What does it take for a football team to undergo a complete overhaul? A season of disaster or 90 minutes of misery? If you ask Delhi Dynamos, it might be the latter. Going into the second leg of their semi-final last season against FC Goa, the Dynamos had a 1-0 lead from their win at home. Many chances to win more convincingly in the first encounter were missed by the Roberto Carlos-managed side, something it came to regret.
An error-strewn display in the second leg meant Goa spanked the visitors 3-0. The dream of a spot in the final was over. Before the season had begun, not many had viewed Delhi Dynamos as one of the sides likely to make it all the way. In some senses, the Dynamos had punched above their weight. Surely, the way forward would have been to build on the substantial gains that had been achieved.
But now, we have a Dynamos side with a new manager and only six players from the squad that finished in the top half of the table. This is not to say that all the players were willingly let go of, but it does seem quite remarkable that not more were retained. It is noteworthy that among last season’s semifinalists, the Dynamos have retained the fewest players.
Under Roberto Carlos’ management last term, 19 goals were scored in 16 games. Not the greatest haul and the players responsible for 14 of them have moved on. One was an own goal. The remaining were scored by Ghanaian striker Richard Gadze (three) and defender Anas Edathodika, two of the select six who were considered worthy of retention.
Crucially, top-scorer Robin Singh was allowed to leave for Goa; John Arne Riise first seemed set for retirement but was later signed as Chennaiyin’s marquee player; midfielder Hans Mulder, one of the assets of the Dynamos in the first two campaigns, left for the same destination as his former Norwegian teammate. The sound you hear in the distance is that of the Dynamos rupturing its ties with the past.
However, it has not been a complete break off. Florent Malouda is the Dynamos’ new marquee signing, having played for the team as a foreign player last season. His eight assists give ground for optimism, if his 36-year-old frame can withstand the bustle.
The key figure among the host of additions is of course the new manager, Gianluca Zambrotta. A player of unquestionable pedigree, Zambrotta now needs to use the nous that placed him in the top bracket of defenders during his playing days as a coach. His managerial CV is conspicuously bare; an 18-month stint with Chiasso that began with a player-coach role, and reached an absolute low with the team barely avoiding relegation in the Swiss second division.
Of course, a side in the Indian Super League (ISL) has to make do with the low hanging fruit when it comes to player and managerial recruitments. Such is the financial constraint within which sides like Delhi Dynamos operate. But it seems rather intriguing that the team from the national capital went for a name that would be more familiar to its followers than someone who possesses a fair degree of coaching experience.
Zambrotta’s signing is not at the same level as that of Roberto Carlos in terms of marketing value but works with the same idea. Hire someone you know. Whether that man knows how to take your team to glory is a question worth asking.
Zambrotta has named Antonio Conte and Diego Simeone as philosophical guides but whether the Dynamos will seek to emulate their approach in full remains to be seen. Pragmatism abounds in the ISL; such is the nature of the beast. Clean sheets and sturdy defences can take a team a long way.
In that regard, the Dynamos need to work hard. Despite making it to the semis last year, the side finished with a negative goal difference in the round-robin stage. Retained goalkeeper Toni Doblas made the most number of saves last season; Anas will continue to be a part of the backline. It is, however, the inclusion of centre-back Ruben Gonzalez that seems to have bolstered the Dynamos’ setup the most.
The Spanish defender’s long experience in La Liga is viewed positively by Zambrotta and his backroom staff. The makeup of the rest of the defence is still uncertain. The Dynamos fielded different combinations with varying results during its three-week pre-season tour of Sweden and England.
The midfield is arguably the strongest unit at Zambrotta’s disposal. Bruno Pelissari has arrived after two seasons with Chennaiyin, an attacking force who can chip in with goals. Former Real Madrid midfielder Marcos Tebar is another player whose signing comes with high expectations. He has a reputation for being a reliable passer, something that may help to fill the hole left by Hans Mulder.
But the question really hovers over Zambrotta. He remains an unknown commodity. How will he fare when pitted against more experienced figures like Zico, Antonio Lopez Habas and Steve Coppell?
Goals are a major issue. The departure of Robin Singh, Abid Nabi and Gustavo Marmentini dos Santos has placed severe pressure on a largely inexperienced attacking unit. Gadze alone cannot fulfil the goal-scoring duties, if his record is a fair indication.
Arjun Tudu and Kean Lewis are in their mid-20s but their relationship with top flight football is at best fledgling. Tudu created waves in the latest edition of the Santosh Trophy by scoring ten times as his team Services retained the title, but ISL will require a step-up in quality.
If there were not enough doubts around the Dynamos already, Alwyn George’s absence from the first four matches is another issue to consider. Bengaluru FC reaching the AFC Cup semi-final will mean that his services will be required by his parent club. Malsawmzuala will leave another empty seat in the roster on that account.
Amid the morass of doubts and uncertainties, Zambrotta and his team will remember one thing. The current situation bears some resemblance to the questionable journey that the Dynamos began at the start of last season.
It turned out alright; but it could have been better. The side from Delhi finished fifth in the first edition of the ISL and went one better last year. Will the upward curve maintain its trajectory? One cannot be convinced at this moment but let us wait and see.