NorthEast United raised plenty of eyebrows when they parted ways with coach Eelco Schattorie in the summer after the Dutchman led them to their first-ever playoff finish during the 2018-’19 Indian Super League season.
The Highlanders also released several players such as Mato Grgic, Rowllin Borges (both Mumbai City FC) and Bartholomew Ogbeche (Kerala Blasters) who had played a vital part in their run to the semi-finals. A squad revamp followed, including the eye-catching acquisition of Asamoah Gyan while 1998 World Cupper Robert Jarni took over as head coach.
Having formed a reputation as the league’s underachievers since their inception, NorthEast United’s performances in the 2019-’20 edition have been a tale of two halves. They held defending champions Bengaluru FC to a goalless away draw in their opener before going unbeaten in their next five games, and climbing to fourth spot in the standings.
In their next 12 matches, they failed to win even one and Jarni was fired during the fag end of the season. The Highlanders eventually finished ninth with just 14 points.
Lack of goals
Asamoah Gyan’s injury in November was a huge blow to their attack and their campaign derailed thereafter.
No player managed to step up in his absence and that reflects in their numbers. Gyan remained the top scorer for NorthEast despite the African star missing half the season.
Overall, they managed to score only 16 goals in the entire campaign, the worst tally in the league. Even bottom-placed Hyderabad FC have scored five more than them.
With playmaker Federico Gallego making a late comeback in December following a horrific injury, the onus fell on other newly-arrived foreign players to salvage the situation. But they never got going.
Even when Andrew Keogh was signed as Gyan’s replacement during the January transfer window, their goal-scoring woes continued. The Irishman didn’t receive the best of services as the team lacked the cutting edge in the final third.
NorthEast United also shipped in a total of 30 goals and their backline, which has mostly featured Indian players on multiple occasions have found it hard to keep opposition goal scorers in check.
Despite the failures, there were few silver linings too, with teenage midfielders Lalengmawia and Ninthoi Meetei emerging as the brightest spark for the team.
Veteran goalkeeper Subhasish Roy Chowdhury has also starred, making a total of 55 saves, the highest in the league.
Key player: Asamoah Gyan
Gyan’s signing in the summer, was by far the biggest in the ISL this season and the former Sunderland striker did manage to live up to the hype.
He was decisive in moments when NorthEast United needed him and scored with very few opportunities that came his way. Gyan, despite not being in his best physical condition during the initial phase, managed to outmuscle the defenders and score goals.
He also formed a fine partnership wide Panagiotis Triadis (released in December) as the two were crucial in creating chances and bringing other attackers into play during the first half of the season.
Key Indian player: Lalengmawia
Lalengmawia may have only one assist to show for his efforts but he was their midfield lynchpin, excelling in a box-to-box role under Jarni while impressing with his ability to execute quick one-touch passes.
He was the mainstay in their midfield, showing maturity and composure on the ball while also mopping up the messes made in defense with vital tackles and interceptions.
Even Jarni has spoken highly about the 19-year-old and deservedly, a first-ever national team call-up has followed.
What next for NorthEast United?
The Highlanders sacked Jarni with just three games left in the season and the team already out of the play off race. It can be argued that they could have persisted with Jarni, who kept faith with many young Indian players despite the poor run of results and could have benefitted from his vision in the next season.
But Jarni is out and I-league winning coach Khalid Jamil is currently the interim boss. He comes with decent managerial experience in Indian football but it remains to be seen if the management would continue with him in the new season.
A new coach coming in would mean that the club would need to start afresh and bring in another group of players suited to his philosophy. This could mean another rebuilding process for the Highlanders and patience will be the key going forward for the team.