Football teams have a habit of reflecting the character of their manager. Think Sam Allardyce and Bolton Wanderers — meaty; Chris Coleman and Wales — lovable; Pep Guardiola and Barcelona or Bayern — posh; Mourinho and any of his clubs — pick from a broad range of adjectives.
Going by that logic, Kerala Blasters and Steve Coppell are a perfect fit. And this is even before a ball has been kicked for the season. Across English football, Coppell is known to be a man who is fair-minded and unpretentiously decent. He gave a non-league player called Ian Wright a shot at top flight football. He got Reading promoted, holding the team together all through the season. Coppell is known for not shouting in dressing rooms, relying instead on discussions based on logic. No cockiness. No silliness.
All this makes sense. From being the surprise finalists of the first season — and almost nicking the title, if it wasn’t for a fingertip and a post — Kerala experienced the absolute low last season, finishing at the bottom of the pile. Kerala was the nicest team though. It committed the least number of fouls, picked up the least number of cards and above all, gave away the most points to visiting teams. Kerala played good, decent hosts.
Coppell may have a lot of changes to consider. Being nice is one thing. Losing matches being nice is absolutely another.
Post Coppell’s appointment, the Blasters have gone on and retained the core of their Indian team, tying CK Vineeth, Sandesh Jhingan, Mehtab Hossain to new contracts. In addition, they have brought in India international and local boy Rino Anto too. In what could turn out to be bit of a coup, the Blasters have also signed Thongkhosiem Haokip for the season. Haokip, playing for Pune FC, was the highest scorer of the I-League in 2014-'15. Playing for Goa last season, he was only the second Indian to score a hat trick in the ISL.
Kerala will miss the services of Anto and Vineeth for at least four matches though, as they are part of Bengaluru FC’s squad for the AFC Cup semi-final.
Among the foreigners, of which Kerala has many, Northern Ireland’s Aaron Hughes is the pick for the marquee slot. Hughes has experience in bucketloads, but perhaps not the legs. And this could be the case for a large part of the Blasters team.
The 37-year-old Hughes was part of the Northern Ireland team at Euro 2016 and is perhaps going to be a utility player in Coppell’s team, much like John Arne Riise was for Delhi last season. Hughes is a natural central defender, but it won’t be surprising to see him being pushed up the field, considering Jhingan’s credentials in that position. For all their signings, Kerala do not have an out-and-out left back in the team — something Coppell will have to deal with.
One of Coppell’s biggest concerns will be how to get his team to score goals. Kerala was the lowest scorer in the group stages of the league in the first season. The side did improve on that last season, scoring 22 goals in the group stage. A majority of those goals (16) were scored by the trio of Chris Dagnall, Antonio German and Mohammed Rafi. German and Rafi have been retained, but Dagnall isn’t returning. Whether Haokip — who scored four times last season — can fill those boots remains to be seen.
The problem for Kerala has, however, been that when it did score goals, it also let quite a few in. In stark contrast to the first season when the Blasters had seven clean sheets, they managed a measly two last season. They conceded 27 times in 14 matches last season. Eleven of those goals were conceded at home.
In the first season of the ISL, much was made about how Chennai and Kochi had embraced the competition wholeheartedly. The stadium at Kochi was routinely posting record attendance figures. The stadium was the Blasters' fortress in 2014, and the side lost only a match at home that season and picked up 12 out of a possible 21 points there. It accounted for two-thirds of the Blasters' total points tally. However, last season, the team could pick up just eight points at home, losing thrice.
A team which is a title contender is expected to be strong at home. Often teams in the ISL have relied on their foreign players and marquee signings to pull them out of sticky spots for points. Helder Postiga did it for Kolkata last season, before getting injured. Florent Malouda consistently pulled the strings for Delhi and Lucio was solid at the back for FC Goa.
Kerala is the team with the least star power, and truth be told, their foreign players aren’t very inspiring. The side will mostly rely on ageing foreign hands for a push for the playoffs. Without getting into the Stephen Constantine versus Michael Chopra battle, we can definitely say that the former Newcastle man isn’t going to be the rallying point for his team when they are two goals down.
Perhaps that is Kerala’s strength though. The Blasters should stop being a one or two man army and instead be the collective unit from 2014. They were a gritty team in the first season of the ISL that pushed, fouled, defensively held itself strong and scored just enough goals to get to the finals.
Coppell has a lot of things to set in order. To start off, it would be good to get rid of the "nice guy, nice team" image and toughen his team for some serious battles. He could perhaps model the team around the stronger side of his character, that of a Manchester United player with a fortress for a home ground.