Ten draws. Five wins. Two defeats. Twenty goals scored. Champions!
Atletico de Kolkata, the pre-tournament favorites, were a modicum of consistency all through the season and reaped the rewards for their tenacity and composure at critical junctures, when they lifted the trophy after defeating Kerala Blasters in the final of the third season of the Indian Super League.
Atletico always lined up in a standard 4-2-3-1 formation irrespective of the opponent or the match situation, with skipper Borja Fernandez lining up alongside Bikramjit Singh, Jewel Raja or Stephen Pearson in the centre of the park. The personnel in the double pivot and their role in the team was integral to Atletico’s overall gameplay – while Bikramjit Singh was assigned the duty of breaking up play, the inclusion of Jewel Raja or Pearson in the starting eleven added an attacking impetus.
In the nascent stage of the season, Jose Molina’s side had adopted a simple approach going forward – utilising the pace of their wide midfielders to find pockets of space behind the opposition defence. Javier Lara’s creativity through the central channel was equally significant, with the Spaniard registering 20 shots on target (second most, behind Marcelinho) over the course of the season.
However, a few games in, Jose Molina deployed a subtle switch in his tactical system to stem in the flow of goals on the defensive front and create better goalscoring opportunities for the Atletico forwards. With Postiga’s return to the fold after injury, the marquee signing was tasked with linking up play during transitions and exploit the pockets of space just around the edge of the 18-yard-box. As Javier Lara on the right wing drifted inside, Atletico’s left winger (Molina rotated Abinash Ruidas and Lalrindika Ralte) used the width on offer to stretch the opposition defence.
Depending on the centre forward on the pitch, Atletico varied their approach – presence of Juan Belencoso warranted crosses and a direct system, while Iain Hume provided a lot more diversity and unpredictability up front.
A perfect balance of Indian and foreign players
Atletico managed to strike the perfect balance in the squad, with some clever recruitment decisions in the off season. While the absence of a genuine Indian goalscoring threat raised eyebrows, the versatile skillset among their players and squad depth were paramount in the Kolkata club going the distance.
Debjit Majumdar’s excellence below the bars allowed Molina to field six foreigners in the outfield, unlike many other clubs who struggled to find the right combination across the pitch. Molina provided some useful insight on Majumdar’s season following Atletico’s win in the final, “He wanted to improve. He worked every day and improved. I put him in the line-up because he won his place in the team. He worked hard from the beginning.”
Abinash Ruidas’ emergence into the limelight and Dika Ralte’s continued progress speaks volumes about the kind of trust Molina had on the two youngsters. The assuring performances from Prabir Das and Pritam Kotal at full-back, particularly the former, even against stronger and better opposition players, have been few of the success stories at the Atletico camp this season.
By retaining Iain Hume, Helder Postiga, Javier Lara, Sameehg Doutie, Borja Fernandez, Tiri and Ofentse Nato in their ranks, Atletico preserved the central core of the club, the stability reaping benefits whereas other clubs (like Kerala Blasters) took time to adapt and discover their identity.
Henrique Sereno’s signing midway through the season was yet another masterstroke, for the Portuguese centre-half, who was adjudged ‘Player of the Match’ in the final, has been hailed for his heroics on the pitch. Alongside the signing of Stephen Pearson, who was a chief component of Molina’s tactical change and scored a couple of crucial goals to help ATK qualify for the knock-outs, the management has done a fine job.
Turning Point of the Season
Helder Postiga’s half-time substitution during Atletico’s match against NorthEast United at Guwahati was the turning point, for the Indian Rojiblancos were trailing Vingada’s side by a goal and eventually secured a win. Their home loss against Mumbai City and away defeat at Pune also served important lessons, for the Atletico side started ensuring they avoid defeats at all costs.
Even when some of their key first-teamers underperformed, Atletico picked up points on a consistent basis by not allowing the opposition to cross the finishing line, a habit which served them well in the final, en route to the trophy.
Jose Molina is hardly a flashy manager, but his ability to mould the diverse set of players into a team is his biggest accomplishment and one he clearly believes on, “I think we are a team. That is most important. We attack as a team, defend as a team, fight together. I like the players. But what I love is the team.”
Updated Date: Dec 19, 2016 12:42:57 IST