I-League 2019-20: Recruitment to playing style, Kibu Vicuna's Mohun Bagan corrected multiple wrongs to clinch title in style

I-League may have lost its prestige over the years, but this Bagan team should go down as one of the all-time great teams of the modern Indian football era.

Akarsh Sharma March 12, 2020 09:51:36 IST
I-League 2019-20: Recruitment to playing style, Kibu Vicuna's Mohun Bagan corrected multiple wrongs to clinch title in style
  • I-League may have lost its prestige over the years, but this Bagan team should go down as one of the all-time great teams of the modern Indian football era.

  • After three years of expecting one of the Kolkata clubs to rightfully take charge of this division, Bagan have answered the call in their final season.

  • Vicuna's Bagan has had contributions from all across the squad. It is also a team that has stepped up to different kinds of challenges.

It took Mohun Bagan a few years, but the club has finally set things right. And done so in spectacular fashion. Crowned I-League champions with four games left. Sitting on a 16-point lead. In the middle of a 14-game unbeaten run. On track for the most dominant league triumph since semi-professional league football was introduced in India in 1996.

In the last three years, this club has watched in despair as the I-League trophy was passed from one minnow to another. It was a damning indictment of the state of affairs in Kolkata that smaller and newer clubs could pip Bagan, or East Bengal, to the league title, despite financial and football conditions favoring the big two.

Kolkata clubs started as favourites every season for three years. If they got it right, there was no catching them. But they never did. Aizawl FC, reinstated after relegation the previous year, won I-League in 2017 on a budget less than the salary of Bagan's marquee player Sony Norde. Minerva Punjab, in only their second top-division season, lifted the trophy in 2018. Chennai City, who escaped relegation on the final day in 2018, were crowned champions in 2019.

ILeague 201920 Recruitment to playing style Kibu Vicunas Mohun Bagan corrected multiple wrongs to clinch title in style

Mohun Bagan coach Kibu Vicuna celebrates the title victory with his players. Image: @theafcdotcom

All of these league-winning teams had an identity: Aizawl's zippy passing, Minerva's counter-attacking and Chennai's tiki-taka. The whole was more than the sum of the parts. Bagan, devoid of such identity, was just a group of individuals. The club finished one (2017), four (2018) and 14 points (2019) behind the champions. An embarrassing return for a club of its stature.

This season, however, Bagan got it right. Recruitment, planning, execution... heck, they even did social media right, which is quite an ask for a Kolkata club.

Spanish head coach Kibu Vicuna joined Bagan in May 2019, well before the start of I-League in November. It gave Vicuna, the club's first foreign coach in five years, time to inculcate his philosophy. Even the majority of the players in his I-League squad were recruited early and were with him during the Calcutta Football League, which finished in September.

"We [have been] working together almost five months now," Vicuna had said confidently ahead of the opening match of the season. "We have prepared the team to be 100% ready to play the first game." In a country where clubs struggle with the right approach in preseason — just ask Eelco Schattorie — Bagan had a near-perfect one, playing competitive football with almost the same squad. And the results have been visible.

Vicuna's team has been a joy to watch. It has shown the cohesion of a unit that's been together for years. It has played with the swagger of a side representing India's biggest football club. Its short-and-quick passing style has been the most attractive to watch of any team, except FC Goa, across the two national leagues. Its midfield control, led by number 10 Joseba Beitia, has perhaps been on par with any team ever in the I-League. This 23-pass team goal that made rounds of the internet summed up Vicuna's formidable unit.

Unlike the Bagan teams of previous years, the current one has the perfect balance. Omission of Haitian winger Norde may have helped. Most successful teams in Indian football have foreigners along the spine: the central defence, central midfield and centre-forward positions. In the last few years, Bagan's key player, Norde, played on the left wing, which resulted in a lopsided attack.

This season, Bagan have foreigners in all of the key positions. Beitia and Fran Gonzalez in central midfield, Daneil Cyrus and Fran Morante in central defence and Papa Diawara as the powerful striker. Beitia (3 goals) and Gonzalez (10 goals) haven't missed a game. Morante has missed one, due to suspension. Cyrus has missed five, owing to injuries. Diawara (10 goals), who replaced striker Salvador Chamorro, hasn't missed a game since joining the club before the season's fifth game. He is on an incredible nine-match scoring streak.

Indian players have stepped up nicely, and sometimes surprisingly. Winger Nongdamba Naorem, aged 20, hasn't allowed the team to miss Norde; perhaps the greatest compliment you could give him. Midfielder Sheikh Sahil, 19, has carried his good form forward from the Calcutta Football League. Forward VP Suhair's versatility has been very useful to the team; he plugged the striker's position till Diawara came in and played on the wings thereafter.

Sankar Roy was the club's second-choice goalkeeper but finished the season firmly as its number one, replacing the error-prone Debjit Majumder and putting in heroic performances. Ashutosh Mehta, who denied Bagan the title in 2017 while he was with Aizawl, has now become a fan-favorite for his aggressive tackling at right back. Dhanachandra Singh, in the twilight of his career and an I-League winner with Bagan in 2015, stepped in for the injured Gurjinder Kumar at left back and hasn't relinquished his place since.

Furthermore, striker Subha Ghosh, 19, who scored a late equaliser against Punjab FC, midfielder PM Britto and on-loan winger Romario Jesuraj, who scored with his first touch after a lengthy injury break, have all chipped in with contributions from the bench.

Vicuna's Bagan has had contributions from all across the squad. It is also a team that has stepped up to different kinds of challenges. Whether it be the poor pitch in Ludhiana — called "a car park" by one opposition manager — where Bagan scraped a 1-1 draw under difficult circumstances, or the physical challenge of Srinagar, where Vicuna's men matched Real Kashmir's aerial threat and came away with a 2-0 win.

I-League may have lost its prestige over the years, but this Bagan team should go down as one of the all-time great teams of the modern Indian football era. After three years of expecting one of the Kolkata clubs to rightfully take charge of this division, Bagan have answered the call in their final season.

The club has finally flexed its true muscle, got its act together and blown away the rest of the field.

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