ISL 2018-19 preview: For new-look NorthEast United FC, old problems still persist as fifth season appears on horizon
Four seasons after the ISL was launched, NorthEast United FC remain the only team, besides Jamshedpur FC, to have not reached the playoffs. Their core ideology seems to be in tatters too. But there are fresh grounds for optimism
Something hasn't gone right with the North East project and club owner John Abraham's vision. In 2014, when the Bollywood star launched the team in the Indian Super League, the goal was clear — to tap into the perennial source of footballers from the region and provide them with a platform to perform on the grandest stage of Indian football. Four seasons into the Indian Super League (ISL) and The Highlanders are still quite far away from reaching that goal. They remain the only team (will exclude Jamshedpur FC considering they joined the ISL bandwagon last season) to have not reached the playoffs. But most importantly, their core ideology — to be that platform for upcoming footballers from the North Eastern states of India — seems to be in tatters too.
But there are fresh grounds for optimism. New head coach Eelco Schattorie has had a full pre-season with the team. The Dutchman, brought in with Avram Grant in the middle of last season, will now be able to get the team playing the football he desires. Schattorie is known for his attacking philosophy, with a lot of focus on the wings, and does, at least on paper, have the personnel to implement the strategy. That said, the former East Bengal coach wasn't exactly a symbol of positivity on the ISL media day recently, claiming "you can't make a Ferrari from a Mini Cooper", an indication perhaps, that all isn't well at the NorthEast United camp.
NorthEast United's pre-season has also been similarly hot and cold. They won narrowly against I-League champions Minerva Punjab FC but lost 0-1 to Manipur's Neroca FC in the build-up to the season, showing there is a clear room for improvement before the team takes on last season's semi-finalist FC Goa in their season opener in Guwahati.
Luckily for the Highlanders, new signing Bartholomew (Bath) Ogbeche, has begun his life at United with a bang. The former PSG striker scored five goals in the pre-season, including two braces, and looks ready to lead the line for the team. Minus Bath, there is very little depth in the role of a frontman though. Kivi Zhimomi, the first player from Nagaland to earn an ISL contract, and Girik Khosla are relatively inexperienced to be the primary target man, though both will be hoping to get some valuable game time.
Midfield the key
One area where NorthEast United can boast of good squad depth is the midfield. Schattorie likes his team to stretch the field, so expect wingers to play a crucial role. Nikhil Kadam, on the back of a great season with Mohun Bagan, will be considered the favourite to occupy one flank while Redeem Tlang, Rupert Nongrum and Seityasen Singh should compete for the other spot unless Schattorie decides to push Federico Gallego or Juan Cruz Mascia into a wider role. Both the South Americans like to occupy the hole behind the main striker and act as a chief orchestrator for the attack.
NorthEast pulled a rabbit out of the hat with the signing of 24-year-old Mascia, a talented secondary striker who was once touted as the next Diego Forlan in home country Uruguay. Mascio, who has an eye for long-range goals, has played for Uruguay Under 23 and Under 17 teams and was reportedly set for a trials with La Liga side Atletico Madrid. Pre-season suggests he will be expected to play a role as a secondary striker or as an attacking midfielder in the NorthEast side, but Mascio can also play the main striker if Bath gets injured or suspended.
India international Rowllin Borges will be expected to take up a slot in the central midfield and will likely be partnered by Colombian Jose David Leudo. In young Fanai Lalrempuia, they have a decent cover for the position. Again, responsibilities in the defence will be shouldered by foreigners Mato Grgic and Mislav Komorski, but there is very little back up in the centre-back position with former East Bengal captain Gurwinder Singh, Pawan Kumar and Provat Lakra looking shaky candidates. With good full-backs available in Reagan Singh, Keegan Pereira and Robert Lalthlamuana in the team, NorthEast will be expected to line up in a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3 formation.
NorthEast might also regret not signing a goalkeeper to challenge TP Rehenesh. The Kerala man is prone to an error or two, especially in high-pressure matches, and this might cost the team some crucial points.
While the main XI looks strong, The Highlanders really lack in depth and will be overly reliant on their foreign recruits to guide them to the top spot in the league. Barring Borges, there is no one in this team that can expect a starting role in the Indian national side, and that is worrying in a league of ten teams, especially when you are a club based in a footballing hotspot. NorthEast have made some shrewd signings in Gallego, Mascia, Komorski and Leudo though. All are in the 20s and in the prime of their careers. In Nongrum, Kadam, Lalrempuia and Zhimomi they have also acquired a core group of young stars with the potential to perform at the big stage. The pressure will be on Schattorie to find that right balance.
Goalkeepers: TP Rehenesh, Gurmeet, Avilash Paul
Defenders: Gurwinder Singh, Mislav Komorski, Keegan Pereira, Reagan Singh, Mato Grgic, Robert Lalthlamuana, Simranjeet Singh, Pawan Kumar, Provat Lakra
Midfielders: Augustine Okrah, Rupert Nongrum, Lalthathanga Khawlhring, Redeem Tlang, Nikhil Kadam, Fanai Lalrempuia, Seityasen Singh, Rowllin Borges, Jose David Leudo, Federico Gallego, Juan Cruz Mascia
Strikers: Kivi Zhimomi, Girik Khosla, Bartholomew Ogbeche
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