael Harding, the first team physio of Newcastle United and ‘who was running on the pitch in the Premier League last year’.

Fowler adds, “To get him (Harding) as a part of my team was a real coup. It was a tough conversation getting him in but obviously, once he found out what’s happening, he was massively on board.”

But it is McPhillips’s rather unconventional role as a set-piece coach that will raise curiosity. Fowler sees specialised coaching roles getting more common in the years to come as managers fight for ‘a little bit of advantage’ on the field.

“So why can’t we go down the way of looking for something a little different, something out of the ordinary,” Fowler wonders. “Maybe, in terms of doing it in India, I am a bit of a pioneer.”

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