Tiki-taka? Gegenpress? Mumbai City only striving for the identity of champions

Vikram Pratap Singh scores his first goal for Mumbai City FC against ATK Mohun Bagan. Vipin Pawar/Focus Sports/ ISL

There was an almost audible gasp of disbelief let out the moment Bipin Singh's strike nestled in the back of Amrinder Singh's net. ATK Mohun Bagan, Antonio Habas' impregnable fortress, built over many a season, had just let in their fifth goal in the 52nd minute. This wasn't possible, this just ... did not happen.

Mumbai City were asserting their own identity as the world of Indian football witnessed the unravelling of ATK Mohun Bagan's own. Yes, this was a different ATKMB side, this was Antonio Habas 2.0. Yet, no one expected what was playing out on the pitch at Fatorda.

Even in their 3-0 dismantling of FC Goa in their opening game, City never looked capable of pulling off such a result. Indeed, there was a quiet acknowledgment that Goa were poor, rather than City being great. Exploitable gaps remained as Des Buckingham was yet to imprint his own style, building off of Lobera-ball that won the league last year.

It was noticeable in City's second game - Bart Ogbeche, the wily old forward, came back to haunt his former side, exploiting a defence that had yet to gel together. Hyderabad FC ran out 3-1 winners and Buckingham looked frustrated on the sidelines. Yet, as the best managers do, the Mumbai boss treated the club's victory and defeat the same, noting later on that he was pleased with aspects of his side's performance.

All it needed was a continuation of the work Buckingham had been putting in ever since his appointment.

What a payoff it was! Buckingham only made two changes to his side - bringing in Mandar Rao Dessai at full-back and Vikram Pratap Singh as a right-sided forward. There was already plenty of chatter about the latter after headline-grabbing performances for the Indian junior teams. Said chatter then exploded into unabashed hype as Vikram turned in a stunner of a performance.

The 19-year-old's display was a perfect representation of the new generation of Indian footballers - unawed by the big stage, all swagger and trickery, underlined by the relentless energy of youth. His opening goal was a perfect microcosm - where most youngsters would let fly as a deflected cross fell to their feet in the box, Vikram stayed calm, and almost impishly, stroked the ball deftly between Amrinder's legs into the net.

His second was far luckier but was a reward for the very qualities his coach likes. The positional awareness to keep up with play, the hunger to reach a slightly overhit cross that rebounded off his arm and into the net. Throughout the match, Vikram remained an ever-present danger -Deepak Tangri, Subhashish Bose, Prabir Das, Liston Colaco all tried and failed to contain him.

While Vikram was deservedly grabbing all the headlines, what would have pleased Buckingham far more was the entirety of his Indian contingent shining. Bipin Singh's energy has never been in question, but his decision making was spot on the entire game. Apuia fit like a glove alongside Ahmed Jahouh, making intelligent use of the ball while staying positionally sound. Amey Ranawade, Mandar Rao Dessai and Rahul Bheke knew when to press in defence and when to play keep-ball.

This wasn't just Lobera-ball that won Mumbai City their first title last season... this was an improvement. Buckingham has added a tweaked gegenpress to a side that was already comfortable on the ball. Disconcertingly, it's only taken him three games. Perhaps it's not all that surprising for a 36-year-old in his 19th season of coaching.

Buckingham places a great value on identity and representation, having previously used tales of Maori legends to unite a New Zealand junior squad coming from nine different regions. The Englishman has carried that respect for cultures over to India, noting that even if he had players from different parts of the world, they represent Mumbai, they represent their families, they pull together.

A 5-1 victory over ATK Mohun Bagan was not just a statement of intent, it was Mumbai City unveiling their new identity. Was it just tiki-taka? Was it a relentless gegenpress? Unnervingly, it seems to be both. What ought to perturb the rest of the league further is that Buckingham is backing up all that excellence on the pitch with unity off the pitch.

However, like all the ink spilled over ATK Mohun Bagan after their stellar opening two displays resulted in a premature coronation, one cannot do the same for Mumbai. Even after a 5-1 dismantling, the beauty of football remains that one cannot say for certain what will happen. What is certain though, is that the Indian Super League is all set to witness a titanic battle for the league title.

Perhaps that is the identity that Buckingham and City are really striving for - not tiki-taka, not gegenpress - but rather, Champions.