Meet I-League Side Sreenidi Deccan FC Coach on Verge of Making Indian Football History

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In only the first season in India, Portuguese football manager Carlos Vaz Pinto has taken Indian football by storm. At the very start of the I-League 2022-23 season, the then newly-appointed Sreenidi Deccan FC coach Carlos had no qualms in declaring that the Hyderabad-based club would “fight to stay at the top of the table”, playing dominant football.

But the fact that he will be so accurate with his prediction speaks volumes about his confidence and training methods. 18 games into the season, Sreenidi are perched on top of the standings with 40 points. After finishing third in their I-League debut season, Sreenidi are not only on the brink of winning the coveted trophy but with just four more matches to go, also have the opportunity to become the first team to earn a chance to be promoted to the Indian Super League (ISL) for the 2023-24 season.

Try to dissect with Carlos what makes him so successful, and the biggest takeaway would be his belief and reliance on “dominant football”. It’s something that he repeats multiple times during a conversation. Something that he announced before starting work in India and something that has stayed constant with his teams and him throughout.

In their first season, Sreenidi were a solid defensive unit, but to bridge the gap from the top spot, the club needed to raise the bar, it needed to shed the inhibitions, and required a more free-flowing footballing model to be able to counter all the challenges a long season and a variety of opponents pose.

Leading the change from the front is coach Carlos, who in his first season in India, has left an indelible mark on the way Sreenidi plays. With 37 goals in 18 games, Sreendi comfortably lead the goal-scoring chart. They are also third in the chances created tally.

What we see however is the result of a backroom process that has prioritised success and is based on the foundation of freedom and commitment.

“Once we started, we had a vision that we need to be at top of what we do,” Carlos, a UEFA Pro licensed coach, told Firstpost. “We didn’t plan that we have to reach the ISL because it’s not possible to say that at the start but our idea is to do well in what we do and the vision of the chairman is to be at the top of the footballing pyramid in India in next 3-4 years.

carlos vaz pinto
Carlos Vaz Pinto has helped Sreenidi Deccan FC top I-League (AIFF)

“To achieve this vision, I had to make our players believe that we can be dominant. We cannot be at the top without being dominant. Our game is not better than last season but different. We cannot grow players and we cannot be at the top, playing defensive football. To make players believe in our idea we need to have that environment and we have managed to create that. Step-by-step players started to believe that it was possible.”

While the philosophy has borne fruit on the field, it’s the harmonious co-existence of all major stakeholders and collective efforts of the moving parts that have allowed the Sreenidhi Group-owned club to be in contention for the top-division so early.

“It’s difficult to achieve what we have so far. We don’t have one reason for this. There are many reasons for this,” Carlos, who has coached in Portugal and African countries like Angola, Ethiopia, and Kenya, shared.

“First of all, the quality of players. Another major reason is how we planned ahead of the season. We need good staff and everyone needs to be very clear about their roles. The role of the chairman (KT Mahhe) and Fabio Nunes Ferreira (technical director) is very important that way. The way they treat the staff and the vision and leadership that they bring. They have given me freedom and that is important.”

With a conducive environment in place, Carlos’s biggest challenge was to make the team play a brand of football that brought desired results. Having perfected his philosophy of dominant football over the years, the 48-year-old coach just had to twist it to meet the demands of Indian football.

Carlos, who has a degree in physical education, played for the Sport Club of Penalva do Castelo in Portugal and has been a full-time coach since 2008, winning the FKF President’s Cup in Kenya and the SuperCup in Ethiopia. During this time, he also worked with former Chelsea manager Andre Villas-Boas whose imprints could be seen in Pinto’s work.

“During my Masters, I wrote a thesis on offensive transition and for that, I borrowed one of the ideas from Andre Villas-Boas. He started his coaching at Académica de Coimbra, a top-division team in Portugal. When he came in 2010 to Coimbra, I was at the club as technical director of the academy and also under-19 team coach. We were very close during that time and we use to have a lot of conversations. For him, it’s important that transitions always be aggressive. That doesn’t mean being physical. Aggressive is when you get the ball, you want to score. When you don’t have the ball, you press and try to get the ball back because you want to dominate the game. I read a lot about offensive and defensive transitions but I also bring this idea from practice, from informal conversations with Villas-Boas,” explained Carlos.

“I have built my philosophy, my idea, and my methodology from these experiences and learning but I also adapt to the club and environment. I have one pattern for my game and teams but there are adjustments according to club, league, and opposition. I don’t change my model of the game but I change my plan according to my opposition. There are some characteristics like being dominant that we don’t change but how we will do it against a particular opponent also depends on who we are going to face.”

sdfc carlos vaz pinto
Carlos Vaz Pinto holds a UEFA Pro License – one of the top coaching certificates available (AIFF)

Besides attacking and proactive football, Sreenidi has also benefitted heavily from the belief the players have shown in the process and in themselves on the pitch. With RoundGlass Punjab FC hot on the heels of the Hyderabad club, Sreenidi players haven’t allowed the pressure to dictate the terms so far. Just last Sunday, 19 February, the team scripted a 3-1 win against Sudeva Delhi after being 1-0 down. A defeat would have allowed Punjab to take the lead.

Carlos said his mantra of making his players enjoy the process and yearn for success is to challenge them in the training ground and give them freedom on the pitch.

“It’s not easy to change the mentality of a player or a group, because they come with their own experience and have played in past in different setups. It’s important to challenge the players and give them the freedom to be dominant on the field. Once you set up individual goals, and goals for the club and give the freedom to the players and challenge them to achieve them, you can get results,” he added.

Punjab FC are only three points behind Sreenidi in the I-League title race with a game in hand. Thanks to the head-to-head advantage, Sreenidi would clinch the trophy if they remain level on point till the end of the season, but any slip-ups now could prove fatal in terms of title dreams.

Carlos isn’t bothered about the close finish. His focus is on the results and the process. Loving his life in India, Carlos credits the peace in life as the reason for doing well in football, but honestly, it feels like being chill and sorted is ingrained in his DNA.

“I love the food here in India, also the weather in Hyderabad is similar to what I find during summer in Portugal or in some African countries, so it was easy to adapt,” the former teacher said.

“I know people would wonder about the pressure, but as a coach, I think I don’t feel it. I am the same guy as I was on the first day. My focus is on the next match. When we started at the start of the season we set a target to do better than last season. If you think about the title then you will feel more pressure but we have broken down our target into the number of points that we want and step by step we try to achieve our target. There’s more pressure when you are in a relegation battle but here we are in the title race. We need to enjoy this pressure. We need to enjoy this moment.”

An attacking philosophy shaped by years of experience, a calm head, and an ability to make players buy into the system — Carlos didn’t just make the right noise, his work on the pitch has been a testament to his credibility. It’s advantage Sreenidi in the I-league title race, but even if something unexpected was to happen, their season would be remembered as one of the best for an Indian club.

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