Kerala Blasters have begun their Indian Super League campaign with a bang, much to the surprise of early season predictors, securing a win against former champions ATK in their first match and earning a point against Mumbai City FC in their second outing.
With a young set of Indian footballers forming the core of the team and buoyed by a fan group that seems to be growing every day in numbers, Kerala Blasters have shown all the right markers for a potential berth in the playoffs.
A clear shape
The biggest doubt amongst supporters, going into the campaign, had been David James’ credentials as a coach. The former England goalkeeper was a great athlete in his playing days but apart from a stint with Blasters in the first season of ISL, there was nothing really in James’ CV that suggested he would be a good manager, especially for a team that has heavily invested in the youth.
To be fair, James has not really moved away from the “chip the ball to the striker’s chest” philosophy that didn’t bode well with striker Dimitar Berbatov previously. But unlike last season, he has the players willing to adopt the strategy and do what is required.
Lining up in the field in a strict 4-4-2, James’ men were positionally aware and showed the required willingness to implement the strategy. In modern day football, where having just three layers of players in the field can lead to gaping holes for opposition registas (deep-lying midfield playmakers) to work their magic, it is refreshing to see a team counter the problem by working that bit extra for each other. What the 4-4-2 does offer though is an extra forward. And not so surprisingly, the team’s trump card has been the European strikers Matej Poplatnik and Slavisa Stojanovic up front. Both have combined well in the front for Blasters, pressing the opposition defenders when out of possession, and combining well to spearhead the attacks.
Though it is early to compare, the partnership has been reminiscent of the great bond Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke shared in a similar formation for Manchester United in their glory days under Sir Alex Ferguson.
The defence has been strong too with young Dheeraj Singh impressing as the keeper. Sandesh Jhingan, Kerala’s captain, is arguably India’s best defender right now and led the country to a historic 0-0 draw against China in the weekend. His usual national team partner, Anas Edathodika, who was replaced in the starting line-up by young Subhasish Bose against China, might struggle to find a place in James’ squad as well, with Lakic-Pesic forming a great partnership with Jhingan.
Youth is the future
Against Mumbai City, Kerala fielded seven Indian players in the starting line-up. Jhingan, who is 25-years-old, was their oldest Indian player in the starting line-up with the Indians’ average age slightly less than 22. But these Indians weren’t in the team due to foreign player restrictions – this is perhaps the best set of players James have at his disposal. It is clear that Kerala wanted to build the team around a young set of Indians and the two matches have shown how good these youngsters actually are.
Seminlel Doungel and Holicharan Narzary have impressed in the wings, with the latter scoring the solitary goal for the team against Mumbai. The two have been vital in Kerala keeping the shape in defence as well, tracking back opposition attackers admirably throughout the two matches. Eighteen-year-old Mohammad Rakip has played like a seasoned campaigner as a right-back, while Lalruatthara has been solid in the left. But the biggest surprise of the campaign has been how Kerala-born Sahal Abdul Samad has slotted into the central midfield. Very few had been expecting the 21-year-old to start for the Blasters, but the player has repaid James’ faith with composure and hard-work. Sahal could very well be the local star of the season for Kerala, with game time for CK Vineeth and Anas Edathodika looking in doubt in James’ formation.
Kerala’s assistant coach Thangboi Singto deserves a lot of credit for Kerala’s shrewd Indian signings. The Manipur-born coach, who has a wealth of experience working with young Indians during his four-year stint as head coach at I-League club Shillong Lajong, has been an influential figure in luring young players to the team.
The signs have largely been positive for Kerala but their failure to finish off matches might come back to haunt them in the future. Against Mumbai, all the good work was undone by a spectacular goal by Pranjal Bhumij and Kerala Blasters will certainly have to improve on this front. CK Vineeth had a decent pre-season with the team and will always make a great impact substitute, but it does look like James sees him more as a midfielder than a forward.
With Delhi Dynamos still struggling to get a grip-hold of the tournament, Kerala will be expected to clinch all three points when they host the Delhi side on Friday.
Updated Date: Oct 18, 2018 11:33 AM