ATK Mohun Bagan's warning shots, Bengaluru FC's struggles, same old Kerala Blasters — making sense of ISL 2021-22's frenetic start

With eleven games out of the way, the goal tally so far stands at 35 which is the highest the ISL has ever mustered after as many games, highlighting the attacking adventure on display

Shashwat Kumar November 29, 2021 11:29:48 IST
ATK Mohun Bagan's warning shots, Bengaluru FC's struggles, same old Kerala Blasters — making sense of ISL 2021-22's frenetic start

Roy Krishna of ATK Mohun Bagan and Mohammad Rafique of SC East Bengal in action during match 9 of ISL at the Tilak Maidan stadium in Goa on 27 November 2021. Sportzpics/ISL

Eleven games of the 2021-22 season of the Indian Super League have flown by and there has already been a glut of goals. So far, the tally stands at 35, which is the highest the ISL has ever mustered after these many games, highlighting the attacking adventure on display.

However, there have also been moments that fans and footballers would want to forget in a hurry. ATK Mohun Bagan have made the opposition feel that way, owing to their exciting brand of football, whereas Hyderabad FC and Odisha FC have done enough to upset the established ISL order.

Elsewhere, the defending champions Mumbai City FC haven’t quite gotten off to the start they would’ve envisioned. FC Goa and NorthEast United have also looked a notch below their usual level, meaning that teams such as Jamshedpur FC have capitalised.

All in all, plenty of action has taken place already in what promises to be a manic season. And, with eleven games out of the way, the time might be ripe to take in a deep breath and relive what has transpired so far.

ATK Mohun Bagans warning shots Bengaluru FCs struggles same old Kerala Blasters  making sense of ISL 202122s frenetic start

Roy Krishna of ATK Mohun Bagan and Mohammad Rafique of SC East Bengal in action during match 9 of Indian Super League at the Tilak Maidan stadium in Goa on 27 November 2021. Sportzpics/ISL

ATK Mohun Bagan are the team to beat

For the past couple of seasons, “1-0 to ATK Mohun Bagan (ATK previously)” has been the norm in the ISL. Antonio Lopez Habas has opted for a safety-first approach, with the likes of David Williams and Roy Krishna expected to make the difference at the other end.

This time, though, there seems to be a slight change in tack — a tweak brought about by astute off-season business and of course, the galaxy of stars at his disposal. So much so that ATK Mohun Bagan have fired plenty of ominous warning shots — all while ambling along in second (or even first) gear.

Kerala Blasters FC bore the brunt of it on the opening night of ISL 2021-22. A much harsher treatment, though, was reserved for arch-rivals SC East Bengal, who were blown away in the first half. During both those games, what came through was the kind of fluidity ATK Mohun Bagan had while attacking.

Hugo Boumous has formed an extraordinary partnership with Krishna. Both seem to have developed a telepathic understanding of the spaces the other is going to attack, meaning that teams have been pulled apart quite easily.

At times, Boumous has dropped deep and fed Krishna. On other occasions, Krishna has held the ball up before releasing Boumous into space. In simpler words, this seems as fruitful and symbiotic a partnership as the ISL has ever seen. And, at the cost of sounding slightly ludicrous, seems even better than what Krishna and Williams have produced over the years.

The other acquisitions, namely Joni Kauko and Liston Colaco have taken to life like ducks to water. Remember, both had huge boots to fill, with Edu Garcia and Javi Hernandez departing for Hyderabad FC and Odisha FC, respectively. So, if they are providing a similar impact, it tells you that they have adapted well.

Williams, on the other hand, hasn’t shot a ball in anger so far. Tiri has not played a minute of football this season and Prabir Das (their 2019-20 hero) has been out of favour. Yet, ATK Mohun Bagan have waltzed to the top of the table.

And, if that isn’t enough, they have been very stingy defensively, although Habas wouldn’t have been thrilled with their opening day display. Nevertheless, with a makeshift defensive unit finding its feet, you feel the cohesion and organization will only get stronger.

All of this and the fact that ATK Mohun Bagan have several potential gears to click into, makes them the team to beat in this ISL season, despite the Mumbai City FC fans arguing otherwise.

Speaking of the Islanders….

Mumbai City FC aren’t as flawless as last season

When a team conquers the double in ISL terminology (the league winners shield and the title), it is pretty hard to imagine them getting better. Through the off-season, though, Mumbai City FC, despite Sergio Lobera’s departure, seemed capable of doing so.

