On Tuesday, after three years at the helm, Sanjoy Sen resigned as head coach of Mohun Bagan following a 1-2 defeat to Chennai City FC at the Mohun Bagan Ground. It was the Kolkata club’s fourth successive home game without a victory and, remarkably, Sen’s first home defeat in the I-League as Bagan coach—a proud record spanning more than three seasons.
Sen’s exit did not come as a surprise. He would have likely been relieved of his duties had he not resigned first. His position at the club had become untenable. The team’s performances, which had deteriorated with each passing year, had reached well below par this season. Even the fans, who had been patient by Kolkata standards, had turned against him. The management of the club too was reportedly contemplating his future.
Bagan, placed fifth in the league, are seven points behind arch-rivals and leaders East Bengal (although with a game in hand). The Mariners have won only twice in seven games, six of which were at home. An embarrassing draw versus Indian Arrows, the football federation’s young developmental side, had pushed Sen to the edge days before the Chennai City defeat had proved fatal.
Sen leaves Bagan with a proud albeit mixed legacy primarily due to the timing and nature of his own success.
Bagan’s appointment of Sen in 2014, a marriage of convenience, came with little to no expectations. He wasn’t first choice. At the time of a financial crisis at the club, largely brought upon by the “chit fund” scam, Bagan reportedly could not afford to recruit a foreigner as coach nor could the club install technical director Subhash Bhowmick as the head coach since he didn’t possess the requisite license. So the club went with Sen, who had previously managed Kolkata sides United S.C. and Mohammedan Sporting.
Bagan scaled unexpected heights so early under Sen’s guidance that follow-up acts were doomed to be a disappointment. Which is why, even after guiding the club through its most successful period in 15 years, the coach’s tenure is being judged today for what it could have delivered—rather than what it did.
History, though, will certainly be kinder to him than the present. A maiden I-League triumph in 2015, beyond the imagination of even the most optimistic Mariner, had arrived within six months of him taking charge. It was the club’s first national league title in 13 years and helped rejuvenate a club in crisis—during a time when players and staff went unpaid for several months.
A Federation Cup trophy followed in 2016, which too was a first since 2008. Add to these two, second-place finishes in the league; which may be a source of regret for Bagan fans today but were a huge upgrade on the years preceding Sen’s appointment. Prior to his arrival, Bagan had run through 14 coaches in eight years and finished fourth or below in six of the seven I-League seasons, including narrowly avoiding relegation in 2014. It was Sen who took this nearly-relegated club to a league title.
Sen’s team, though, did not fulfil their potential over the course of his tenure. Rich in talented players, the team was almost never the sum of its parts. Bagan surrendered their title to Bengaluru FC by two points in 2016 and lost to Aizawl FC by a point in 2017; the latter particularly damning due to the clear disparity in resources between the two clubs.
On both occasions, several of Sen’s weaknesses came to the fore. His tactical inflexibility meant that he had no ‘Plan B’ to change the course of matches. Last season, following a fortunate 3-1 win over DSK Shivajians in which the visitors from Pune dominated the first half, a frustrated Sen responded to questions raised over his approach: “I do not have a Plan B, C or D. I am a one-track coach and my team is like that.”
His ‘Plan A’ was the standard 4-4-2 (or a 4-4-1-1) formation with two defensive-minded midfielders (the likes of Pranoy Halder, Souvik Chakrabarti, Sehnaj Singh and Bikramjit Singh) and two strikers (the likes of Daryll Duffy, Cornell Glen, Balwant Singh and Jeje Lalpekhlua). “Many coaches around the world don't like (the 4-4-2 formation),” Sen had admitted once. “Look at Arsenal where Arsene Wenger had been playing this for the last 16 or so years,” he had pointed out dubiously since Wenger had actually resorted to a 4-2-3-1 for the majority of the last decade.
Sen’s reluctance to rotate his tiring squad proved costly as well. His substitutions too rarely altered the flow of the game. "I don’t believe in the principle of changing many players from the playing eleven,” he had mentioned prior to last season, “as it disrupts the playing combination.” But jaded and predictable performances, especially away from home, came as a result. For instance, Bagan had averaged only one starting line-up change per game for vital away trips to Shillong, Ludhiana and Aizawl within a span of 10 days at the business end of last season. Five points were dropped after three mediocre displays and the title subsequently went to Aizawl.
The coach’s methods lacked modernity. Players who had played under him have spoken of dull 11-v-11 sessions in training with the same formation everyday. They also revealed Sen’s aversion to using video analysis or any of the modern sports science tools to make more informed decisions.
All this meant that his methods relied too heavily on individuals like Sony Norde, Katsumi Yusa or Jeje to produce game-defining moments of brilliance. In the absence of these, the team’s lack of ideas and variation in offence was repeatedly exposed. A major dependency on Norde, the I-League’s best player, never helped matters. Most attacks would go through the Haitian’s left flank, making Bagan a predictable force.
With the quality of players at his disposal, and keeping in mind the opposition’s troubles, Sen should have won another league title with Bagan.
His cautious approach in away games, even with the best attack in the league, was infuriating for fans. Only seven victories in 27 away games over the last three seasons of the league is a dreadful record for any club to have, let alone for a club of Bagan’s stature. Getting outplayed by clubs such as Aizawl, DSK and Shillong Lajong had come to become a regular theme during away trips. Sen could not stop the rot.
This season has been a different ball game from the offset. Bagan lost some of its key players, such as forwards Jeje and Balwant, midfielders Halder and Souvik and ‘keeper Debjit Majumder to the Indian Super League (ISL)—which, for the first time, runs in parallel to the I-League. Yusa and Eduardo Ferreira joined rivals East Bengal as well; the former’s exit not appreciated by fans.
Injuries have played a major role too. Japanese Midfielder Yuta Kinowaki had put in a man-of-the-match display in the Kolkata derby win but that’s been his only outing in an injury-ravaged season. Australian midfielder Diogo Ferreira was released due to “family issues” according to the club. Even Norde has missed three matches, and has been carrying an injury.
Without his firing foreigners, Sen had struggled to deliver. Even with them, his team hasn’t been competent—an attacking trio of Cameroonian Asier Dipanda (last season’s top scorer), Liberian Ansumana Kromah (Churchill Brothers’ standout player from last season) and Norde is easily the best attack in the I-League. But as has been the norm during Sen’s tenure, it hasn’t produced the desired results on the field.
Shankarlal Chakraborty, Sen’s former Assistant Coach, has been elevated to play the main man. Whether he carries on in the same vein remains to be seen.
Maybe a few years down the line, Bagan fans, and the fraternity at large, will view Sen’s three-year stint with far more gratitude and respect. After all, he’ll always remain the man who brought glory days back to Bagan.
Updated Date: Jan 04, 2018 15:43 PM