Bold Risky and Daring – Why ATK won the ISL 2020 Final

Bold Risky and Daring – Why ATK won the ISL 2020 Final

ATK ( Now ATK Mohun Bagan) in the 2019-2020 Indian Super League campaign put on a brilliant show of both offensive and a defensive organization through their 3-5-2 or in certain cases a makeshift 3-4-2-1, where they depended heavily on their transitional play.
In a league where FC Goa is lauded for their possession and free-scoring approach, ATK took it to the other end of the spectrum where they had averaged the least passes per game (325 a game), and yet scored the 2nd most goals (tied at 39 with Chennaiyin FC ) in the ISL.
Despite low possession numbers, they ranked 2nd for clean sheets as well and the fluidity in their attack combined with their compact nature at the back made ATK the most balanced side when looking at these basic numbers.
From a positional point of view and based on the characteristics of the players they fielded out, their favoured formation was 3-5-2 but every tactical reader understands that the formation on paper never gives the full story.
In their defensive organisation, they ventured out into a 5-3-2, mainly relying on their full-backs to fall into shape as soon as possible.

When they did choose to operate within their mid-block, they switched to a 4- 4-2, with Prabir Das their right full-back given the positional responsibility to form the 4-man block in midfield. Looking at the two pictures we must understand how important Prabir Das (33) was in the ISL final. From a tactical point of view, he carried out his positional responsibility with discipline and intelligence.

All the above-mentioned formations have one thing in common, be it 3-5-2, 5-3-2 or 4-4-2, which is that ATK kept their 2 man striker system on all instances, enabling them to stick to their rest offence no matter what shape was being carried out by the rest of the ATK side.
The tactical approach that won the ISL –THE REST OFFENSE
One of ATK’s biggest offensive threats is how they use their defensive shape to prepare for their attacking transition, by using David Williams and Roy Krishna.
As mentioned earlier, both their blocks had a 2 man striker system so even if the shape was ever-changing among the 8 men behind Krishna and Williams, the 2 men kept to their responsibilities and ATK  decided to defend only with 8 men, leaving space for the 2 forwards to operate at the start of every transition.
The advantage for ATK in using this system is due to their ability to stay compact at the back and also the directness in their passing towards Krishna, who can comfortably receive the ball with his back towards the goal

On top, we see how ATK defend, with the two strikers not actively participating in within their block. Now let’s look at the bottom, as seconds after winning the ball we see ATK’s ball carrier is allowed to move forward and pick out the pass while both the forwards have the advantage of picking up space either in their half to help the transition or they can start moving towards their opponents considering CFC’s rest defense has given them the space to push ahead.

The Rest Offense gave ATK a significant advantage, as when they switch into a deep block with their 5-3-2, the distance between the 2 strikers and the 8 players in the deep 5-3 block is quite evident and also way higher than the normal distance we normally see between the 3 lines which means CFC can’t play a high line.
This led to some clear cut issues for Chennaiyin:
  1. The CFC defense couldn’t involve themselves further and higher up in the build-up, as there was always the danger of losing the ball and ATK’s direct approach meant that the runs made by the two forwards once the ball was recovered can’t be considered offside since they are in their half.
  2. This distance between the backline and the rest of the players in the build-up phase meant they were stuck in a no-win situation. If they stuck close to the strikers, there was the risk of leaving a lot of open space behind them, while not doing so meant giving them a lot of space to work with.
  3. Since CFC played a 3 man rest defense with either wing-back involved in the build-up, they had lesser players to counter-press to win the ball back vs ATK’s 8 man block.
When faced with those two situations in point b, Chennaiyin opted for a rest defense and gave the two strikers space to work with. Even after the introduction of Armando Sosa on the 40th minute for an injured Roy Krishna, ATK still went on with their plan, which was beginning to come to fruition with Edu Garcia and David Williams now taking up the 2-man offense system.


As you can see above, ATK kept their 4 men rest defense back (only 6 attackers in the picture) and stuck those 4 men close to their half or just in front of the half-line, ready to enter their half to create the possibility of offside runs made by the CFC attacking unit
The deeper the rest defense stays, the CFC attacking unit has 2 decisions to make
  •  A-Should they receive the ball in their attacking transition in front of ATK’s rest defense? In this case, they  have to move against an aggressive and organized back 4, which will turn into a back 5 pretty quickly with  Prabir Das sprinting back.
  •  B- Or should they try to beat the line through precise and well-timed runs in behind, taking care to not being offside while also making sure the ball played through the defense is precise enough, either through the air or on the ground, something ATK were prepared for.
In the 2nd half after they went up 2-0, ATK went into a 5-4-1 formation, with Edu Garcia shifting to the midfield, while still adopting a free role within the midfield block rather than purely sacrificing his role in their rest offense as you see in the image below.

Regin Michael played an important role now in this situation. He often dropped deeper than the rest of the midfield 3 to block passes between the lines as and when it was needed and shifted forward on other occasions to keep their 4-man midfield block.
The 5-1-3-1 shape when he dropped back almost certainly gave the picture that ATKs main idea behind doing this was to allow CFC to attack only from the wide areas via crosses. This forced CFC to play against ATKs strengths, which certainly proved decisive in this game as the defense was able to repel the barrage of crosses that came their way with relative ease.


“Finals Are Not For Playing, They Are For Winning “, Jose Mourinho famously quoted after his Carling Cup victory and this was exactly what ATK prepared for, to win the ISL FINAL.

One of the most difficult areas of football is not just having a tactical plan, but also executing it exactly as prepared. ATK looked to be in control in their two most potent phases, with the defensive organization leading up to their offensive transition.

Even after Roy Krishna’s injury, the team didn’t crack under pressure but rather stuck to their battle plan, and after all is said and done, ATK presented what we need to see in every tactical affair-


Article by our Football Analytics Expert – Ashwin Nelleppana