And so it begins. Months of build up, an age of anticipation, played out as a 1-0 football game. Opening games often mean very little in terms of the season as a whole; while it is always good to make a strong start, and Indian superstition rules would also say so, not often do things that begin well, end well. It's too early to be troubled, or even be ecstatic. For further confirmation of this fact, please mail Arsene Wenger.
In the ISL, however, opening fixtures have become goal fests. That is the norm. Kolkata beat Mumbai at home in 2014 with a 3-0 victory, and then edged Chennai 3-2 away. Here's the thing though: After the opening win, they never recorded that margin of victory again in the first season; in fact, the next time they scored three goals was the opening game of the second season.
On Saturday night, if one thing was made very clear, it was how Kerala Blasters would approach games away from home: They would not back down. Steve Coppell lined up his team in that Ajax pioneered 3-4-3 formation, although Jhingan, Hengbart and Hughes locking the defence was quite unexpected. This may have perhaps been brought about because of their lack of options in the squad, with regards to an out and out full back and Josu Currais' suspension.
Like most teams that deploy the 3-4- 3, Kerala struggled with width. Additionally, NEUFC's five-man midfield meant they couldn't play a flat line either and were facing the danger of a counter attack that would leave them short of numbers at the back.
The marker that this formation would be severely tested was set very, very early in the game. In the opening minutes (the team sheets were still rolling out), Gustavo Lazzaretti's long cross field ball found Holicharan Narzary on the right flank with space, time and Ishfaq Ahmed to kill. A three-man defence meant that Ishfaq would be stuck on the chalk for a majority of the game when in his own half. Narzary took the ball, cut in casually and fired miles over the bar. It hardly qualified as a half chance, but the idea was there; space on the wings would be exploited.
NEUFC would do that throughout the first half, drawing Kerala out to the flanks and, more often than not, cutting back in to take shots at goal or draw a foul. This ploy would also spread the visitors' three-man defence out, leaving a lot of space for runners to dash in. On the one occasion they did get a straight cross into the box, there was no one there to receive it, and it still caused mild panic — enough for Aaron Hughes to punt it clear without a second thought.
Eventually, this is how the goal would come. Velez ran past Vinit Rai and drew Jhingan wide. Hengbart was caught ball watching, and Hughes was stranded in the centre with two attackers to deal with. A low cross to the far post, and Katsumi Yusa sticks the boot in.
The 3-4-3 also demands that a team's forwards and midfielders be indistinguishable. This was not the case for Kerala, who created next to nothing from midfield. Almost all their attacks had something to do with Sandesh Jhingan running down the right flank and powering a cross in. It was a pattern so predictable that it almost caught Subrata Pal out; Jhingan hit one — perhaps unintentionally — towards the near post, and Pal was drifting out. Luckily for him though, the ball caught the post.
A lot of Kerala Blasters' build-up was about how they had perhaps not been the most aggressive and physical of teams last season. On that front at least, they could not be faulted on Saturday; they committed themselves to challenges and conceded almost twice the number of fouls as their opponents. While fouls may not be the best way to judge a team's quality, it does show more involved commitment. This was a team that wouldn't fold and buckle under.
Up front, there remain several problems for Coppell to fix. Kerala didn't have a single shot on target all night. The closest they came — aside from Jhingan — was via a Michael Chopra cross from the left that Pal was brave enough to come and punch clear, albeit badly.
It's still early days, and Coppell may yet shift to a standard four-man defence when Rino Anto is back. Additionally, Currais' return will give them more creativity in midfield, something they lacked against NEUFC.
Besides the tactical and performance-based takeaways, if Kerala really want to draw on positives from Saturday's ISL opener, they need not look beyond superstition. They have always played NEUFC in their season opener. Last year, they won 3-1 in a result that was to be meangingless eventually, as they capitulated to a bottom place finish. In 2014 though, they lost to the Highlanders 1-0 and went on to reach the final. Their Twitter account seems to have noticed this.
In 2014 also,we lost inaugural match to NE for a solitary goal by a foreign player but that was a great season.History will repeat. #KBFC
— KBFC (@KBFCOfficial) October 1, 2016