The most enthralling Indian Super League (ISL) season came to a thrilling finish in Goa. Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, 115 matches were held behind closed doors, inside a bio-bubble, over four long months. After 298 goals, close to 70,000 RT-PCR tests, a last-day league finish and a last-minute winner in the final, Mumbai City FC was crowned the new king of Indian football. It was also a win for City Football Group (CFG), which took over Mumbai City in 2019, in its bid to assert its dominance across the land.
From what Mumbai City did right to why Kerala Blasters seemed to be stuck in a cycle of doom, here are some key learnings from the 2020-21 ISL season.
A Plan B in Lobera-ball
Sergio Lobera has been synonymous with tiki-taka during his time in Indian football. He has a history of coaching the youth teams of Barcelona during his developmental years, and his time in India at FC Goa was remembered for the eye-catching football the team played. The “pass, pass, pass the opposition to death and score” ploy continued at Mumbai City, but there has been a touch of pragmatism.
Curiously though, in 56 matches with Goa, possession and passing accuracy never fell below 45 percent and 70 percent, respectively. At Goa, Lobera’s football was best described as: “You can score three, we will score four.” But at Mumbai City, by what seems like design, he has extended his philosophy with a Plan B of: “We will score and shut you out.”
In the second half of the season, Lobera’s team allowed its possession to drop below 40 percent and passing accuracy below 70 percent (once as low as 51 percent!) on four occasions, while managing to see out games by controlling space without the ball. Defensive stability has been key to his plans. In three seasons with Goa, Lobera’s team managed just 14 clean sheets from 56 matches, whereas his Mumbai City side has managed 10 shutouts in 23 outings.
The type of goals scored during the 2020-21 season were also an indication that Lobera was keen to add a few new pages to his playbook. Mumbai scored 20 goals from set pieces as opposed to 17 from open play. Striker Bartholomew Ogbeche, who it was believed would not suit Lobera’s style of football, started in season-defining matches and scored season-defining goals, even assisting the last-minute winner in the final. The goals in the “two finals” in which Mumbai City prevailed over ATK Mohun Bagan weren’t something you would associate with Lobera-ball. It was more “Chip the ball to ATK Mohun Bagan and take it from there.” In the 2-0 win in the league stage that gave Mumbai the ISL Shield, the team scored from two free-kicks. And in the final, the two goals came from long balls, which ATKMB, uncharacteristically, made a hash of.
Old guard struggling to find new tricks
It seemed like it would be just another regular season for Bengaluru FC. ISL winning-coach Carles Cuadrat was back for his third season and the Blues had Sunil Chhetri. It was time to put the club back on the pedestal again after what was a rare campaign without silverware. But the concerning signs would come to the fore again and form larger cracks.
Bengaluru scored 26 goals in total, with six of them coming only in the last three matches, when the playoffs were already out of reach. It went 12 straight games without managing a clean sheet this campaign after a league-best 11 in 2019-20. Cuadrat was let go of mid-season and Naushad Moosa looked uncomfortable in the interim capacity.
While experience has served Bengaluru well over the years, the squad didn’t have the legs in a season where the matches were coming at it at a relentless pace. Of the 15 players who played 10 matches this season, 11 were over the age of 30. And some of the team’s core starting XI members — Chhetri (36), Dimas Delgado (37), Harmanjot Khabra (32), Juanan (33), Cleiton Silva (34) and Erik Paartalu (34) — are either nearly 35 or over.
It was only due to poor form and injuries that Moosa was able to introduce a few youngsters, but none managed to stake a claim for a place in the side for the next campaign. It’s now up to new head coach Marco Pezzaiuoli to see if it’s time for an overhaul.
The dazzling boys from Hyderabad
Indian national team coach Igor Stimac is supposed to have been starry-eyed every time he watched Hyderabad FC in action back at his home in Croatia. Even by his own admission, Stimac was surprised by Hyderabad’s showing. Not many expected to take notice of the side after its last-place finish in 2019-20 and in particular the departure of head coach Albert Roca before the start of the new season.
But Manolo Marquez Roca has managed to steady the project by putting his trust in young Indian talents and has achieved positive results. For the most part of the season, he was left with just three fit overseas players, and yet the side produced some eye-catching passing football. A playoff place eluded the Nizams by a solitary goal, but that will not define the success of the club.
The uncapped Liston Colaco (22 years old), Akash Mishra (19), Hitesh Sharma (23), Mohammed Yasir (22) and Chinglensana Singh (24) earned call-ups to the national team. Remember their names. With the right guidance, they could be around at the top-level club and in the national team picture for a long time.
‘Make Kerala Blasters relevant again’ crashes, again
It was a new season of “Make Kerala Blasters relevant again” and it was another painful watch. It was Kibu Vicuna’s turn, after having guided Mohun Bagan to the I-League crown, at the steering wheel of the Manjappada and he too was ejected from the seat. A new technical director, Karolis Skinkys, was brought on board to help put together a team that the state could be proud of in the top division.
There was progress. The football was enjoyable, and the attackers created many chances, scoring freely and missing plenty. The one thing that seemed beyond Vicuna’s control was the unexpected nature of his centre-back pairing of Costa Nhamoinesu and Bakary Kone, who created a “9 v 13” situation for Kerala on the pitch due to their reckless decision making.
The Blasters have now finished sixth, ninth, seventh and 10th since their runner-up season in 2016, even as preparations for another reboot begin.
Jamil makes case for full-time role
Not many expected Khalid Jamil to stage a turnaround at NorthEast United FC (NEUFC).
From seventh in the table after 11 matches, Jamil’s NEUFC went on a nine-game unbeaten run to make the playoffs, a place where no other Indian coach had previously reached.
Jamil improved the side on all aspects on the pitch after taking over from Gerard Nus. Both coaches managed 11 games each, but Jamil’s side had more possession (47 percent to 39), scored more goals (20 to 13), conceded fewer goals (13 to 15) and had more wins (six to two). Jamil also had the goodwill of all the neutrals in wanting him to pull off another David vs Goliath story with NEUFC, but it wasn’t to be.
Jamil, an I-League-winning coach, now deserves another crack with NEUFC in a full-time role.