The third Indian Super League season is almost upon us with the first ball set to be kicked this Saturday at Guwahati’s Indira Gandhi Athletic Stadium. Amid lots of player movements, new managerial appointments, homegrounds changing hands and a fracas concerning politics in Indian football, the stage is set for another highly entertaining 79 days of the best Indian football has to offer.
Eight teams–Atletico de Kolkata, Chennaiyin FC, Delhi Dynamos, FC Goa, Kerala Blasters, Mumbai City, NorthEast United and FC Pune City–are set to launch their respective assaults on the title in what could be the last ISL in its current format. Only three teams failed to progress past the league phase of the ISL in the last two seasons, and hopes are high that Mumbai City, NorthEast United and Pune City will break into title contention come the end of the league phase this year.
The summer transfer window saw Indian clubs bring in a few old heads and set a record of sorts. Eidur Gudjohnsen, 38, and Diego Forlan, 37, were two of the oldest players to join ISL clubs, while 36-year-old Lucio and 35-year-old Didier Zokora were also signed as marquee players by FC Goa and NorthEast United respectively. Gudjohnsen has since been ruled out for the season injured, which could be a common sight for fans of the league that houses some of the oldest active players in world football.
Shown in the graphic above are the average ages of all the eight teams in ISL 2016. Kerala Blasters, who narrowly lost the final in 2014, have the oldest squad on average. Their opponents on the opening day of the season, NorthEast United, are the youngest of the lot with an average age of 25.54. It will be interesting to see how the old heads fare against the younger ones on Saturday.
Delhi Dynamos and Mumbai City are two other teams which have relatively young squads whereas Pune City, Atletico de Kolkata, FC Goa and Chennaiyin FC have squads brimming with experience, although it remains to be seen whether they have the legs to go with the heads.
Among the 207 players registered by the eight clubs for ISL 2016, 42 percent are foreign players, and judging by the previous two seasons, the non-Indian players are equally important as the Indian players to any team’s fortunes. While 11 of last season’s 15 knockout stage goals were scored by foreign players, four of the eight goals in 2014’s final stages were scored by Indians, including Mohammed Rafique’s stoppage time winner for Atletico de Kolkata in the final.
The foreign players in most squads are experienced campaigners at the tail end of their careers, although there are some exceptions as well. Kerala Blasters, who have the oldest squad of the eight teams, surprisingly lead the way in the youth of their overseas players, boasting the youngest group of non-Indians in their squad. This mix of experienced Indians and relatively young foreign players could turn out to be a masterstroke for last season’s bottom club, or backfire spectacularly.
On average, Chennaiyin FC have the oldest foreign nationals in their squad, but the champions have handy players in Bernard Mendy, John Arne Riise and Manuel Blasi who bring top-level pedigree and winning mentality to the team.
With an average gap of three days between matches for all the eight teams, there are concerns over workload for the senior players as well as the younger ones. That is where the fittest survive, and while there isn’t a great divide between teams with the oldest and the youngest average squads, the marginal gains obtained with every passing match could prove crucial in the tournament’s latter stages.
As the above graph shows, the maximum percentage of goals scored in the past two seasons of the ISL were after the 80th minute mark: the dying stages of a game where fatigue sets in and mistakes happen with greater frequency. Hence, a young squad could prove to be vital as the tournament progresses, although NorthEast United’s experiences with youthful squads in the past have hardly been inspiring.
Following a steep rise of 56 goals in 2015 from the season previous, expectations of a goal tally bettering last season’s 185 are high this time round. However, the biggest disappointment heading into the new campaign will be the absence of last season’s top scorer Stiven Mendoza. Chennaiyin’s 13-goal hero will be missed, but Atletico de Kolkata’s Iain Hume is still around which slightly offsets Mendoza’s loss.
Of the 185 goals from last season, the scorers of 110 goals are still around although Mendoza aside, the goals from Chris Dagnall, Elano, Simao, Diomansy Kamara, Kalu Uche, Tuncay Sanli, Gustavo dos Santos and Adrian Mutu will be missed. As all the clubs have added fresh blood to their respective attacks, the chances of new goalscoring heroes emerging in the coming season look pretty good.
