ISL 2020-21: Led by astute Khalid Jamil, NorthEast United FC defy all odds in breaking down door to playoffs
NorthEast United are here to stay and will no longer be content with flying under the radar. Perhaps, that is what will define them in the upcoming ISL seasons too.
On 21 November, 2020, NorthEast United FC clashed swords with Mumbai City FC at the Tilak Maidan with both teams hoping to get their season off to the ideal start. However, even at that juncture, the game represented one where the Islanders were expected to do all the heavy lifting and provide the requisite entertainment.
To put things into perspective, Mumbai City FC had splashed the cash during the summer and had fired a warning shot to every other outfit in the ISL. Not just because they had acquired the likes of Ahmed Jahouh, Adam le Fondre, Bartholomew Ogbeche, Hugo Boumous and Mourtada Fall, but also because they had brought Sergio Lobera on board – a Spaniard boasting a distinguished managerial record in the ISL.
Thus, it wasn’t a surprise that NorthEast United FC flew under the radar a touch on that sultry evening at the Tilak Maidan. Yet, by the time the game culminated, the Highlanders, rather than the Islanders, had given an early indication of their credentials.
At that juncture, NorthEast United FC, under Gerard Nus, represented a solid side that was capable of holding its own against the ISL’s more belligerent attacking outfits. In fact, on the 21st of November 2020, those aspects came to the fore excellently, with the Highlanders keeping Mumbai City FC’s much-vaunted attack at bay, before finding the adequate quality to snare three points.
Consequently, the Highlanders embarked on a run where they gave solid accounts of themselves and remained unbeaten in their opening six fixtures. Post that though, much like previous seasons, they endured a wobble – one that threatened to derail everything good they had done prior.
Unsurprisingly, Gerard Nus bore the brunt of the barren period with the club eventually giving him the boot. More worryingly though, in their statement, the Highlanders said that Gerard Nus’ style was in contrast to NorthEast United’s philosophy and vision.
Back then, not many could come to grips with the sacking of the Spaniard. Contextually, Gerard Nus had made the Highlanders a tougher nut to crack and had done so with only a couple of defeats to his name. Yet, somehow, it seemed that NorthEast United FC wanted to be a bit more proactive during games – an aspect that would cast them as the protagonist of contests, rather than being termed the underdog.
Since that incident though, the interim coach Khalid Jamil has pulled out all the stops to ensure that not only have the Highlanders morphed into a high-octane attacking side, but they have also become one that knows how to grind out results. Though the latter was perhaps a facet Nus brought to the fore, it was the Indian who married the aforementioned efficiency to the extravagance the NorthEast United FC faithful craved.
Thus, it seems fitting that Khalid Jamil, who was handed over the reins after 11 league games, still remains unbeaten in the ISL this season. More promisingly though, he has staved off ATK Mohun Bagan and Mumbai City FC’s challenge during that phase.
While Jamil deserves plenty of applause for the manner in which he has taken over, one can’t understate the importance of the players’ performances, who simply put, have been outstanding throughout the campaign.
In seasons gone by, NorthEast United FC have had the tendency to let games pass them by, meaning that they’ve not asserted their dominance in the middle of the park. In 2020-21 though, that has hardly been the case, with Khassa Camara and Lalengmawia (popularly known as Apuia) controlling the tempo of matches effortlessly.
Apuia, in particular, seems to be worth the hype he generated last term, where experts, much like the average Indian football fanatic, felt he possessed the skills and the mentality to be a regular fixture in the national side. This season, he has taken his game up several notches, thereby seemingly fulfilling his potential.
At times, when NorthEast United FC have struggled, Apuia has showcased the character to get on the ball and make things happen. Though he has had plenty of movement in front of him, the proclivity of him asking for the ball in adverse circumstances is an element that makes him stand out.
Alongside him, Camara has been equally brilliant. The Mauritania international has acted as the shield in front of the defensive line and has also portrayed the ability to use the ball diligently. As far as numbers are concerned, the midfielder has made 101 tackles and 44 interceptions in 19 games, while averaging 36.95 passes per game.
Subsequently, the midfield pairing has enabled the Highlanders to play different styles of football in the same game. When they’ve been under the cosh, Apuia and Camara have shored things up, whereas on occasions when they’ve been in the ascendancy, they’ve injected attacking impetus.
Additionally, the positional awareness and compactness of the duo has allowed Federico Gallego to play higher up the pitch – something that has unlocked his creative attributes. Thus, it doesn’t come as much of a surprise that the Uruguayan has been at the hub of everything good the Highlanders have done in the offensive third.
Elsewhere, Deshorn Brown has been stupendous since his January move from BFC. The Jamaican, who had been pretty poor at the Blues, seems to have regained his verve and looks a striker capable of shouldering the scoring burden for a top ISL team.
Furthermore, Brown’s tendency to stretch the game and create space for those around him, has enabled wingers of the ilk of Luis Machado and VP Suhair to wreak havoc.
Machado and Suhair were signed in the off-season and they’ve also hit the ground running. While the Portuguese star has registered 7 goals and a solitary assist, the Indian has mustered a couple of goals and one assist. For the uninitiated, both of Suhair’s goals have come in the last two fixtures, thereby highlighting his importance to the side.