Last time out, their team was built upon a solid midfield base – a base which comprised the likes of Ahmed Jahouh, Raynier Fernandes and Rowllin Borges. To that, they added Apuia, who was arguably the standout Indian player across the league.

They saw Adam le Fondre and Bartholomew Ogbeche leave for newer pastures. Yet, had the ambition to sign Igor Angulo from FC Goa. Thus, when the Spaniard netted a brace of goals against the Gaurs in the Islanders’ opening fixture, it seemed that normal service had resumed.

Against Hyderabad FC, though, it became clear that Mumbai City FC are probably not as flawless as they were last season. Not just because there is a new manager at the helm, but also because a few other areas need rectifying.

Any team that loses Hugo Boumous will have a huge cavity to fill. For the Islanders, that seems even bigger, considering how their will to play free-flowing football. Cassinho and Ygor Catatau are able replacements. But both lack the kind of oomph that Boumous is capable of conjuring.

Defensively, Hernan Santana’s absence means that the Islanders are left with just a solitary foreign centre-back. While that centre-back aka Mourtada Fall is pretty good, the Indian alternatives aren’t particularly appealing.

Rahul Bheke has underwhelmed in the past couple of seasons, whereas Valpuia seems a touch raw. Apuia could be an option but that could directly sacrifice the bite he brings to their midfield.

In terms of their playing style, the Islanders seem more intent on pressing higher up the pitch under Des Buckingham. A few of their goals have already come via that avenue. However, they seem to lack the cutting edge that became a feature under Lobera – a cutting edge, you could argue, also stems from an enormous Boumous-shaped hole.

That said, the Islanders still have enough quality to find themselves in the upper echelons of the ISL table. It’s just that they might not be as consistent as they were last season. In sport, that can happen too. From Mumbai’s perspective, though, it is a slight fall from grace, considering what they achieved in 2020-21.

Keep an eye out for Hyderabad FC

Before the season, several had earmarked Hyderabad FC as potential contenders. They had narrowly missed out on the top four last term and had only become better, owing to their off-season acquisitions.

In the first game, those notions were tested to the hilt as their star foreign players produced an insipid display. Bartholomew Ogbeche wasn’t at the races. Edu Garcia failed to carve open the Chennaiyin FC defence and Joao Victor wasn’t as influential as he usually is.

Against the defending champions, though, they flicked a switch. They stormed out of the blocks and illustrated just why they are being touted as worthy ascenders to the Islanders’ throne.

The best part about Hyderabad FC is that they have retained the identity they created in 2020-21 and have supplemented it with players cut out of a similar cloth. At present, they have probably the best Indian contingent at the tournament. And, it has become very hard to argue that their foreigners aren’t on a similar pedestal.

Manolo Marquez has also ingrained a clear philosophy – a philosophy that revolves around keeping the ball, providing as much width as possible and then being precise in the final third.

Inexperience could play a role as the season progresses and could be the only thing that weighs down the Nizams. However, the early indications are that they should be able to tide over it without much hassle.

ATK Mohun Bagans warning shots Bengaluru FCs struggles same old Kerala Blasters  making sense of ISL 202122s frenetic start

Javier Hernandez Francisco Gonzalez of Odisha FC in action during match 6 of Indian Super League at the Tilak Maidan Stadium in Goa on 24 November, 2021. Sportzpics/ISL

Odisha FC aren’t bad either

Last season, Odisha FC languished at the bottom of the ISL table. Their manager also indulged in inappropriate behaviour and was sacked mid-way through the season. Eventually, a campaign of mediocrity transpired, which considering their rise under Josep Gombau was an enormous dampener.

In the off-season, though, Odisha FC showed incredible conviction – first in appointing Kiko Ramirez and then giving him the requisite players to implement his philosophy.

Odisha FC have only played a solitary game so far but the early signs are that they are actually buying into what their coach is trying to say. In simpler words, they are becoming more of the side they showed they could be in 2019-20 but were miles away from becoming in 2020-21.

The Juggernauts’ game against Bengaluru FC was an end-to-end fixture, meaning that both teams hardly got to breathe. Yet, Odisha FC and their foreign players, in particular, found enough composure to upstage the former ISL champions.

Javi Hernandez seems an inspired signing. Not because he still seems at the peak of his powers, but also because he has the capability to morph into Odisha FC’s talisman. Jonathas is an exciting forward who could do wonders with the right kind of service, whereas Hector Rodas and Victor Mongil provide much-needed solidity at the back.

More importantly, it seems that Ramirez has stumbled upon a decent winning formula. Much of their technical play flows through their foreigners, whereas the Indian contingent provides the determination, drive and running required to make the system a success.

