Steve Coppell has a degree in economics, and would probably know well one of the simpler rules of the market. Consistency shows predictability. In market economics, this is good. In football — or for that matter any tactical sporting venture — this is bad. Predictability can be countered easily. And with Steve Coppell and his Kerala Blasters, at times this season it has.
Over the past few games especially, his persistence with Michael Chopra has been disastrous. There are several questions to be asked about that. Playing a 4-2-3-1 formation, Chopra's role as a playmaker made sense for a while, as he slotted in at the centre of an attacking trio just behind the striker. His willingness to drop deep and pick up the ball and the ability to play out were assets for a side looking to get into their groove.
Very soon, however, this became predictable. Teams anticipated this facet of Kerala's game and nullified Chopra's influence by pressing higher and being faster on the flanks.
With no disrespect meant, Chopra is no Pirlo or Bergkamp, and his lack of pace on the ball was soon exposed. With less time, he started making errors. But Coppell persisted with the 32-year-old, and that decision was detrimental to his side's attacking prowess.
The return of CK Vineeth, however, meant Coppell took a tough call. He dropped Rafi as main striker and abandoned the 4-2-3-1 formation that worked well for his side. Chopra was now spearheading a 4-3-3. In the new formation, however, there can be no place for someone as slow as Chopra. In other words, Michael Chopra didn't fit the shoe. And the shoe sometimes looked absurd with him in it.
In the first half, Chopra had six touches of the ball, all within his own half and most them facing his own goal. It was an anonymous performance, and perhaps the only thing worse was that no one actually expected anything else. He didn't start the second period; Boris Kadio did. This could also have been predicted, having happened three times before in the season.
As much as one can predict and prepare for situations, however, sometimes good things fall upon you by accident. In this it was Belfort's ejection due to injury in the first half, which meant Antonio German came on. German had speed but more importantly, he had control — something Belfort rarely did. Kadio, listed as a defensive midfielder, would play in that deeper role that Chopra did, but to less effect. Less effect to what he was capable of, not in comparison to Chopra.
In the 4-3-3 formation, the Ivorian slotted in on the left of the trio and Vineeth shifted to the right other wing so that German, the real striker could play as one. This small little shift not only worked for Kerala's own game, but also for the crowd's mood. Where the noise in the first half had been a more genial, generic hum, the energy was focused in the second half. It was directed almost in the way audiences in Roman gladiatorial arenas directed theirs to the fighters.
Vineeth and German had speed in abundance. So did Rafique on the right (although his contribution — weak and negligible, and will prompt a rethink). All three became moving targets, first for Kadio and for Mehtab soon after. So continued almost 35 minutes of the half, with Kerala hitting Chennaiyin's defence with a battering ram of speed and power.
There was the equaliser, scored by the tireless Ivorian who had several self created half-chances before he tapped in from German's cross. More impressive though was the persistence. There was speed, tenacity and a direction to the attack. With Rino Anto introduced, there was more to come.
Vineeth's first came off a goalkeeping howler, but it was borne out of the relentless pressure from the speedy trio. His second was a perfect example of how a 4-3-3 should function: Instead of overthought positional play, this was more instinctive and functional — win ball in turnover; release hounds; rabbit shall fall.
With the two Bengaluru boys back, Coppell must and should put to rest Chopra's languid, laboured play. That is now a Plan B, a way to open up defences that play deep and direct. His team has moved beyond that. Kerala, in this new formation, are fast, furious and abundant in desire. In a season impossible to predict, they are the darkest horses in the race.