At the back, Benjamin Lambot and Dylan Fox have been rocks – again, something that has allowed their flair players to weave their magic further forward. To put things into context, the Belgian has made 74 clearances and 33 blocks throughout the campaign, whereas the latter has effected 89 clearances and 15 blocks.
However, while there might exist a temptation to label the players as being the most influential component of the Highlanders’ precocious rise from also-rans to serious contenders, there are a lot of aspects behind the scenes that have made the aforementioned possible.
For starters, NorthEast United FC are one of the few ISL outfits to bring homegrown talent through their ranks. Though only one of those (Nikhil Deka) has come through the academy, there are 11 players in the squad that come from 8 different north-eastern Indian states – something that adds further gloss to their achievement.
Most tellingly though, the Highlanders have given these players the required belief to succeed, despite undergoing rough patches at the start of their careers. For a lot of these footballers, the sport is perhaps their only source of income, meaning that nerves would most certainly have played a part when they would’ve made their bow.
Yet, with a club like NorthEast United FC ready to support them through thick and thin, they’ve found the wherewithal to evolve into more mature individuals and of course, footballers. The likes of Apuia, Fanai Lalrempuia, Nim Dorjee, Ninthoiganba Meetei, Provat Lakra and Roccharzela have all been beneficiaries at some point.
Additionally, the Highlanders, owing to their success this season, seem to have set a template for others in the ISL – a blueprint where immense trust is placed on local talent and they are allowed the time to develop into the finished product, instead of shunting them at the drop of the hat.
Apart from the above, NorthEast United FC have also been extremely shrewd in the transfer market. To put things into perspective, most of their first-choice eleven in 2020-21 was procured during the off-season.
The only exceptions being Apuia, Federico Gallego and Subhasish Roy Chowdhury. The others, namely Benjamin Lambot, Dylan Fox, Khassa Camara, Luis Machado and VP Suhair came through the door in the summer.
To cap off an excellent season of recruitment, the Highlanders also signed Deshorn Brown from Bengaluru FC during the winter transfer window. Prior to it, the Jamaican had looked a fish out of water, meaning that the move was always fraught with danger.
However, NorthEast United, much like they’ve done elsewhere, had the conviction and the decisiveness to welcome Brown as the focal point of their effervescent attack. And, it is fair to say that the Jamaican hasn’t looked back since.
Furthermore, the Highlanders’ ascent into the elite echelon might have an enormous bearing on how the Indian footballing fraternity views Indian coaches. So far, there has been a bit of an aversion to install local managers at the helm, with none of them being offered a full-time job.
Though Clifford Miranda, courtesy FC Goa clinching the League Winners Shield in 2019-20, tried to change that narrative, Khalid Jamil might be the one to truly transform it.
Jamil, unlike Miranda, had an almighty task on his hands when he took over. At that juncture, NorthEast United FC were struggling for goals and chinks had started to appear in their defensive armour. Yet, the former managed to correct those shortcomings while also according the attackers a new lease of life – something that has made the Highlanders' defense impregnable.
In fact, even in the seasons where NorthEast United FC failed to make a decent splash, they were always a team that ran its socks off. Though they failed to make the play-offs, barring one instance, it was never for a lack of effort. Under Jamil though, they’ve shown that they are ready to get down in the dirt and graft, while also being able to sprinkle artistry when the situation has demanded.
And, that, above everything else, is arguably the greatest advertisement to have Indian managers in the ISL in the long-term, for Jamil has illustrated the technical acumen and nous to enhance the players at their disposal. In fact, he could also act as the beacon for budding Indian coaches, who would, especially in light of NorthEast United FC’s exploits, be driven towards envisioning a brighter future.
Thus, as the Highlanders embark on their second sojourn into the ISL playoffs, one can’t help but feel that their journey might have quite a few implications, both in the present as well as in the years to come.
As far as the present is concerned, there is simply no doubt that NorthEast United FC deserve to be in the final four. Not just because they’ve had to tide over plenty of storms in between, but also due to the manner in which they’ve crafted their way into the top tier.
Back in November 2020, when the Highlanders got the better of the Islanders, plenty believed that it would translate to another false dawn, wherein the former would fall short when push came to shove.
Yet, as they stitched together excellent victories, those murmurs started assuming a hushed tone. By the time 26 February, 2021 came along, those descended into a deafening silence, for NorthEast United, rather poetically, had adorned their adventure at the very venue where they’d begun it.
For years, the Highlanders have banged at the play-off door but have somehow almost always failed to break it down. Now, with an astute Indian in charge, and with a plethora of talented and dependable individuals, they’ve managed to do so.
The biggest compliment for them though, is that no one is dubbing their upward trajectory as a flash in the pan. NorthEast United are here to stay and will no longer be content with flying under the radar. Perhaps, that is what will define them in the upcoming ISL seasons too.
And, even in the new normal, which comprises of empty stadiums, the clamour of them having arrived, maybe will ring the loudest, once the dust settles on the 2020-21 ISL campaign.
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