Bengaluru FC, Chennaiyin FC and Jamshedpur FC still have plenty to prove

Bengaluru FC seem to be hindered by the same issues that hampered them last season. Their attack still depends heavily on Sunil Chhetri. While Cleiton Silva has popped up with a few goals, their attacking unit still looks a notch below some of the others in the ISL.

Udanta Singh had a day out against NorthEast United FC but couldn’t come up trumps against Odisha FC. Ashique Kuruniyan has also not hit the heights expected of him, whereas Jayesh Rane, despite his industry, doesn’t provide the creative edge BFC are looking for.

Moreover, there seems to be a general lack of movement – something that came to the fore against the Juggernauts and the Kerala Blasters. Well, at least until Albino Gomes (the KBFC keeper) took matters into his own hands.

Though the Blues might be able to score in end-to-end encounters, they might find it tough to make the net ripple when the opposition sits back and invites pressure.

Additionally, as Odisha FC illustrated, the Blues could be caught cold on the break. Bruno Ramires and Suresh Singh Wangjam don’t provide as much security as Dimas Delgado and Erik Paartalu. Their central defensive options (both foreign and Indian) have also left a bit to be desired.

Bengaluru FC have also not kept a clean sheet in their seven most recent ISL fixtures – something that sticks out even more when their strikers are unable to score enough goals.

Similarly, Chennaiyin FC seem to possess a few shortcomings. While those didn’t surface for the entirety of their game against Hyderabad FC, there was enough to suggest that they need a lot of stars to align in their favour if they are to make a fist of this ISL campaign.

Speaking of the match against the Nizams, there were glimpses that the Marina Machans have something to cling onto, especially if they can find a way to mask their weakness.

For example, their midfield, comprising of skipper Anirudh Thapa and Vladimir Koman seems compact. Both have the necessary tactical nous to snuff out attacks and the technical ability to mount offensive moves. Lallinzuala Chhangte and Mirlan Murzaev also showed themselves to be livewires.

If Chennaiyin FC intend to play on the counter attack, their pacy wingers could enjoy themselves throughout the season. Moreover, Rafael Crivellaro remains a match-winner, irrespective of the opposition he faces.

At the back, though, they still seem a little circumspect. The departure of Eli Sabia hasn’t helped matters, whereas Bozidar Bandovic (the coach) has also not been able to drill as much solidity into the team as he would’ve liked.

The full-backs (Narayan Das and Reagan Singh) also have a tendency to get caught out of position, meaning that the Marina Machans’ ploy, which relies on a water-tight defence, might not hold up very often.

However, if they can rectify these aspects and survive – like they did against Hyderabad FC, they could, courtesy of their flair players, set the cat among the pigeons.

As for Jamshedpur FC, they’ve done well to retain a decent core of players. Against FC Goa, that trait came to the fore too, with them producing an extraordinary collective display – a display that showed how good Owen Coyle’s men could be.

On that evening, they soaked up all the pressure before hitting the Gaurs on the break. Greg Stewart seems an excellent option in the attacking third. That, coupled with Nerijus Valskis’ return to goal-scoring form should hold them in good stead. This time, they can also bank on Jordan Murray’s experience.

At the back, Eli Sabia has added more muscle to a relatively sturdy defensive line. Peter Hardley remains as dependable a defender as any, whereas their Indian defenders, namely Narender Gehlot, Laldinliana Renthlei and Ricky Lallawmawma aren’t shabby either.

Thus, against teams that leave the back door open, Jamshedpur FC could be a handful. However, when confronting sides that deploy a deep block (like SC East Bengal did), they might not have the adequate firepower to blow them out of the water.

That could still change though, with the onus firmly on the Red Miners.

ATK Mohun Bagans warning shots Bengaluru FCs struggles same old Kerala Blasters  making sense of ISL 202122s frenetic start

Greg Alexander James Stewart of Jamshedpur FC and Glan Martins of FC Goa in action during match 8 Indian Super League at the GMC Bambolim stadium in Goa on 26 November 2021. Sportzpics/ISL

FC Goa and NorthEast United FC underwhelm

FC Goa and NorthEast United FC were two of the four teams that made the semi-finals in 2020-21. Both saw changes at the top and still showcased enough wherewithal to last the distance. Thus, many expected them to continue in a similar vein. Not because they had the same coaches that ended the previous term but also because they seemed to be onto something.

So far, evidence of that ilk has been in short supply. The Highlanders have struggled defensively in both games, which is a bit of an irony considering how hard Khalid Jamil usually works on that facet.