13 goalscorers from 2015 have changed clubs but remain part of the league for 2016. Chennaiyin’s Dudu, Kerala Blasters’ Semboi Haokip and Pune City’s Jonatan Lucca contributed to 11 goals for FC Goa last season, while two of the highest scoring midfielders from 2015–Arata Izumi and Bruno Pelissari–have moved to pastures new in Pune City and Delhi Dynamos respectively.
Shown in the table above are the 110 goals from ISL 2015 redistributed among the eight clubs for the new season. The top scorers last term, FC Goa, have lost the likes of Dudu and Haokip but they still retain the services of Reinaldo and Jofre, both of whom scored a combined 11 goals for the Goans in 2015. Last season’s beaten finalists have also added the India international Robin Singh to their ranks who scored four times for Delhi Dynamos in 2015.
Chennaiyin, despite losing Mendoza, Elano and Pelissari, have added Dudu to their side while Kerala Blasters have looked to offset Dagnall’s loss by roping in Haokip from FC Goa. There aren’t many goalscorers from 2015 in NorthEast United, but their retention of Nicolas Velez, scorer of five goals last season, could be a key development.
Likewise, Mumbai City have also done well to retain Sunil Chhetri, who top scored for the goal-shy Mumbaikars with seven goals last term, and tricky winger Sony Norde. Mumbai City scored the fewest goals in 2015, hence they have barely lost anything in terms of goals from last season while their neighbours, Pune City, have added the most goals from 2015 by virtue of new signings.
NorthEast United will pin their hopes on a superlative goalscoring season from Velez as they look one of the bleakest teams in attack, if 2015’s goals are anything to go by. In a short tournament like the ISL, the key is to hit the ground running from the off and having proven goalscorers is helpful for any team with an ambition to land a top four place at the end of the league phase.
Six of the eight clubs have had a managerial change from 2015 with only the finalists from last season–Chennaiyin and FC Goa–retaining their main men in the dugout. Only three managers, namely Marco Materazzi, Zico and Antonio Lopez Habas, have ISL experience and it will be interesting to see how the new faces fare in the upcoming season.
Club: Chennaiyin FC
ISL experience: 2014 semi-finalist, 2015 winner
Club: FC Goa
ISL experience: 2014 semi-finalist, 2015 runner-up
Antonio Lopez Habas
Club: FC Pune City
Replaces: David Platt
ISL experience: 2014 winner, 2015 semi-finalist
Club: Kerala Blasters
Replaces: Terry Phelan
ISL experience: n/a
Club: Delhi Dynamos
Replaces: Roberto Carlos
ISL experience: n/a
Club: NorthEast United
Replaces: Sergio Farias
ISL experience: n/a
Jose Francisco Molina
Club: Atletico de Kolkata
Replaces: Antonio Lopez Habas
ISL experience: n/a
Club: Mumbai City
Nationality: Costa Rican
Replaces: Nicolas Anelka
ISL experience: n/a
A mix of familiar and obscure names in the managerial ranks makes ISL 2016 a salivating prospect for enthusiasts of the league. Zambrotta brings along his reputation as one of the finest defenders of his era although his is a blank canvas as far as management is concerned. Long ball specialist Steve Coppell is another familiar name; the former Manchester United player who took Reading into the Premier League during the mid-noughties will be expected to lead Kerala Blasters to the title.
Nelo Vingada and Alexandre Guimares have their work cut out with NorthEast United and Mumbai City respectively, although the highly unpredictable nature of the ISL might suit the two newcomers. Atletico de Kolkata’s Jose Molina was a Zamora Trophy winner during his playing days and his considerable experience of playing and coaching in Spain will be useful, should Habas’ spell in Kolkata be a reference point.
-Data collated from indiansuperleague.com, wikipedia.org and official club websites
-Featured image source: indiansuperleague.com