ISL 2021-22 stories: Kerala Blasters suffer from old habits, Bengaluru FC finally see three points

The festive period in the Indian Super League didn’t disappoint and was filled with several rip-roaring moments. Here is a look at the major talking points from the week gone by

Shashwat Kumar January 03, 2022 12:33:47 IST
ISL 2021-22 stories: Kerala Blasters suffer from old habits, Bengaluru FC finally see three points

Bengaluru FC players celebrate a goal against Chennaiyin FC. Twitter/@bengaluruFC

The festive period in the Indian Super League didn’t disappoint and was filled with several rip-roaring moments. Mumbai City FC and NorthEast United FC shared the spoils in a breathless encounter, with the contest between FC Goa and the Kerala Blasters being just as compelling.

Bengaluru FC finally secured their second victory of the campaign, whereas ATK Mohun Bagan continued their fine start under Juan Ferrando. Chennaiyin FC got themselves back on track after a drubbing against the Blues, while Hyderabad FC smashed six goals past a hapless-looking Odisha FC.

Without further ado, here is a look at the major talking points from the week gone by.

Juan Ferrando snaps FC Goa’s unbeaten run

This might seem a bit paradoxical because Juan Ferrando has largely been associated with FC Goa during his time in India. But now, he finds himself at ATK Mohun Bagan and making a pretty decent fist of his mid-season gig.

Against the Gaurs, the Mariners weren’t spotless. FC Goa had chances to rescue a point (at least). Yet, they found a way – just like they did for much of the 2020-21 edition.

Under Ferrando, there is a genuine attempt to retain possession. The Gaurs had more of the ball against the Mariners. ATK Mohun Bagan, though, still attempted close to 400 passes at an accuracy of 78 percent - suggesting that the players are buying in Ferrando’s brand of football.

However, there are problems defensively. They conceded another avoidable goal (this time a goalkeeping error). But this team, irrespective of whoever is at the helm, has an uncanny knack of producing results.

There was a time at the start of this campaign where they were finding ways to draw and lose games they ought to have won. New manager bounce or not, they’ve moved away from it in the past couple of matches. And if that continues, it could spell trouble for the rest of the league.

FC Goa, on the other hand, are struggling a touch after Ferrando’s departure. Derrick Pereira has been courageous enough to throw Indian youngsters into the deep end and while each has undeniable quality, they seem a touch inexperienced for the ISL at this stage.

They also seem to lack a clinical finisher. Last time out, they got over the line in fixtures when they weren’t at their best courtesy Igor Angulo. This season, they have the second-most shots of all teams (only one behind Jamshedpur FC, by the way) but have the third-worst goal tally.

Before the contest against ATK Mohun Bagan, there was palpable optimism that FC Goa had turned a corner. Now, with their unbeaten run snapped (by Ferrando of all people), you begin to wonder if that sequence only papered over some of the existing cracks.

The Gaurs have the quality to cast this defeat aside and start afresh – something they showed sporadically against the Kerala Blasters. The question is, can they do it regularly enough to make the top four?

Hyderabad FC flex their attacking muscles; Odisha FC spiraling

Last week, Hyderabad FC seemed a team stuck in first gear against SC East Bengal. They lacked the requisite tempo, were too tentative and eventually had to settle for a point. A week later, when they faced Odisha FC, they were anything but what they were against SC East Bengal.

Their build-up play was effervescent, their wingers attacked with width, Edu Garcia provided the creative spark and their off-the-ball work was quite impressive. If that wasn’t enough, Bartholomew Ogbeche helped himself to another brace.

The Nizams racked up 56 percent possession, 387 passes (at an accuracy rate of 78 percent), 10 shots on goal and six goals. Incidentally, this was also the first time Hyderabad FC had managed to make the net bulge six times in a game. And, it came after one of their more rudderless displays against SC East Bengal.

Thus, there is enough to suggest that when Hyderabad FC click into gear, they are a handful for the rest of the league. The problem, though, is that they’ve done so only thrice this season (against Mumbai City FC, NorthEast United FC and Odisha FC). Incredibly, they’ve scored 14 goals (out of 18) in those three fixtures.

Manolo Marquez has to find a middle ground. It would be ludicrous to expect them to score as many goals every time they play. But with the squad they have, they will hope that they can have more good days moving forward.

Odisha FC, on the other hand, find themselves on a slippery slope. Their defence, which hasn’t been sturdy at any point this season, has started shipping goals for fun lately. Their midfield, which seems fine on paper, hasn’t been able to dictate the tempo of matches. Up front, they seem to have lost the cutting edge that defined the early stages of their campaign.

In short, everything that could have gone wrong for them has gone wrong in the past couple of weeks. And, unless something dramatic happens, this trend could continue and reach alarming proportions – much like it did in 2020-21.

What’s it with 4-2 score-lines and Bengaluru FC victories?

