ISL 2022-23: Mohun Bagan, Mumbai City look to forget past, while Bengaluru, Goa try to overcome momentary blip

With ISL 2022-23 season just two days away, we take a look at how the teams have strengthened during the off-season, and what to expect of them as the league starts.

Shashwat Kumar October 05, 2022 17:10:01 IST
ISL 2022-23: Mohun Bagan, Mumbai City look to forget past, while Bengaluru, Goa try to overcome momentary blip

With fans returning to the stadium, after a significant gap, the excitement of the tournament is going to be on peak.

The 2022-23 season of the Indian Super League is only a stone’s throw away and the excitement has already reached fever pitch. After a pre-season (yes, they exist in Indian football), which saw a keenly-contested Durand Cup, the ISL clubs are raring to go and are hoping to potentially write themselves into Indian footballing folklore.

Let’s take a look at what to expect from the season and some of the key sub-plots that await us.

ATK Mohun Bagan and Mumbai City FC look to put behind last season’s disappointment

The 2021-22 ISL season was underwhelming for both ATK Mohun Bagan and Mumbai City FC, at least by their lofty standards. The Islanders could not qualify for the semi-finals, whereas the Mariners were dumped out by eventual champions Hyderabad FC at the penultimate stage.

What did they do to overcome that disappointment then? Well, of course, they spent more money in the off-season and strengthened what were already enviable and eye-watering squads.

Greg Stewart, the star of the 2021-22 ISL season, was convinced by the Islanders to join their cause. Roberto Pereyra Diaz, who was a pivotal part of the Kerala Blasters’ run to the final, has come on board, with Alberto Noguera – arguably the most creative midfielder in the league, also part of the side. Oh, and they now have Rostyn Griffiths to challenge Mourtada Fall as well. They also have a greater Indian goal threat in Lallianzuala Chhangte.

ATK Mohun Bagan, on the other hand, have acquired the services of Ashique Kuruniyan and Asish Rai – two players who will run up and down the flanks throughout the campaign. Roy Krishna has departed for Bengaluru FC (more on that later) but in Dimitrios Pertatos, they have someone capable of filling that void.

Their strike force, for the first time in years, relies on Indian talent, which, considering how teams have historically played their cards, seems a gamble. But when the forward department comprises Ashique, Liston Colaco, and Manvir Singh, there is not much to complain.

Akin to Krishna, the departures of Sandesh Jhingan and Tiri have also left a hole. That said, they have procured Brendan Hamill and Pogba (Florentin Pogba, just to be clear). So, they have quality across the board.

Both ATK Mohun Bagan and Mumbai City FC have stuck to the managers who were in charge for a significant chunk of last season, unlike most teams in the ISL. Des Buckingham now knows a thing or two about the ISL, and Juan Ferrando has had almost a year to ingrain his possession-based philosophy.

By virtue of those factors, you feel they should be in contention to compete for the honours that matter. The spin to this story, though, is that that was the case last time out too. And both the Islanders and the Mariners could not make the most of their chances.

They have arguably the two best squads in the ISL, and possibly the two shrewdest tacticians in the league. Quite often, however, that does not count for a lot. The onus, thus, is on them to make sure it does in 2022-23.

Can Bengaluru FC and FC Goa get back to where they want to be?

If you dig up all the points that each team across the history of the ISL has collected, you will find FC Goa at the top. They have also qualified for the semi-finals on six occasions (out of eight). For all this toil, though, they only have a League Winners Shield to brag about – achieved back in 2019-20.

On that same table, Bengaluru FC are fifth, despite having not played every ISL season. Since making the semi-final in 2019-20, though, they have also stuttered and stumbled. Unlike what they did at the start of their ISL journey, they have shuffled their managerial pack too, hinting that the lack of results is leading to a bit of restlessness.

But now, there seems to be a semblance of calm in both camps. Bengaluru FC arrive having won the Durand Cup, and FC Goa enter the season knowing that Carlos Pena, one of their most celebrated foreign players, understands the club and its philosophy inside out.

Both have also bolstered their squads considerably. The Blues have acquired Roy Krishna and he could form an irresistible partnership with Sunil Chhetri. Ashique Kuruniyan has left for newer pastures but in Sivasakthi Narayanan, they have someone capable of stepping up. The defensive line seems in order, with Prabir Das and Sandesh Jhingan coming through the door.

The Blues have also ripped up the high-octane, high-intensity brand of football they tried preaching in 2021-22, instead, opting for something more controlled and slightly result-oriented. With sturdier defensive reinforcements and a certain Roy Krishna at the top, this could be highly successful (take a look at the Durand Cup if you don’t believe me).

