John Gregory’s days as Chennaiyin manager appear to be numbered. A title-winner in his first year as head coach of the Indian Super League franchise, the Englishman and his team’s fall from grace has been spectacular.
After putting up the worst title defence the ISL has seen in its short history, Chennaiyin FC seem to have found new lows to hit in the ongoing campaign. Having finished bottom of the league last season with just three wins, the two-time champions have started the new season with four straight losses. What makes it worse is that they have failed to score a single goal in those matches.
Their predicament is such that it has prompted Gregory to suggest it is time for him to step down as the head coach.
“I have never worked so hard in my life. Might be time for someone else to take over. This is the worst I have felt in my time here. The club comes first and we have to do what’s best for it,” the Englishman said after the defeat against Bengaluru FC.
Media reports following this press conference have hinted that the club are set to relieve Gregory of his duties during the ongoing international break.
With Chennaiyin set to end their marriage with Gregory that began on such a glorious note, here’s an assessment of what went wrong for the English manager over the last two seasons.
Continuity was the order of the day for Chennaiyin as they began their title defence in 2018. Having retained a large chunk of the players that led them to the title in 2017, Gregory’s men were expected to be there or thereabouts again.
However, despite that, the most crucial ones went missing.
Captain Henrique Sereno left, midfielder Dhanpal Ganesh was out with a major injury while his central midfield partner Bikramjit Singh was allowed to join Delhi Dynamos.
While Sereno’s leadership was sorely missed, Chennaiyin truly lost their stability with the dismantling of their midfield double pivot.
Dhanpal and Bikramjit started together in central midfield in 12 out of the 21 games for Chennaiyin in 2017-18 season, while there was just one occasion in the entire campaign when neither started for the Chennai outfit.
In the 2018-19 season, Chennaiyin lost that stability in central midfield with Anirudh Thapa, Andrea Orlandi, Inigo Calderon and Germanpreet Singh all being used in the deeper midfield role at different junctures without much success.
The lack of a stable midfield pivot didn’t just affect Chennaiyin defensively, as they conceded 10 more goals in three fewer games in 2018-19, but also failed to provide the platform to launch their attacks as Gregory’s men netted just 16 goals in 18 matches.
Although Dhanpal Ganesh returned from injury late last season, Chennaiyin haven’t been able to forge a similar central midfield pairing despite several new additions to the squad this season.
Another major reason for Chennaiyin’s struggles over the past year have been due to injury to striker Jeje Lalpekhlua and also failure of other attacking recruits to make an impression.
Creating chances hasn’t been a problem for Gregory’s men, but converting those good opportunities into goals has proved to be difficult.
Gregory’s men have the most number of shots in the ISL this season but have nothing to show for it. It’s a problem that has plagued the two-time champions since last season.
Chennaiyin under Gregory were never prolific. Even in the season they won the title, they scored 31 goals in 21 games averaging just 1.47 goals per game.
However, Chennaiyin were quite clinical that season and scored a goal for every 3.25 shots on target. Their shot accuracy was also a respectable 49.26%.
Last season, though, the shot accuracy dropped to 34.88% which has fallen further down to 31.3% this season. Unlike, their title-winning season Chennaiyin needed 4.63 shots on target to score a goal in 2018-19.
This severe drop in efficiency in front of goal combined with an unstable midfield resulted in a leaky defence to push Chennaiyin into a difficult spot.
Despite making a number of foreign and Indian recruits that includes Andre Schembri who has scored in the Europa League, Nerijus Valskis and Lallianzuala Chhangte, Chennaiyin’s attacking crisis has worsened.
Flawed transfer plan
While continuity was at the centre of Chennaiyin’s transfer strategy in 2018, change characterised their recruitment ahead of the 2019-20 season.
With Gregory failing to replace key figures in his team a year ago, he ensured there were plenty of reinforcements to make up for loss of key players like Raphael Augusto, Chris Herd, Mailson Alves and CK Vineeth.
After a disastrous ISL season, Chennaiyin seemed to forge a settled team late last season during their Super Cup and AFC Cup runs. Thapa, Dhanpal and Herd formed a solid midfield three with Mailson, El Sabia and Jerry Lalrinzuala being regular features in the back four. Upfront, Vineeth, Jeje and Mohammed Rafi all regularly got among the goals.
However, despite having stumbled upon a settled team that won seven games in the two cup competitions combined, Chennaiyin was surprisingly dismantled.
Mailson, Herd, Vineeth and Rafi all left at the start of the season, leaving Gregory with another incomplete puzzle.
New signings Lucian Goian, Schembri, Valskis, Rafael Crivellaro, Masih Saighani and Dragos Firtulescu have all struggled to make an impact, raising serious questions about the club’s transfer plan.
With Gregory all but making his desire to leave clear just months after offering to resign at the end of last season, Chennaiyin’s bosses may finally choose to put an end to their bittersweet era under the Englishman.