ISL 2018-19: ATK hope to thrive on manager Steve Coppell's tactical nous, attacking gameplan in new season
In Kalu Uche, Balwant Singh and Jayesh Rane, ATK have a versatile forward line at their disposal, and Coppell's men would look to better their last season's performance.
The dings of the club anthem will enamour the streets of Kolkata, scores of red shirts bubbling through the City of Joy to make it to the Yuva Bharati Krirangan as ATK gear up for the 2018-19 Indian Super League (ISL) season with a new manager at helm and a revamped squad. The glitz and glamour of the 2017 FIFA U-17 World Cup had all but dimmed the allure of the ISL last season, especially with ATK performing poorly, but a new season has ramped up the excitement amongst the fans — the composure of Steve Coppell and the diversity of the squad making the two-time champions one of the pre-tournament favourites.
Ten losses and just four wins had compelled ATK to a ninth-place finish in the league standings, their travesties under Teddy Sheringham and later Ashley Westwood raising concerns about the might of the club following their separation from the Spanish superpower Atletico Madrid. The Sourav Ganguly-owned franchise has been one of the trailblazers in the context of the league and Robbie Keane’s acquisition last season was arguably the most high-profile, but performances on the pitch wrote a different story for the then-defending champions.
“Looking at the ISL, continuity is an advantage — continuity in terms of the coach, continuity in terms of players. The top four teams from last year will again be strong. Chennaiyin, Bengaluru and Pune City will be strong. We have to rebuild ATK and aim for the top end of the table, the elite end. To make it there, we have to be effective,” Coppell spoke about the challenges ATK face this season, emphasising on how they need to rediscover their identity to once again stamp their authority.
And Coppell has the perfect blend of foreign stars and Indian internationals to realise his vision. In Kalu Uche, Balwant Singh and Jayesh Rane, Coppell has a versatile forward line at his disposal, perhaps only secondary to his former club Jamshedpur FC's Tim Cahill-led attack. The 35-year-old Uche, renowned for scoring Nigeria's first goal in the 2010 FIFA World Cup, was prolific for the Delhi Dynamos last season and his familiarity with the Indian conditions bodes well for the ATK attack. Rane and Singh may not be as explosive as wingers as creative they are as inside forwards, but they provide ATK tremendous width going forward, something they lacked last season.
Goals shouldn’t be a problem anymore for the Kolkata-based club, for Manuel Lanzarote's addition to the squad is being hailed as a masterstroke from all quarters. One of ATK's biggest drawbacks in the bygone seasons has been their over-reliance on opposition's mistakes to create goal-scoring opportunities — Lanzarote’s midfield partnership with Eugeneson Lyngdoh is expected to act as the creative fulcrum of this revamped ATK squad. Arguably, India’s finest central midfielder of modern times, Lyngdoh missed last season with a knee injury and the 32-year-old will be crucial to ATK’s fortunes.
Consistency is key to performing well in the ISL and the Kolkata club’s superlative defensive displays were at the heart of their two championship-winning campaigns. Keeping in tune with those seasons, ATK have some excellent defenders in Arnab Mondal, John Johnson and Gerson Vieira, making Coppell’s team one of the finest on paper. Appearances can be deceiving though, for the ISL has witnessed star-studded teams go down like a house of cards in face of tribulations. Coppell’s disciplined outlook and his acclimatisation with the league will prove helpful for ATK to avoid complacency.
Irrespective of the acquisitions on pitch, ATK’s greatest chance at going the distance remains Steve Coppell and his tactical intuition. Known during his tenure at Kerala Blasters for the defensive aspect of the game, Coppell’s pragmatism bodes well for the club. A shrewd strategist, Coppell tends to vary his options depending on the opposition, all the while ensuring that his teams have a strong core.
"I don't design teams to be defensive. For the last two years, I might not have had those players that could give that something extra in the final third. We don't really massively concentrate on defensive work. It is all down to the players you have,” Coppell dismissed all notions that he would look to play a cautious brand of football, before adding, “We would certainly look to go forward when we have the ball. If you look at my record in England all my teams have been attacking based.”
With a switch in management, ATK’s recruitment policy has also undergone cosmic changes — from investing heavily on foreign recruits in the initial seasons to ensuring an optimal balance between Indian and foreign footballers in the current one, ATK stand a good chance of reclaiming their place in the play-offs. The club will play its season-opener against Coppell’s former club Kerala Blasters — the emphatic rivalry between these two teams already finding a place in the ISL’s folklore, but Coppell’s presence on the different end of the dugout will certainly add another dimension to the league’s opening game.
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