While ATKMB and BFC have held on to their key players, the difference-makers from Goa have tagged along with Sergio Lobera to Mumbai…
The seventh season of the Indian Super League (ISL) is underway for over a month and the league table has gradually started to take shape. It is evident that some teams are still trying to find their feet in the competition, whereas a few have already got into a rhythm and are picking up the three points more regularly.
Mumbai City and ATK Mohun Bagan are at the top of the pack with 16 points apiece while Bengaluru FC are close on their heels with 12 points. Upon taking a closer look at their team composition, the three outfits have one distinct feature in common – they have not only held on to their key players from the previous season.
ATK Mohun Bagan have chosen to stick with their winning formula and have not tinkered much with their squad. The think tank remains the same with Antonio Habas at the helm of affairs and the management has obliged the coach by retaining the linchpins who had played a significant role in ATK landing their third ISL (Indian Super League) title in six years.
To put matters into perspective, the team have retained 21 players from the previous campaign, the most by an ISL side. Against Kerala Blasters in their opening match, nine out of the 11 starters had played together in the last campaign. Also, they have not chopped and changed in the overseas contingent as only Tiri and Brad Inman have been added to their roster, with the Spanish centre-back a direct replacement for retired defender Agustin Garcia. And Habas is certainly reaping the benefits.
In the attacking third, Roy Krishna has carried on his rich vein of form in this edition and has already five goals to his name in seven matches. In midfield, Carl McHugh has been outstanding with his game reading skills and ball distribution. He is being ably supported by familiar faces like Pronay Halder, Jayesh Rane and Prabir Das. If Soosairaj had not got injured he would have been another name in the starting XI who knows Habas’ tactics inside.
The Mariners are yet to concede from open play and although much of the credit should go to Antonio Habas for his defensive organisation, one should also consider the fact that they have bolstered their backline by hiring the services of India international Sandesh Jhingan and a dependable centre back like Tiri.
Similarly, Bengaluru FC have also held on to their match-winners in key positions and have brought in Cleiton Silva and Kristian Opseth to solve their goalscoring woes. The philosophy has been simple, retain the experienced performers who know the coach’s blueprint.
In their 4-2 win against Kerala Blasters, the Blues had eight players on the pitch who had been together for a considerable period of time. The number could have nine if Rahul Bheke was match fit. The two new faces were Silva and Opseth who are slowly getting into the groove after taking a few games to settle down.
Set-pieces have been their forte and it boils down to their amazing understanding with each other during the dead-ball situations. Each one of them knows their job perfectly and the execution shows the chemistry that they share with each other.
Meanwhile, although Sergio Lobera finds himself in a new ship, he has been fortunate enough to get the sailors from the previous one. Mourtada Fall, Ahmed Jahouh, Hugo Boumous, Mandar Rao Desai have all followed their manager from Goa to Mumbai and they are doing well after taking a couple of initial games to get their bearings in place.
Jahouh continues to be the anchor in midfield whereas, Bomous in a more advanced role is producing the goods that Lobera expects from him. Having a quality striker in Adam Le Fondre has further eased his task, as the French midfielder loads the bullet for the forward to pull the trigger.
Another new recruit in Cy Goddard has also adapted pretty well to Lobera’s methods and is proving himself to be an undisputed starter. Hence the synergy between midfield and attack is almost perfect which is one of the primary reasons behind Mumbai’s effectiveness.
The pandemic has made matters complicated for teams as they have had to settle with a short pre-season and a limited number of friendlies. In fact, Bagan did not play any preparatory match going into the fixtures. Therefore, teams who have gone for wholesale changes are taking more time to find the right combination. East Bengal started their preparations in the last week of October and it might be one of the reasons behind their poor run of form.
But these three sides have played it smart and safe during the squad building exercise. With only 20 matches to play, the teams who get a good start certainly have an advantage over the others. The top three have done the initial bit to perfection, and now it remains to be seen whether they can keep the momentum till the business end.