There was plenty of intrigue surrounding the youngest head coach in the Indian Super League (ISL 2020-21). Gerard Nus, 35, was the toast of the league with NorthEast United FC at the start of the season. The sceptics cheered him on when he started off with an ultimate 'David vs Goliath' slaying of Mumbai City FC.
His team’s supporters enjoyed his unbridled enthusiasm on the sidelines each week. When he swore on national television to express his approval of his team, the followers of the game all secretly wished it was them in his place.
Then the wins dried up. There were just two to start with. After eight gameweeks in the top four, the team slipped to seventh. Seven winless games later, NEUFC has decided to part ways with the Spaniard. The club announced its decision to sack him hours after the 1-1 draw against Bengaluru FC on Tuesday.
The club’s faith in him has dissipated over the course of the run. The official statement on his departure read, “The club has decided to part ways with the Spanish national after taking into consideration a contrast in the team’s current tactics and the club’s philosophy and vision.”
When the management made the appointment in August, it thought it was getting a coach who would thrill the supporters with attacking football. “He is known to develop budding talent whilst playing a brand of attractive attacking football. We are confident that he is the right appointment for the club," said the club’s executive director Priyanka Runchal.
Criticism surrounding NEUFC’s style of play began after the team struggled to create many goal-scoring chances. "We are not a defensive team, like what I have heard,” said Nus. “We are a team who knows how to attack and at the same time, we know how to defend. We need to stick to these things and convert our chances.”
With an average possession of 42 percent per game this season, Nus’ tactics largely revolved around being organised at the back and maintaining a tight defensive structure than pouring men forward in attack. NEUFC averages 299 passes per game, which is the lowest in the league. Lower than ATK Mohun Bagan.
In more ways than one, Nus’ NUEFC was set up in the playbook of ATK Mohun Hagan's head coach Antonio Habas, who led ATK to the title last season. But ATK Mohun Bagan has the quality of Roy Krishna or a David Williams to squeeze its way to 1-0 wins.
And when the chances came NEUFC’s way, it didn’t take it. According to Opta , NEUFC has missed the most number of big chances (16) this season. Of the 13 goals it has scored, four came from penalties. Strikers Kwesi Appiah and Idrissa Sylla have missed nine big chances among them, including a penalty each. To add to Nus’ woes, his leading goal-scorer, Appiah, suffered a season-ending injury during a training session late December.
In all fairness to Nus, he was working with a squad which was thin on ISL experience. Only 13 players out of the 28 have previously played in the ISL and only 10 players were retained from the 2019-20 season, when the club finished ninth on the table. Among the overseas players, only Federico Gallego was retained. The Uruguayan is key to NEUFC’s attacking rhythm but an injury-plagued season has meant he has completed the full 90 minutes just thrice.
"I think you have to get the best possible from your squad,” Nus explained early in December. “We have many new faces. This is a short season. We have established a plan since day one. We have started to bring in tactical ideas. We have a clear idea of how to do things. We know how to defend and how to deal with various situations. If everybody sticks to the plan then the job becomes easier.”
Nus has helped continue the development of youngsters Lalengmawia and Ninthoinganba Meetei, who had breakthrough seasons last year. He handed the captaincy to 20-year-old Lalengmawia, who has played the perfect foil to the senior central midfield partner Khassa Camara. Meetei, 19, has looked incisive without registering a goal or assist and has often had to work hard in running towards his own goal to help his right back. Rochharzela, 22, has admirably made the step up from the I-League to the ISL. Gurmeet Singh, 21, was trusted with replacing the senior statesman Subhasish Roy Chowdhury in goal.
Unfortunately, it was the bizarre mistake from Gurmeet against Bengaluru FC on Tuesday, which denied NEUFC a chance to end its winless streak. Nus, who was suspended from the touchline, looked on from the stands, trying to comprehend the error.
The NEUFC management has seemingly sought to avoid the wrongs from last season, when it decided to let go of Robert Jarni after an 11-game winless run, with three matches left to play. This time around, there are nine matches to play and the Highlanders are still only a win away from cracking into the top-four. The job is now in the hands of Khalid Jamil, who was also named the interim coach last season, to justify NEUFC's decision in the final two months.
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