Indian Super League 2016 Preview

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.

Age profiles

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.

avage

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.

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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.

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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.

Goals

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.

gored2015

 

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.

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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.

Manager profiles

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.

Marco Materazzi
Club: Chennaiyin FC
Nationality: Italian
Replaces: n/a
ISL experience: 2014 semi-finalist, 2015 winner

Zico
Club: FC Goa
Nationality: Brazilian
Replaces: n/a
ISL experience: 2014 semi-finalist, 2015 runner-up

Antonio Lopez Habas
Club: FC Pune City
Nationality: Spanish
Replaces: David Platt
ISL experience: 2014 winner, 2015 semi-finalist

Steve Coppell
Club: Kerala Blasters
Nationality: English
Replaces: Terry Phelan
ISL experience: n/a

Gianluca Zambrotta
Club: Delhi Dynamos
Nationality: Italian
Replaces: Roberto Carlos
ISL experience: n/a

Nelo Vingada
Club: NorthEast United
Nationality: Portuguese
Replaces: Sergio Farias
ISL experience: n/a

Jose Francisco Molina
Club: Atletico de Kolkata
Nationality: Spanish
Replaces: Antonio Lopez Habas
ISL experience: n/a

Alexandre Guimares
Club: Mumbai City
Nationality: Costa Rican
Replaces: Nicolas Anelka
ISL experience: n/a

habas

FC Pune City manager Antonio Lopez Habas. (image source: indiansuperleague.com)

 

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

TACTICAL ANALYSIS: North East United 1-0 Kerala Blasters: Organized Highlanders

(Koke 45′)

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.

Basic setup

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.

STARTING XIs.

STARTING XIs.

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.

Deep lines

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.

NEUFC'S BACK OF MIDFIELD: FELIPE AND DURGA VERY CLOSE TO THE BACK FOUR.

NEUFC’S BACK OF MIDFIELD: FELIPE AND DURGA VERY CLOSE TO THE BACK FOUR.

VERY DEEP MIDFIELD: HENGBART DRIVES FORWARD, NO PRESSURE APPLIED.

VERY DEEP MIDFIELD: HENGBART DRIVES FORWARD, NO PRESSURE APPLIED.

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.

HUME HOUNDED.

HUME HOUNDED.

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.

THE BIG GAP

THE BIG GAP

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.

KERALA'S LACK OF A PROPER NO 9: HUME DRIFTS WIDE BUT HAS NO TARGETS TO AIM FOR.

KERALA’S LACK OF A PROPER NO 9: HUME DRIFTS WIDE BUT HAS NO TARGETS TO AIM FOR.

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.

HUME OFFSIDE GOAL: NEUFC MAINTAINED THEIR LINE WELL.

HUME OFFSIDE GOAL: NEUFC MAINTAINED THEIR LINE WELL.

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.

NEUFC'S WIDE PLAY: WINGERS IN HALFSPACES AND DRIFTING IN, NO OPTION OUT WIDE.

NEUFC’S WIDE PLAY: WINGERS IN HALFSPACES AND DRIFTING IN, NO OPTION OUT WIDE.

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.

KERALA QUICKLY REGROUPED, BUT COMMITTED TOO MANY BODIES BEHIND WHICH HAMPERED THEIR ATTACKING POTENTIAL.

KERALA QUICKLY REGROUPED, BUT COMMITTED TOO MANY BODIES BEHIND WHICH HAMPERED THEIR ATTACKING POTENTIAL.

KBFC COUNTERS: ALL PLAYERS BEHIND THE BALL.

KBFC COUNTERS: ALL PLAYERS BEHIND THE BALL.

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.

Conclusion

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.