FC Goa, meanwhile, have seen Alberto Noguera and Ivan Gonzales (among many others) depart. But they have Alvaro Vazquez to call upon. The Spaniard, fresh from having turbocharged the Kerala Blasters into the final last season, could solve the goal-scoring quandary that plagued the Gaurs for much of the previous campaign. Oh, and Edu Bedia is still around.

Like most teams, FC Goa have a foreign contingent that is largely untested on these shores, although they do have a clear footballing identity – something most other teams don’t. It should help them get accustomed to the vagaries of a new season. After that, however, they are on their own, akin to Bengaluru FC.

These are two teams that have dominated the ISL landscape more often than not. And after a momentary blip last season, they would hope they can get back to where they want to be – right at the top.

Hyderabad FC, Jamshedpur FC, Kerala Blasters – can we have more of the same, please?

These were the teams that made the biggest splash last season. Kerala Blasters finally gave their fans something to shout about. Jamshedpur FC defied the odds to clinch the League Winners Shield, and Hyderabad FC just went out and won the entire thing.

There were stars on each side. Bartholomew Ogbeche kept producing the goods for Hyderabad FC. Greg Stewart single-handedly decided games of football for the Men of Steel, and the likes of Adrian Luna, Pereyra Diaz, and Vazquez shone for the Kerala Blasters.

As is the ISL norm, though, only two among the aforementioned are still at the clubs they represented last season – Luna and Ogbeche. On that yardstick alone, you feel that Hyderabad FC and the Kerala Blasters have a better chance of success. The Kerala Blasters have also stuck to the same manager (this is not a drill, folks), with Manolo Marquez, too, retaining his position at the Hyderabad FC helm.

Jamshedpur FC, in particular, could be hit hard on that front, with Owen Coyle, not the manager anymore. With Aidy Boothroyd calling the shots, they don’t have a lot of reason to change their style. What might ultimately shape their campaign is if they can collectively recreate what Stewart did last season.

He scored goals, he created them, and he ran his socks off for the Men of Steel. Replacing that sort of a player is never easy, and they might even have to look to a bunch of players to recreate that sort of impact. But if any team can do it, it is Jamshedpur FC. They have 10 games at the Furnace as well.

Hyderabad FC, meanwhile, have kept most of their core intact, with Juanan and Rai being the only high-profile departures. The Kerala Blasters have had to make more wholesale changes with Pererya Diaz and Vazquez leaving. But with Ivan Vukomanovic still in charge, they will hope they can better last season’s performance.

One aspect that united the three franchises under discussion, was how coherent they were. Yes, there were star turns who regularly produced moments of magic. Yet, their strength lay in the collective. They hustled and harried teams when out of possession and sprang forward in numbers.

The neutral would be longing for this pattern to continue. Not just because of how thrilling these teams can be, but also because they seem the best equipped to challenge the financially stronger sides. Great competition almost always leads to a greater spectacle. It happened in 2021-22 and if it materializes again, this could be the best ISL season yet.

Can we have something different as well, please?

Well, by now, you know which teams are being talked about. Chennaiyin FC have won the ISL twice but have been woeful when things have not fallen into place. NorthEast United FC, barring the odd remarkable season, have made up the numbers. East Bengal fans, meanwhile, have had to painfully sit through two fairly ordinary campaigns. But no fan base has endured as many ebbs and flows as Odisha FC.

Interestingly, the Juggernauts have gone back to Josep Gombau, under whom they made their ISL debut and captured the imagination. The attacking verve has not disappeared since, although that has been undone by some pretty woeful defending. At the Durand Cup, Gombau had Odisha FC dancing to his tunes, and if he can get them playing at the level they did in 2019-20, a play-off spot might not be entirely out of the equation.

NorthEast United FC have a mountain to climb as well. With a new coach, they have plenty of rough edges to smoothen out. And they don’t have Deshorn Brown and VP Suhair to win them games either. Their foreign recruitment, filled with potential match-winners, reeks of unpredictability. But hey, is that not the case with everything the Highlanders do?

Chennaiyin FC have made so many changes that you could be forgiven to think this was their first-ever ISL season. 18 players have arrived, as has a new head coach. One player who has not departed, though, is Anirudh Thapa, who reportedly turned down an approach by ATK Mohun Bagan.

Thomas Brdaric has, through his foreign signings, indicated that he wants to play a more direct brand of football. Brdaric might get them defensively organized pretty quickly. Making the net bulge, however, is another matter altogether.

Similarly, East Bengal have hired Stephan Constantine, in the hope that he can make them a tough nut to crack. They have signed players with rich ISL experience too. Cleiton Silva guarantees goals. VP Suhair guarantees work-rate. Alex Lima guarantees industry in midfield and Ivan Gonzalez guarantees solidity at the back. Can they guarantee a much better showing, though? Well, only time will tell.

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