Before the season, many, owing to Marco Pezzaiuoli’s claims, expected Bengaluru FC to be a lot more free-flowing. Not many, however, expected them to only win two of their opening nine games.

The most curious bit is that they’ve won both of those matches by a 4-2 score-line – a score-line that tells you coincidences exist but also one that hints such happy accidents won’t happen often.

Against Chennaiyin FC, Bengaluru FC buzzed all around the pitch. There wasn’t a lot of organization involved, nor was there any sort of prior blueprint attached to their game. They kept attacking, rode the wave of optimism that came about and pressured the Marina Machans into mistakes.

While they would ideally want more conviction in their patterns of play, this high-octane, often frenzied approach has the potential to provide success, albeit intermittently.

During that game, though, there were also spells where Bengaluru FC looked very vulnerable defensively. They completely shelved the concept of tracking runners, and would’ve been made to pay for their mistakes on any other day.

Chennaiyin FC, though, were very accommodating, meaning that Bengaluru FC didn’t suffer. But the Marina Machans, or for that matter any team in the ISL, might not let in 4 goals every game, indicating that the Blues need a Plan B, where victories can also be achieved without 4-2 score-lines.

Which brings us to……

How are Chennaiyin FC and Mumbai City FC conceding so many goals?

Bozidar Bandovic has, rather unabashedly, professed his love for clean sheets and keeping things tidy at the back. From that perspective alone, he would’ve been tearing his hair out (metaphorically, of course) at the way his side defended against the Blues.

That they have now conceded 7 goals in their last three fixtures (which includes a clean sheet against Jamshedpur FC) would only add to the frustration.

The Marina Machans have lost three matches this season and in each of those, they’ve allowed 13 shots or more. One ended 1-0 in Mumbai City FC’s favour, with the remaining games ending as 3-0 and 4-2 victories for Kerala Blasters FC and Bengaluru FC, respectively.

Apart from that, their midfield seems to be lacking a bit of control. Everything seems to be happening at a frenetic pace, meaning that they’ve been caught out of position during transitions.

Against Jamshedpur FC, they changed their shape, made a few changes in personnel and kept a clean sheet. However, there were still occasions where the Red Miners fashioned clear-cut chances, only to squander them.

In the early part of the season, Bandovic, who has made a living by organising his teams defensively, seemed on course to doing so at Chennaiyin FC too. Now, there is a slight cloud over whether he can replicate it throughout an ISL season.

The Montenegrin hasn’t let that manifest in his facial expressions yet. But, if they concede as many goals as they did against Bengaluru FC and the Kerala Blasters, it might not be long before it starts happening.

Mumbai City FC’s concession of goals, on the other hand, is perhaps more believable. Not because they don’t have decent defenders in their ranks, but because their style, which often throws caution to the wind, invariably leaves spaces at the other end.

However, even Des Buckingham would admit that they’ve been too accommodative at the back. Against NorthEast United FC, they let a two-goal advantage slip and were carved open on the counter-attack.

The defending champions have conceded six goals in their two most recent fixtures. The Ahmed Jahouh-Apuia axis hasn’t been able to break things up in midfield and their full-backs have also not been at their best.

When they take on Odisha FC on Monday, they will be able to avail Mourtada Fall’s services, who missed the NorthEast United FC game due to suspension. However, this problem seems borne out of their defensive shape rather than the defenders at their disposal.

At the moment, their flair players are doing enough to sustain their position at the perch of the table. But you feel that they wouldn’t want to keep giving up three goals a game till the end of the season.

Kerala Blasters show that old habits die hard

For the opening quarter of their game against FC Goa, the Kerala Blasters epitomised their 2021-22 resurgence. Their passing was crisp, they exploited the gaps that existed in the Gaurs’ defensive line and took their chances with absolute aplomb.

Then, something broke for the Blasters. So much so that they didn’t have a shot on target for the rest of the match, only enjoyed 35 percent possession and were able to complete less than a third of the passes they attempted (accuracy rate of 61 percent to be precise).

There was a general drop in their performance too. While that wasn’t for a lack of effort (they were arguably overzealous and committed 21 fouls), it was because they had shelved every good quality that had fetched success in the past few games.

Their midfield seemed frantic, their passing looked hurried, and whenever they got themselves into promising situations, they almost always picked the wrong option. The two goals that they conceded were also borne out of individual errors (both by the keeper, incidentally). If you were to draw parallels, it was eerily resemblant of how the Blasters’ previous few campaigns have transpired – campaigns that have ended in mediocrity.

From an optimist’s perspective, this is the kind of display that can be termed an aberration. For those with a more pragmatic approach, this is the sort of outing that can undermine every forward step they’ve taken in this campaign.

Against FC Goa, they showed that old habits die hard. Now, they need to show that they are good enough to overcome it too.

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