The Indian Super League returns with another season on Friday. Like last year, the matches will be played behind closed doors and without fans.

The season, in the above-mentioned aspects, will be pretty much a carbon copy of the last one but plenty has changed elsewhere. In certain ways, change has always been a constant when it comes to the ISL. Ahead of the 2021-22 campaign, six out of the eleven clubs have new head coaches in place and most of the squads have undergone a makeover.

The narratives ahead of the new season though remain a mix of some old unanswered questions and a few new unexplored possibilities.

As the season inches closer to the starting point, here’s a look at the key storylines ahead of the 2021-22 ISL season.

Fewer foreigners, more Indians

The ISL had announced that will implement Asian Football Confederation’s 3+1 foreign player rule that will come as a huge boost for Indian players. The rule that will only allow teams to field a maximum of four foreign players on the pitch, will afford an extra Indian player a chance of being on the pitch.

The ISL has also made it mandatory for clubs to increase their development player signings from a minimum of two to four while continuing to have two of such development players be part of the match-day squad.

The moves appear to be one in the right direction but can’t solely guarantee the development of Indian players. The I-League too adopted the 3+1 AFC rule on foreigners but it didn’t lead to significant changes in Indian football. Even though talked up as a vital move to help develop Indian players, its impact has a ceiling. The addition of the new foreign rule is just one of the many changes that are needed for the Indian footballing ecosystem to produce better results. It’s a positive step but nothing beyond that.

Will Chhetri have competition from Indian strikers?

Chhetri has been the top Indian goalscorer in ISL in five out of the six seasons he’s played in. In 2016, he was pipped by CK Vineeth but the Indian captain had featured sparingly in that campaign.

The 37-year-old in the ISL has been on the top of the pile fairly comfortably with little competition from other Indian strikers. The issue apart from the general lack of quality Indian strikers has been the game time that Indian strikers have enjoyed in the ISL.

It’s become a sort of chicken-egg problem with Indian forwards as coaches don’t trust them to lead the line and the players won’t prosper until they are given a chance.

There is hope that the new foreign player rule will aid Indian strikers but it is likely to remain mere hope as clubs are still likely to trust foreign players in that position. 40% of the foreign players in ISL are strikers and thus the trend of Chhetri finishing as the top Indian goalscorer may continue.

The Indian strikers will have to play out of their skins to convince their coaches to start them ahead of the foreign strikers and that will be easier said than done.

An Indian coach at the helm of an ISL team

If not for a new Indian goalscoring machine to compete with Chhetri, Indians will have representation in an area where they haven’t been afforded to make any mark at all.

Khalid Jamil will be the first Indian head coach to start a season at an ISL club. The Indian has earned the head coach’s job having masterminded an incredible turnaround to take NorthEast United to the semi-finals after a poor start.

The former I-League winner with Aizawl FC managed to get the best out of the players that were previously underperforming.

There will be plenty of spotlight on Jamil’s performance this season as it could go a long way in building the trust among ISL clubs to employ an Indian coach. Failure for Jamil, though, could be a fresh setback for Indian coaches aspiring to manage an ISL team.

But it will be interesting to see how Jamil goes about his job with a full pre-season under his belt and the pressure of expectations very much on after an incredible last season.

With Sergio Lobera gone, is it an advantage ATKMB?

Mumbai City FC were the best team in the ISL last season and they proved it not just by finishing on top of the table and winning the final, but also by beating their nearest rivals ATK Mohun Bagan thrice during the course of the season.

The Kolkata side though seemed to have drawn first blood at least in the off-season battle as they managed to prise away two of Mumbai City FC’s biggest assets. Attacking midfielder Hugo Boumous and captain and goalkeeper Amarinder Singh joined from their title rivals to significantly strengthen them and also weaken Mumbai.

Coach Sergio Lobera also left the club in the summer to be replaced by Des Buckingham who in all fairness doesn’t possess the same experience of Indian football as Lobera. Mumbai still have a formidable side especially after arrival of Igor Angulo from FC Goa, but ATK Mohun Bagan, who have signed Liston Colaco from Hyderabad FC and Joni Kauko who played in Euro 2020 for Finland, will feel they can turn the tables on Mumbai and win their first ISL title.