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The wizard of Spain: Carles Cuadrat working his magic for East Bengal

The night is the darkest before dawn and the East Bengal fans have learnt it the hard way. The Indian Super League club finished at the bottom of the league in the 2021-22 season and been in the bottom three in every season since 2020.

Mohun Bagan, its archrival, on the other hand, has won the Indian Super League title and every Kolkata derby since 2019 until the last season. Manchester United vibes? Pretty much.

But the 2023-24 season has seen a sea change as the club has brought in a fresh batch of players and an ISL-winning coach in Carles Cuadrat.

At first glance, Cuadrat appears to be just a tourist in the City of Joy — a black shirt, a tall frame, broken English and a love for ‘India and its culture’. But when he speaks, it’s mostly about football and footballers.

“I really know a lot of players and coaches. I know the story behind it and I’m ready to see the evolution of all of that,” he had said before his return to India. Being at the helm at East Bengal now, Cuadrat seems to be doing just that, adding brick by brick to take the club back to its glory days.

The Red and Gold Brigade defeated Mohun Bagan Super Giant in the first Kolkata derby under his charge, qualified for the Durand Cup knockouts as the group-topper and reached the Durand Cup final after 19 years.

The banners in the stands of the Kanteerava Stadium once used to read: “Lead us, Carles.” The prodigal son of Spain has now returned to do just that with a new outfit.

Cuadrat, a La Masia product, comes from the same school of football as Andres Iniesta, Xavi Hernandez and Lionel Messi. He has also worked with the manager who gave Messi his senior debut, Frank Rijkaard, in his initial days of coaching.

But he peaked in tandem with fellow Spaniard Albert Roca, the two winning the Federation Cup and leading the side to the ISL and AFC Cup final — the first club to do so. Though Roca left, Cuadrat, now as head coach, took the Blues to greater heights, winning their maiden ISL title — their only one so far.

Bengaluru FC players celebrate with Carles Cuadrat after winning the ISL title.

Bengaluru FC players celebrate with Carles Cuadrat after winning the ISL title.
| Photo Credit:
Focus Sports/ISL

India’s centre-back Rahul Bheke, who was one of Cuadrat’s custodians at the back for Bengaluru FC, spoke about his impact off the field.

“He (Cuadrat) is a tactically sound coach. Whenever a team plays against him, he works a lot on the tactical side of it and on set-pieces. He is a specialist in set-pieces. He knows when, where and how set-pieces should be planned and where goals can be scored through them,” he said.

“He makes a team’s defence very strong. When I played under him, we kept around 11 clean sheets and also maintained an unbeaten run. He insists a lot on not conceding a goal and in maintaining possession.”

At East Bengal, too, the Spaniard has stuck to his formula — creating a team that is menacing in set-pieces. In the eight goals scored by East Bengal (another one was ruled off-side), six of them have come through set-pieces.

“Scouting is very important. A club with a long history needs to be very good at scouting and to be really good at data. I think that it’s the future of football”

Cuadrat has overseen the growth of several young Indian players while his transfer strategy has seen Bengaluru become a title-winning side.

In his five-year stay at Bengaluru, initially as an assistant coach and then as head coach, Cuadrat welcomed players such as Xisco Hernandez, Juanan and Miku — all of whom proved to be instrumental in the team becoming the ISL champion, while the last two also won the Super Cup.

Some of the young players he mentored as head coach — Suresh Singh, Ashique Kuruniyan and Prabhsukhan Gill — have become very successful players for India.

“Scouting is very important. A club with a long history needs to be very good at scouting and to be really good at data. I think that it’s the future of football,” Cuadrat had said during an interview.

“All the teams need to be working for the future in that way and try to get players in at the right moment. It’s always about who is the quickest to sign the new talent.”

East Bengal, too, has utilised his keen eye to pick players judiciously. The team has made 15 new signings (loan and permanent transfers) and the nucleus of the side has been built around them.

Jordan Elsey and Javier Siverio have been the usual suspects in and around the box for set-pieces while Saul Crespo has been the midfield architect with his long and through balls. It was his through ball that was finished expertly by Nandhakumar Sekar as East Bengal won the bragging rights in the Kolkata derby in the group stage.

Cuadrat has reunited with Gill as the goalkeeper while Nandha, another new signing, and Naorem Mahesh Singh have been handed the task of attacking through the flanks.

The signing of veterans as full-backs has worked like a charm with Harmanjot Khabra and Mandar Rao Dessai combining well with Mahesh and Nandha for wing-play and securing the ball back on time. The team, playing in a 4-2-3-1 shape, has also become faster and smoother in transitions compared to last season and it was one of the six ISL teams to start its first-team squad in the tournament. The same strategy — the same bunch of players playing more games together — saw Bengaluru win the title last season and also make it to the ISL final.

Bigger calendar

“We have always been talking about Indian football and the points are always the same. It’s about to make a bigger calendar there with longer competitions… so there are at least around 40 games per season. It’s an average number that gives you at least 11 months of competition,” Cuadrat said.

East Bengal had started the tournament with two quick goals in the first half against the Bangladesh Army Football Team. But in the second half, it conceded cheaply in the last three minutes of regulation time. Cuadrat looked visibly upset that his team dropped two points. And that mistake never happened in the rest of the tournament until the final.

East Bengal beat the ISL champion and then Punjab FC, the I-League champion, in the remaining group stage matches to secure a spot in the quarterfinals. It beat Gokulam Kerala and knocked out NorthEast United on penalties in the next phase.

East Bengal with Carles Cuadrat on the eve of the matchday.

East Bengal with Carles Cuadrat on the eve of the matchday.
| Photo Credit:
Special Arrangement

Though the team failed to complete a double over Mohun Bagan, Cuadrat’s boys can hold their heads high.

Cuadrat, the man from the land of red-and-yellow, has led his boys in the same colours in a different country thousands of miles away. With the ISL and Federation Cup ahead, the silver in the Durand Cup would be seen as an appetiser by the Spaniard.

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