The Indian Super League’s second matchday featured NorthEast United and Kerala Blasters in a hot and humid Guwahati. Both teams looked short of ideas in a cagey match, and a defensive mistake aided the only goal of the game. NorthEast United came away with their first ever win, and goal, to start off the revolutionary ISL.
The home team lined up in a 4-2-3-1 formation with special emphasis on the back of midfield. It was roughly a 4-2-2-2 setup, with the two number 6s, Felipe and Durga Boro, stationing themselves in a horizontal line just ahead of a very static and flat back four. Wingers David Ngaithe and Adinga were expected to stretch play into wide areas, but were mostly confined to the halfspaces and had very little action close to the bylines. The lines were vivid and easily readable, and the team relied mostly on brisk build-ups and early passes. Former Portsmouth forward James Keene led the line with Spaniard Koke operating off him, but it was mostly the halfspaces where the team found more space and time.
Kerala started in a 4-1-4-1. Coach Trevor Morgan had Indian international Mehtab Hossain in the deep-lying midfield role, a move made to open up more space for Hossain to operate and push the full-backs higher up the pitch. Captain Penn Orji was expected to play the polar opposite of Mehtab, between the lines and playing off forward Iain Hume into the channels. Indian forward CS Sabeeth started alongside Hume in attack, but it was Hume who did most of the playmaking and often interchanged with the willing runner Sabeeth. Kerala had no real width; only right-back Nirmal Chettri made occasional darts. The general game plan was fairly predictable, and narrow.
Keeping the playing conditions in mind, both teams had very deep lines, perhaps a result of the fear of not being overrun. Kerala had Mehtab as the deepest midfielder, and he slotted in between the center-halves right from kick-off. United, too, had two bodies at the back of their midfield. Both Felipe and Durga Boro played along a straight horizontal line. As a result, both teams had numerical advantages in the center which was the direct cause of the very few open play chances created.
For Kerala, it was a 3v2 in Zone 14 against Keene and Koke with the full-backs dealing with the United wide players. While Avinabo and James McAllister’s little creativity helped the United no 6s to easily deal with the early threat of Penn Orji. Iain Hume dropped deep on occasions but the home team’s numerical advantage and a lack of better options for the Canadian meant that he always ran into blind alleys.
NorthEast United often found themselves struggling in offensive transitions, the reason being their deep midfield and the big gap between the middle third and the final third. The screenshot below shows Durga Boro attempting a chipped diagonal ball to the wings, with no option to move the ball forward into the red zone.
Disciplined United defence
Apart from the last 10 minutes when Kerala laid siege on the NorthEast goal, it was a fairly disciplined defensive display from the home side. The Spanish center-backs Miguel and Capdevila kept things simple and tight, perhaps helped by Kerala’s absence of a proper no 9. Sabeeth and Hume floated between the lines and into the channels, and only after the introduction of Michael Chopra after an hour did the Blasters create some meaningful openings. Sabeeth ran the wide channels in the absence of wing-play, and Hume drifted into deeper areas to create. Penn Orji’s ineptitude as a no 10 was evident as the game almost passed him by.
United played the offside trap to perfection, catching Kerala off-guard eight times. The defence kept its shape throughout, and only after an injury to right-back Khongjee that they had to reshuffle their back line and offered Kerala a way into the game. Set-pieces had man-marking employed, but it was far too predictable from Kerala who stationed their attackers in the center towards the far post and almost all the deliveries failed to get past the first line of defense.
Lack of width
Indian football isn’t famous for producing international class wing-play. And it was no different this time. There was little to no passage of play through the wide areas. Given the pace and trickery of Ngaithe and Adinga and the strength and aerial ability of Keene, it was expected that NorthEast United would base most of their game around the wider areas. But both Ngaithe and Adinga played in the halfspaces (helps more in tracking back), and had little options wide on the overlaps. Both full-backs were part of a flat back four, and were not at all adventurous.
Kerala had the ageing McAllister on the left and Avinabo Bag on the right, both defenders by trade. McAllister drifted inside at every opportunity while Avinabo barely touched the ball. Mehtab’s eye for the Hollywood pass meant that Avinabo had little impact in Kerala’s build-up. The two forwards, Hume and Sabeeth, ran the wide spaces often but it was nothing close to classic wing-play.
Kerala’s lack of ideas
As mentioned above, Kerala stacked their midfield with players having attacking intent as secondary attributes. This caused a lack of symmetry in their transition play. Of the four fundamental phases of play (in possession, out of possession, defensive transition, attacking transition), they were good only when they were out of possession. It was a recurring theme that they stacked like a parked bus whenever NorthEast United had the ball, and were also quick enough to regroup in defensive transitions.
But their problem arose whenever they were in an attacking transition. As they defended in numbers, whenever they recovered the ball the ball carrier often had no players ahead of him (for a pass or making runs). Consequently, the ball had to be recycled back and the chance of a counter was gone. The lack of speedy players did not help either.
NorthEast United were full value for their win, while Kerala had a lot to be bothered about as they were short on ideas. The baking conditions meant that both teams had a safety-first approach, but Kerala’s shield in Mehtab Hossain was found wanting as Koke found acres of space in the red zone for the goal. This was Mehtab’s zone to man, and he failed miserably although Nirmal Chettri was equally to blame for his botched clearance from a simple throw-in. United were defensively compact, although what effect would Michael Chopra have made had he started is anybody’s guess.