All it took for ATK Mohun Bagan (ATKMB) was a missed penalty by Bengaluru FC’s (BFC) Pablo Perez to script history, as the club lifted its first Indian Super League title with a 4-3 penalty shootout win in the final. Juan Ferrando and his men, after a season of ebbs and flows, had finally laid hands on the ultimate prize.
There were a lot of positives for the Mariners this season, besides the title win. The Kolkata side showed signs of grit and determination throughout the whole journey while being constantly challenged with injuries and suspension. Goals were not easy to come by either, but it helped that the team had a dogged attitude of not accepting defeat easily.
But ATKMB’s successful campaign did have its fair share of inadequacies along the way, which, Ferrando assured, the whole squad would work on. However, before delving into the team’s loopholes, let’s look at some of its plus-points.
“Attack wins you games, defence wins you titles”
This famous quote by legendary Manchester United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, perfectly sums up ATKMB’s campaign.
Ferrando has been able to instil a sense of defensive discipline in his team, where the job is not limited to only the back four, but the entire team. It was this collective effort that led to the Mariners having the second-best defensive record in the league stages.
They conceded just 17 goals in the entire campaign, just one more than Hyderabad FC. In terms of clean sheets, ATKMB shared the joint-best record (12) with Hyderabad. Also, they conceded more than two goals on just one occasion, being the only club to do so this season.
As for the goalkeeper Vishal Kaith, he had an unbelievable season between the sticks. With a record-breaking 12 clean sheets, he rightfully won the Golden Glove award and was a big reason for the Mariners maintaining their stellar defensive record.
When it came to shot-stopping abilities this season, Kaith ranked second with 67 saves, behind BFC’s Gurpreet Singh Sandhu. The 26-year-old also had a 77.9% save rate (making 67 saves out of the 86 shots he faced), only second to Hyderabad FC’s Gurmeet Singh (82%).
Over-reliance on Petratos and Boumous
Despite its defensive compactness, ATKMB’s inability to score goals is a main area of concern for Ferrando, leading to the Super Cup and, consequently, the next season. However, the Mariners have had two standout players in terms of attacking output - Dimitrios Petratos and Hugo Boumous.
Petratos finished as the joint-top scorer with 12 goals, along with Odisha FC’s Diego Mauricio and East Bengal’s Cleiton Silva. To add to that, the Australian also recorded seven assists. Boumous, on the other hand, scored five goals and four assists throughout the season.
Combined, both Petratos and Boumous had 28 goal contributions. However, on occasion when they struggled to find the net, able support was hard to come by, especially from players like Liston Colaco, Manvir Singh, Kiyan Nassiri, Ashique Kuruniyan and Federico Gallego.
To put things into perspective, ATKMB did not have a single match where it scored and either Petratos or Boumous failed to contribute.
Despite the attacking threat posed by Petratos and Boumous, ATKMB ranked just eighth in the number of goals scored (24) in the league stage, finishing just above East Bengal FC, Jamshedpur FC, and NorthEast United FC. For a side that boasts of an impressive attacking arsenal on paper, these are disappointing numbers. This over-reliance has a high chance of backfiring next season, once opposing teams figure out how to deal with the duo.
A season of two-halves: Resurgence of Bengaluru FC
BFC’s turnaround halfway through the season will be etched in the history books despite them failing to win the tournament. From securing just 10 points until December 2022, Sunil Chhetri and his men, under the tutelage of Grayson, made an inspiring comeback at the turn of the new year.
They produced a 10-match winning run and managed to secure a berth in the playoffs. In the knockouts, they beat Kerala Blasters and Mumbai City to qualify for the final, eventually falling to ATKMB.
Young guns, ahoy!
BFC’s dramatic comeback can be attributed to their youngsters, who rose to the occasion. Players like Sivasakthi Narayanan, Naorem Roshan Singh, Suresh Wangjam and Rohit Kumar did not disappoint, and the maturity they showed while going toe-to-toe with the heavyweights is commendable to say the least.
Sivasakthi, in particular, had a huge impact for BFC this season. He finished as the club’s second highest scorer with six goals, just one behind Javier Hernandez. Such was his impact in the final third, that he regularly started ahead of captain Sunil Chhetri. They were certainly big shoes to fill, but the 21-year-old managed it seamlessly.
Such was the impact and form that he was in, that his injury during the final sealed his team’s fate. Things would have certainly been different if the youngster hadn’t been stretchered out so early into the match.
Chasing the perfect formation
Grayson’s preferred formation of 3-5-2 was instrumental in Bengaluru winning the Durand Cup in September 2022. However, when it was clear that the formation wasn’t working early on this ISL, Grayson resorted to the standard 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 formations against Odisha and East Bengal, respectively. However, with results not improving, even though the wingbacks Prabir Das and Roshan Singh were thriving, Grayson went back to the 3-5-2.
One of Grayson’s biggest achievements is unlocking Hernandez, which turned out to be an important aspect of BFC’s turnaround. Initially playing in the traditional No.10 role, the Spaniard’s movement was getting restricted, Grayson realised. However, allowing him to start from the No.8 position, a bit deeper in midfield, enabled Javi to play in a role that gave him more freedom. Also, being ably complemented by Suresh and Rohit’s excellent work rate was another big positive.
It is a common sight in football to see teams being disjointed in their pressing, with hardly any coordination. But this was where Grayson fine-tuned his team into executing it perfectly. Pressing in packs, BFC started winning the ball deeper in their own half, which made it easier to feed the forward line consisting of Sivasakthi and Roy Krishna.
Bengaluru’s slow start was their biggest enemy this season, but that made the comeback sweeter. But Grayson has ageing stars in the squad like Sunil Chhetri and Roy Krishna. Class certainly is permanent, but it would be a wise decision by the coach to start looking for alternatives as soon as possible to mount another title challenge in the coming season.
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