Going by their busy transfer activity in the summer alongside the high-profile appointment of Eelco Schattorie as head coach, there was optimism surrounding Kerala Blasters that they might turn a corner in the 2019-’20 Indian Super League season after struggling in the previous two editions.
Kerala Blasters had a dream start to the 2019-’20 season, beating ATK in their opening match with a thrilling comeback victory but then struggled as they failed to win their next nine matches that virtually saw them crash out of the playoff race early on.
They were languishing at the ninth spot before some promising results during the back end of the season saw them climb up as they finished seventh with a total of 19 points. There were few highlights as well, completing a double over title contenders ATK while also beating defending champions Bengaluru FC for the first time in three years.
Kerala Blasters stats 2019-'20
|Team||Matches played||Goals scored||Goals conceded||Goal difference||Clean sheets|
|League's best|| 18|| 46 (Goa)||11 (Bengaluru)|| +23 (Goa)||10 (Bengaluru)|
Lack of stability
Things have been turbulent for the club even before the season began. They had to cut short their preseason in UAE since few matches were abandoned, forcing them to return to Kochi and start afresh.
According to Schattorie, he could not make the most of their preseason training as there were few players who arrived injured and losing a monumental figure in defender Sandesh Jhingan for the entire season was also a severe blow.
Kerala scored a total of 29 goals this season, the fourth-highest in the league but constant chopping and changing to the starting eleven meant that the players took a lot of time to settle into Schattorie’s system.
Captain Bartholomew Ogbeche and striker Raphael Messi Bouli scored the bulk-load of their goals with a tally of 23, forming one of the lethal strike partnerships in the ISL. However, injuries to key personnel saw them shuffling players in midfield and defence.
“Kerala, in the last two seasons, didn’t do anything. A lot of coaches sacked. This season, we are going to play game number 18 tomorrow and 17 times I had to change the team – not because I want to change but because I had to,” Schattorie said during Kerala Blasters’ final press conference of the season.
“It made things difficult. But I think I brought the best out of what we had, (given the circumstances). We had some good and some bad games,” he added.
Kerala Blasters were also guilty of dropping points from winning positions and much of it was down to defensive mistakes and lapses in concentration that cost them many points.
Key player: Bartholomew Ogbeche
It’s no surprise why Schattorie chose to sign Ogbeche from NorthEast United at Kerala Blasters as the Nigerian striker enjoyed another exceptional season, finishing with a tally of 15 goals, the highest at the moment.
Ogbeche continued his form from last season with NorthEast United after finishing as the second joint-highest top goalscorer in the 2018-’19 ISL with 11 goals where he became the top goalscorer for the Highlanders in their history. The veteran achieved the same feat with his Blasters this season after surpassing CK Vineeth, who was previously the club’s top scorer with 11 goals.
Ogbeche’s presence in front of goal has been massive for Blasters, offering an additional threat from set-pieces and corners. He was able to make a difference alone at times by dragging defenders out of their positions and creating spaces for Messi and other attackers to exploit.
Key Indian player: Jessel Carneiro
In what was his debut season in the ISL, left-back Carneiro was a revelation for Blasters in defense as he was the only player to feature in all their league matches.
The full-back chipped in with five assists throughout the season, the most for the club while also ranking first for passes and interceptions (22) – joint-highest along with midfielder Mouhamadou Gning.
While Carneiro still has a lot to improve defensively, he was effective down the left flank with his ability to provide exceptional crosses in the box and was also on corner-duties.
No other defender in the league has more goal contributions this season than Carneiro and the Goan has been a seamless fit in Schattorie’s system, despite having not played in the I-League or ISL before.
“We worked on many players individually through the season, but I think Jessel [Carneiro] stands out. He has the basic qualities. He learned fast and quick. He has a fantastic personality, so he has made a lot of progress,” Schattorie said.
What next for Kerala Blasters?
The failure of not making it to the playoffs for the third season straight is a massive disappointment for Blasters but they need to provide Schattorie time as they look to bounce back for next season.
Having changed as many as four managers in their last four seasons, it won’t be ideal if the club management decide to do the same this year.
While Schattorie’s tactics and team selection has drawn scrutiny, the Dutchman has not had the best of resources in hand to deliver results consistently. There have been patches where Schattorie has successfully executed his attacking, possession-based brand of football, even against the big teams. Provide him more time and it could pay off come next season.