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ISL 2016: Dynamic forwards, directness and other tactical trends of the season

Atletico de Kolkata proved to be tactically more astute than their competition in the just-concluded Indian Super League (ISL), thus making a fair claim to be the deserving title winners.

Unlike all the other teams, ATK played to a plan throughout the season. Despite the rancour over their supposed sterile nature of progression past the league phase, ATK’s blueprint looked perfect for the constricted nature of ISL.

From three-man defences and compactness off the ball to dynamism and directness in attack, there were quite a few tactical trends on display in ISL 2016, and it was aptly won by the team that remained true to their playing philosophy right until the final kick.

Wing play and crosses

 ISL 2016: Dynamic forwards, directness and other tactical trends of the season

Unlike all the other teams, ATK played to a plan throughout the season. ISL

Staying with the champions ATK, one feature of their game was that it revolved largely around their wing play. They had the personnel to play the wide game; their wingers — Sameehg Doutie, Lalrindika Ralte, Abinash Ruidas and Bidyananda Singh — played a combined 2470 minutes and collectively had a role in ten of their 20 goals.

Furthermore, the Kolkata outfit’s 21 crosses per game was the highest of the season, far higher than the league average of 15 per game. Such over-reliance on crosses served ATK well. Their head coach José Molina made sweeping line-up changes on occasions, but the basic premise of their game based on building up and attacking through the flanks remained intact.

A season for the dynamic forward

The 2016 season clearly wasn’t for penalty box poachers as the likes of top scorer Marcelinho and CK Vineeth showed. If ISL 2015 was all about pure centre-forwards like Stiven Mendoza and Reinaldo, this season was more about forwards playing the all-round game and supporting the attacking phase better.

Delhi Dynamos’ Richard Gadze made intelligent movements to create space for Marcelinho to drift infield, while Kerala Blasters’ Kervens Belfort and CK Vineeth did damage by running from deep as well as making good third man forays. Even Mumbai City’s Diego Forlan played a more dynamic game: creating central space for Matias Defederico and playing off the man up front.

FC Goa were more reliant on Rafael Coelho’s goals than Robin Singh’s, while structural problems for NorthEast United and Pune City meant they never really shone as an attacking force. ISL 2016 was the season for the modern centre-forward, one who does more than just score goals.


An argument can be made in favour of elaborate, possession-based football given ATK’s title win, but direct football was far more productive in ISL 2016. Given they were technically superior, ATK and Delhi managed to play a possession-based game that aided their progress past the league phase. But the rest of the lot based their game more on verticality and, in the cases of NorthEast and Pune, more on reactive football.

Kerala and Mumbai were the quickest to get the ball into the final third, and that perhaps explains why they made the playoffs this season. Both teams took around 25 completed passes to get a shot away which was the fewest number in the league. 

In contrast, the likes of NorthEast, Pune, Goa and Chennaiyin FC took an average of 30 completed passes per shot  —  the highest in the league  —  and such little margins meant that they took the fewest shots, and consequently, finished in the bottom half.

Moreover, fewer games were won by teams that dominated possession; that illustrates how directness was favoured more in ISL-3.

Defensive structures

Three-man defences were used sparingly by Goa and Pune this season, but the imperfections in such systems meant they were quickly dispensed with. NorthEast played in a low-block defensive shape that barely allowed them to create connections going forward. 

Commanding centre-back pairings proved to be far more valuable than goalkeepers of authority this season. Anwar Ali and Lucian Goian were rocks in Mumbai City’s defence, so were Delhi’s Rubén Rocha and Anas Edathodika. ATK had their centre-back duties spread out between Tiri, Arnab Mondal and Henrique Sereno, while Kerala had the imposing duo of Cédric Hengbart and Aaron Hughes to keep out opposition attacks.

That rendered the likes of major goalkeeping signings for Pune and NorthEast more or less irrelevant. Both Edel Bete (Pune) and Subrata Pal (NorthEast) led the way in saves this season, but their respective teams’ porous defences meant they could only do so much.

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Updated Date: Dec 21, 2016 14:23:26 IST