The seventh edition of the Indian Super League has, more or less, gone according to plan. Pre-tournament favourites ATK Mohun Bagan and Mumbai City FC are top of the league. Bengaluru FC are there or thereabouts and Kerala Blasters have struggled despite a new coach and a fresh set of foreign players.
Four teams – ATKMB, Bengaluru FC, NorthEast United and Hyderabad FC – are still unbeaten after 19 matches in the season while four sides – Jamshedpur FC, Kerala Blasters, Odisha FC and SC East Bengal – are yet to record wins.
The absence of regular home grounds and fans has taken the sheen off the competition but the usual trends have prevailed. Foreign players have continued to rule the roost, especially in front of the goal with just five out of the total 37 goals being scored by Indian players.
As the league completes its third week, here are the key takeaways from the campaign so far:
Distinct league leaders
ATK Mohun Bagan and Mumbai City FC have emerged as the early pace-setters in the ISL but they have taken rather contrasting routes to get there. While wins and points are obviously the currency for them, the manner in which they have been achieved has been quite different.
Antonio Habas’ men have been pragmatic in their approach, preferring to play on the counter and relying on the incredible poaching abilities of Roy Krishna, who has scored three out of the four goals they have scored. Defensively, ATKMB have been pretty much flawless and are yet to concede in the competition. The Mariners’ perfect record has been achieved pretty much without a lot of posession as they are the league’s lowest passers. No team has made fewer passes than ATKMB.
Mumbai City, on the other hand, are at the other end of the spectrum. After a shock defeat in the first match, Mumbai have got their act together and bossed games. The team with the most passes in the tournament, Mumbai City FC have been delightful to watch. With six goals so far they are the joint top-scoring team in the competition so far and have only let in one goal in four games.
The early signs are quite clear and despite their contrasting styles, it will take a lot to displace these teams from the top end of the table.
SC East Bengal have made the worst possible start to life in ISL with three defeats in their first three matches. The team has also failed to score in any of those games putting their manager, Robbie Fowler under some early pressure.
The former Liverpool manager has hardly tried to hide his frustrations and seemed to be critical of his Indian players when he claimed: “some had never received top coaching in their careers”. Fowler received criticism for his statement that came so early on in the campaign and was forced to issue a clarification that he didn’t mean disrespect to anyone in Indian football.
However, as things continued to head south on the pitch in their latest defeat to NorthEast United, Fowler called out his players again for “schoolboy errors”. He also had a go at the referees who he felt denied them two clear penalties against the Highlanders.
Fowler has had a history of adopting a siege mentality and we saw that during his last stint in the A-League where he blamed the league authorities, opponent managers and the referees at various junctures. But with his East Bengal team in complete disarray, he will probably have to focus all his energies on getting it right on the pitch.
The early trend in the ISL has further highlighted the importance of the first goal. In the 19 matches played so far, the team that has scored first has never lost a match. On only five occasions have a team come from behind to get anything from the game.
Comebacks have been few and far between in the ISL so far as in ten out of the 19 games played so far, the teams that have scored first have managed to keep a clean sheet.
As the players are still finding their feet after a long off-season while also adapting to new players and head coaches, the first goal in matches has been crucial so far. Teams have found it quite hard to steer momentum away from the opponent. As players reach their top fitness levels, it may begin to change but so far scoring the first goal has huge rewards.
Hyderabad and NorthEast United spring a surprise
For last season’s bottom two teams – Hyderabad FC and NorthEast United – the new season wasn’t expected to bring a change in fortunes after a rather underwhelming summer. But the two teams have sprung a big surprise in the ISL so far and are among the four unbeaten teams.
The Highlanders opened their season stunning the big-spending Mumbai City before battling performances in draws against Kerala Blasters and FC Goa. Their new-found resillience was on show once again in their 2-0 win over East Bengal.
In Benjamin Lambot and Dylan Fox, NorthEast United have a solid centre-back pairing that has clicked right away. Upfront Idrissa Sylla and Kwesi Appiah have chipped in with goals at crucial junctures. The rest of the team has portrayed a great deal of tactical discipline and a tremendous work rate. Gerard Nus has instilled a great fighting spirit and that has been evident in all games so far.
Hyderabad have been a breath of fresh air to the ISL this season. Well coached by Manuel Marquez, the Nizams have played some of the most delightful football in the competition so far. Top of the charts for shots taken, Hyderabad’s Indian players have really impressed, so much so that they have hardly used their full quota of foreigners.
Mohammad Yasir, Liston Colaco and Holicharan Narzary have been very expressive going forward and will give Indian football team coach Igor Stimac plenty of encouragement.
It’s still early days in the season and there’s a long way to go for these two teams, but their impressive start has added a bit of spice to the campaign.
The lack of pre-season has meant that all teams have struggled to produce their best football so far in the season. That has led to an increased number of penalties and goals from set-plays. 40% of the total goals scored in the ISL have come from dead-ball situations so far this season.
There has been a set-piece goal in eleven out of the 19 games played so far.
The unusually high numbers are down to lack of match fitness, absence of defensive organsitaion as players are still learning about their teammates.
The games come thick and fast in the ISL with virtually no break, and teams have little time on the training ground to iron the flaws in their respective systems. But as the season progresses, teams will be expected to translate the coach’s tactics into on-field performances.