There was a hint of emotion on Des Buckingham’s face as he walked to the Mumbai City FC dugout. The Indian Super League match against SC East Bengal, at the Mumbai Football Arena on Sunday had not yet started, but what was certain was that regardless of the result, he and his team would end the night by lifting the ISL’s League Shield, given to the team that tops the group stage before playoffs.

Such was the dominance of Buckingham’s team this season that – with a record 18-match unbeaten run – they secured the league title with two games to spare, the earliest a team has won the League Shield.

“Yeah there were emotions,” Buckingham said at the post-match press conference.

“When I look back at the last 10 months especially, with the Champions League, to the Durand Cup final, now winning the League Shield. It’s been huge for the club with what we’re trying to do. When we see that the football we’re playing and the players are vying for us and trust what we’re doing, it’s sort of a proud feeling that you’ve been a part of it. It’s not just me, but everyone in the support staff. We’ve been able to build a wonderful squad with good people, good players.”

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The team has been so good this year that they’ve set quite a few benchmarks on their way to becoming the first team to win the league stage of a season three times – 2016 and 2020-’21 being the earlier occasions.

They won the league with a record 46 points after picking up 14 wins and two draws along with two losses (both from dead rubbers) over the course of their campaign. It’s a run that featured eight consecutive away wins (most away wins this season) and a record 11 wins in a row.

Robust scouting

Mumbai City brought in five new players this season keeping the core of the squad from last season. Each of the five new players though had a specific and impactful role for the club.

There was Rostyn Griffiths, a formidable Australian centre back who came in from Melbourne City, who neatly slotted into the backline along with fellow newcomer Sanjeev Stalin, who was a member of India’s Under-17 Men’s World Cup team from 2017.

Recruited for their attacking flair were Alberto Noguera (scored four goals and made one assist), Greg Stewart (scored seven and assisted just as many) and Jorge Pereyra Diaz (second highest scorer for the season with 11 goals and six assists).

The trio were crucial in Mumbai’s attacking front, but they weren’t the only ones.

Fluid attacking line

During the course of the season, Mumbai City have failed to score in just one of the 20 matches. They broke FC Goa’s previous record of most goals scored in a season of 51, to set the new mark at 54. Going back to last season, the team has netted in a record 28 consecutive games, and this term scored 30 goals while travelling away from home.

Central to the success up front has been the trio of new signings, along with Indian wingers Bipin Singh (six goals) and the impressive Lallianzuala Chhangte (10 goals). This small group within the team has created a formidable five-pronged attacking unit that has been fluid in creating and executing opportunities.

Additionally, there’s the industry and creativity of vice-captain Ahmed Jahouh from the middle. A dead-ball specialist with an eye for a defence splitting pass, the Moroccan led ably from the front in place of Fall.

Sturdy defence

Griffiths was a regular in the Mumbai backline, and formed a solid partnership with Mehtab Singh. The experienced Fall was also available to them despite a slightly inconsistent season, and then there was Rahul Bheke, who became the first Indian player to score in the AFC Champions League before the ISL campaign started. While Griffiths, Singh and Bheke, until he was injured, were ever present in the Mumbai defence, Buckingham rotated between the young pair of Sanjeev Stalin and Vignesh Dakshinamurthy at left back.

They were all partnered capably with a vocal and flamboyant goalkeeper Phurba Lachenpa.

Youngsters standing up

Under Buckingham, the younger players in the Mumbai City lineup have started to seize the opportunities given to them with impressive performances. The impressive Lalengmawia Ralte, or Apuia, as he is commonly called, has been a solid figure in midfield. While Jahouh has been the more pivotal figure in the centre of the pitch – be it through launching attacks or even leading the arguments with referees – Apuia, 22, has been a calm presence. He’s a work horse who enjoys sitting just in front of defence, reading the game and making resolute and well-timed tackles and interceptions. His talent though, wasn’t recognised just this season. At the SAFF Cup in 2021, Sunil Chhetri was adjudged player of the match in the game against Maldives, but the India skipper handed over the trophy to the unsung Apuia as a recognition for his performance.

Then there’s also been other youngsters like (but not limited to) Vikram Pratap Singh, Gurkirat Singh, Amey Ranawade – all 25 and under – who have been effective this season.

“It’s one of the reasons I was brought here, to develop young players,” said Buckingham.

“In my experience of working with younger players, they’ve gone on to do wonderful things, and hopefully we’ll start to see that here. It’s taken 18 months, you always need time and patience with these players and you need to trust them. If they go on the field and perform the way they just have, they’ll have a good career.”

For the last league match against East Bengal though, Buckingham shuffled the team by resting most of the senior players and giving the younger guard a chance – four players made their debut. Hardik Bhatt was impressive in defence, while Halen Nongtdu was particularly impressive as centre back.

“They passed with flying colours in terms of how they adapted and showed what they can do. We now have a far better idea of what our young players can do, if required, on this stage,” the coach added.

“(For the semifinals) we’ll have all of them, and we’ll have Bheke back as well. It’s a great problem to have. We now know we have those options, as well as Halen, because we know what he can do. So he’s added to that list. It’s a good position to be in.”

Semifinals beckon

As winners of the League Shield, Mumbai City have moved directly into the two-legged semifinal with their opponents yet to be determined.

They’ve already broken several records this term, but they now have the opportunity to become the first team to repeat the League Shield and ISL title double in the same season, emulating the success of the 2020-21 campaign.