Against Bengaluru FC, they were too open, whereas against the Kerala Blasters, they made elementary errors that they weren’t punished for.

In the middle of the park, the departure of Apuia seems to have left a massive void. Khassa Camara is good at breaking up play but doesn’t have someone capable of dictating the game alongside him.

The injury to Federico Gallego hasn’t helped, although you could argue that even with his presence, NorthEast United FC would’ve struggled to keep the goals out.

Up front, Deshorn Brown has been his effervescent self in both games. But finishing hasn’t always been his strongest suit, meaning that the Highlanders have also huffed and puffed in front of goal. More worryingly, they barely created anything of note against the Blasters – something that would’ve sent a few alarm bells ringing.

FG Goa, on the other hand, dominated possession in both matches. Yet, never seemed likely to make the net bulge. Before the season, plenty wondered how they would account for Igor Angulo’s goals. With each passing encounter, it feels they’ve not done sufficient work to offset it.

The four-foreigner rule has also impacted what was already a threadbare defensive unit. With only one recognized foreign defender in Ivan Gonzales, they have looked lacklustre and have not been able to compete with pacier attacking outfits.

The biggest problem, though, has been FC Goa’s ability to use the ball. So far, their attacking play has lacked the kind of verve that became vogue under Sergio Lobera. While Juan Ferrando was portrayed as a more pragmatic manager, even he wouldn’t have envisioned the Gaurs’ struggles against deep blocks.

Airam Cabrara hasn’t hit the ground running and that has transferred the burden onto Jorge Ortiz, who isn’t a great goal-scorer himself. Alberto Noguera and Edu Bedia have pulled the strings but it hasn’t counted for much, especially with the lack of movement in the offensive third.

Hence, there are several flaws that both FC Goa and NorthEast United illustrated during their opening two fixtures. Some seem redeemable, whereas others don’t seem as accommodative.

Either way, this isn’t the start they would’ve been hoping for or the start people would’ve expected them to endure. Yet, it is the start they have to deal with now.

Not much has changed for SC East Bengal

SC East Bengal, who made their ISL debut in 2020-21, were subjected to a woeful campaign. They barely got into any sort of rhythm and were unsurprisingly, marooned in the bottom trenches of the points table.

From that perspective, the appointment of Manuel Diaz and an influx of foreign players has helped them improve. Yet, when considering what their benchmark was last season, it might not be enough to save them from another average season.

On paper, the foreigners seem an upgrade to their complement in 2020-21. Antonio Perosevic, in particular, is someone capable of making a difference. But their Indian contingent still looks very tentative, especially in matches against top-drawer sides.

In the Kolkata Derby, they were given a rude awakening as ATK Mohun Bagan obliterated them before half-time. While a lot of teams would be treated to a similar fate against the 2020-21 finalists, the manner of the defeat suggests that not much has changed for SC East Bengal.

Their defence seems porous, their attack seems to rely only on individuals and they don’t have midfielders capable of controlling the tempo of encounters. All in all, the early games have shown that they don’t seem to have enough quality to consistently challenge in the ISL.

Not a lot has changed for the Kerala Blasters too

The Kerala Blasters have endured the most Kerala Blasters-esque season imaginable so far. They were all over the shop against ATK Mohun Bagan and were unsurprisingly humbled.

A game later, they were their frenetic selves, making last ditch-tackles and launching long balls into areas where a blade of grass was visible. But they still have only one point to show for their efforts.

While their first fixture was characterised by an all too familiar defensive capitulation, the second game was about lacking a clinical edge in front of goal. In both matches, their midfield failed to impose itself, meaning that the game alternated between attack and defence.

Against Bengaluru FC, the Kerala Blasters found themselves somewhere in between. There were patches of good football but those were usually followed by pretty ordinary stuff. Individual errors, however, is an ailment that continues to plague them. And that certainly qualifies as one of the more undesirable traits in the ISL.

On paper, the Kerala Blasters seem to have a more balanced squad. Footballers of the ilk of Adrian Luna, Sahal Abdul Samad and Vincy Baretto can get the spectators off their seats.

Yet, they haven’t really done anything to hint that they will buck their usual trend this season. The usual trend, by the way, invariably ends in a season of disappointment.

Having said that, a few of these early indicators could materialize as false dawns for some teams. For others, these lessons could act as a launchpad for a brighter horizon.

What can’t be denied, though, is that the opening exchanges of ISL 2021-22 have been as entertaining as any in recent memory. That should count for something, shouldn’t it?

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