Des Buckingham on ACL: Mumbai City FC will adapt but stick to core principles

Head coach of Mumbai City FC Des Buckingham. Faheem Hussain/Focus Sports/ ISL

"The aim," says Des Buckingham, "is to win a match. And then we'll take it from there." On Friday, Buckingham, head coach, Mumbai City will lead his team out in the AFC Champions League, the highest tier of club football competition the continent has to offer. And he's unfazed.

This is just the second season an Indian club has made it to the ACL proper - FC Goa won three points (with three draws) in the group stages last year, and Buckingham's aim is to do one better. For a start.

Going into the first game as the underdogs helps. You wouldn't associate a league and cup double winning team or the club's parent organisation (the City Football Group) with the term but as Buckingham says, this isn't the UEFA Champions League and they aren't Manchester City.

In Group B of the ACL, Mumbai are up against Saudi Arabia's Al Shabab and UAE's Al Jazira (two teams ESPN had picked amongst the five top contenders for the tournament from the west) and three-time winner of the AFC Cup Al Quwa Al Jawiya of Iraq. These are serious football teams.

As an underdog, says Buckingham, "The exciting thing is that people underestimate what you're capable of doing." He would know. In 2019, he coached an unheralded New Zealand U-20 team to the FIFA U-20 World Cup, where they lost in a shootout in the pre-quarters. It remains the only time an NZ men's team have reached the knockouts of any FIFA tournament. He then led an U-23 NZ team to Pacific Games gold, going undefeated in a tournament where everyone else fielded their senior teams.

"I'm not saying it's the same here," he's keen to stress. "It's, of course, a different group, in a senior space. But [the tag of underdog], it does relieve a lot of pressure from the group because ... it gives them an opportunity to go into an environment which is new and exciting and really express themselves, and play as well as they can."

Mumbai didn't enjoy the best of league campaigns this past season, finishing fifth and outside the playoff places, putting in performances far below their potential and generally being too streaky for a double-defending team. Buckingham, though, knows that's in the past, that this is a whole new tournament, a clean slate.

He says it helps that they moved out of the ISL bubble, spent some time with family, before regrouping a month or so before the ACL. That period before the competition was really important for Buckingham. He had joined the club late, just ahead of the start of the season and considering the hectic schedule of the league itself, he had felt they hadn't got enough quality time to work on the football he wants them to play.

He knows, of course, that he will have to adapt it to the competition. As he says "FC Goa had 65% average possession in the ISL and 35% in the ACL a few months later".

But adapting does not equal abandoning. "There is a way we want to work, and a way we want to play and that's largely driven by principles rather than systems. It's not formation driven but by what we do when we have the ball and we don't. The good thing with that approach is that the principles don't change. The way we approach games may," he says. "We know that going into this level of competition, it's going to be a lot higher than we competed in the ISL. So if we open up too much, too quickly, and we lose the ball... at this level we will get punished a lot more than in the ISL."

What does he mean by principles? "We want to play an expansive game in possession, have players in certain positions that are sometimes there to exploit [spaces] and sometimes there to attract opposition players to certain areas (to exploit them in different areas). We've got principles of attacking football, and that [means] making sure there's lots of opportunities when you have the ball, whether it's to retain it or to risk it."

"That differs in different areas of the field," he says. "In the defensive third, you don't want to put the ball at risk too often and that's where possession becomes important. In the attacking third, you want those players to take more risks, because there's naturally less space so if you don't take the risk, you might keep possession of the ball but you're not going to score too many goals.

"We want to get into the final third as many times as we can," but there's a way to do it that's dictated by these principles of his, and his management's. "It's not about getting the ball, smashing it and then hoping that we get on the end of something."

Buckingham, 37 now, has been coaching professionally for nearly two decades having first started as a youth player helping out the then Oxford United youth coach Mickey Lewis. "Strangely, I enjoyed coaching more than playing [even at that young age]," he laughs. His ideas about attacking football (he once said in the past season that he'd rather win 6-5 than 1-0) and coaching have remained ever since. The way he sees it, "football is still an individual sport, but it's individuals pointing in the right direction, with shared values and shared ideas" Instilling those values and ideas into the collective is what he sees as his primary task. He's confident he's done that, with encouraging friendly results (including a 2-1 win against UAE champions Al Ain) backing his belief. Now for the competition proper.

A qualified pilot (started with a one-class gift, became a three-and-a-half year obsession), Buckingham loves a challenge. It's why he does what he does. Come Friday, in Riyadh (where all their group stage games will happen), he's going to get a right proper one. And he can't wait to tackle it head on.


MCFC vs Al Shabab (10.45 PM, April 8)

Al Quwa Al Jawiya vs MCFC (10.45 PM, April 11)

Al Jazira vs MCFC (10.45 PM, April 14)

MCFC vs Al Jazira (10.45 PM, April 18)

Al Shabab vs MCFC (1.45 AM, April 23)

MCFC vs Al Quwa Al Jawiya (1.45 AM, April 27)

The LIVE telecast will be on Disney+ Hotstar/Star Sports.