Chennaiyin FC in ISL 2016: Coach Marco Materazzi's gameplan a mystery that needs solving
While the new-look Chennaiyin FC attack was anticipated to be the biggest stumbling block in defending the title, the defence was the one that took the kicking.
The dethroned champions, Chennaiyin FC, began this season with a lot of key changes in personnel. They had a new marquee player in John Arne Riise, and their talisman John Stiven Mendoza had to give this edition of the Indian Super League (ISL) a miss. Firstpost wrote before the season began that the new-look Chennaiyin attack could be the biggest stumbling block in defending the title. But as it turned out, Chennaiyin's defence was the one that took the kicking.
Chennaiyin FC ended up conceding 25 goals in 14 games this season, while it was only 15 goals in 14 games the previous year. The team also had six clean sheets in the league stages in 2015, compared to just four this season. The biggest factor that played havoc was the unsettled defence. For starters, the goalkeepers Karanjit Singh and Duwayne Kerr never played twice in a row for the first 10 games. Karanjit Singh, who had a clean sheet in each of his first three games, was ironically reinstated as first-choice goalkeeper for the final five fixtures, on the back of the 1-4 loss against Delhi Dynamos.
When Mehrajuddin Wadoo at right-back can play 13 games without a rest, why Karanjit Singh didn't play every game — after it became fairly clear that he was less prone to errors — is the big question. The point is not who should the goalkeeper have been, but why was it taking so long for manager Marco Materazzi to decide on one. The effect of it was clear on Karanjit as he never could impose his authority at the back even in the last few matches.
Just after two games, it became clear that an aged central defensive pairing of Bernard Mendy and John Arne Riise was never going to work, and the manager had acted upon it quickly. The two rarely started again together, with Eli Sabia coming in, except on a couple of occasions — once when Mendy was played as a left winger and once when Riise played at leftback. The conundrum of fitting two experienced heads in the defence should have been solved in the pre-season, but instead, they were the ones being rotated.
The absence of cool and experienced personnel in the fag end of matches cost Chennaiyin dearly as they contrived to draw from winning positions four times in the last few minutes. That itself accounted for eight lost points. The clear difference between qualification and being knocked-out.
Chennaiyin began their first two games of the season with Augusto and Hans Mulder at the centre of the park. But their attacking approach left the defence very vulnerable. Harmanjyot Singh Khabra, who performed the screening role last season, understandably was out of favour due to his disciplinary record. Manuele Blasi and youngster Siam Hanghal then played in the screening midfielder's role for a run of five unbeaten games, before the Delhi Dynamos game happened. Hanghal had a forgettable 45 minutes and he was hauled off for Jeje Lalpekhlua. That Delhi scored two more after the change very much highlighted the importance of this position.
When Blasi was expected to be back in place of Hanghal, the manager threw in Zakeer Mundampara for the next game. Zakeer was a wonderful find from last season, who ably filled the void left by Raphael Augusto last year for the final few games. But being a defensive midfielder was not his forte. That this position was compromised with the priority of rotating goalkeepers was all the more telling. The pattern was thus was that Blasi started only when Karanjit Singh was between the goal posts, keeping in mind the limit of six foreigners per side. Hanghal, who ultimately came back for the must-win-game against Northeast, showed why he deserved another chance much earlier.
The wingers' position was being given a lot of attention as well, which was pointless considering both full-backs were firing in the crosses nonchalantly. That plan was finally ditched in the home game against Pune - the 10th game of the season for Chennaiyin.
The injury to Lalpekhlua in the home game against Atletico de Kolkata was a big blow to Chennaiyin's chances. Just when the team seemed to have gone back to winning ways, they were given a kick in the gut. Though the injury didn't really stop the goals from coming, the absence of the team's Indian talisman was a huge psychological blow. With Lalpekhlua unavailable, it disturbed the balance of foreigners and Indians in the team as well.
What Chennaiyin need for the next season?
Chennaiyin FC need a proper defensive midfielder to start with. That Augusto, who completed 576 passes at 80% accuracy, was also the second highest tackler in the league with 57 tackles shows how much Chennaiyin depend on him. They need someone like Blasi to share the workload on a consistent basis. An Indian would be preferred, with Blasi good enough to make the occasional appearance. Hanghal has shown himself to be more of the ilk of Augusto and seems more comfortable playing forward than hanging back.
Assuming they build around Raphael Augusto, Chennaiyin must look to strengthen their defence smartly. That no Indian centre-back was available to replace Mendy, Sabia, Eder Monteiro or Riise seems to be a glaring error. Wadoo who started misfiring his crosses in the last couple of games needs a fairly decent deputy to atleast give him a rest. Jerry Lalrinzuala seems to be the find of the season. He has been brilliant going forward and defensively has become more assured. With Riise, hopefully available, to back him, the leftback seems to be one position that is well covered.
Chennaiyin will also look to discard some of the underperforming Indians and give more chances to the new crop of youngsters who put in an exciting display in the final game against FC Goa. In this regard, we have hopefully seen the last of Khabra, Baljit Singh Sahni and Thoi Singh, who were all disappointing in whatever little we saw of of them in Chennaiyin colours.
Last but not the least, Chennaiyin need a dependable pacy striker who they can look upon to carry the hopes of the knowlegable fans. Lalpekhlua will also benefit by sharing his pressure in the absence of Mendoza. Dudu Omagbemi and David Succi, past their prime, can provide the experience and technical nuance when called upon.
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