The league phase of the 2020-’21 edition of the Indian Super League came to a smashing end on Sunday as Mumbai City FC edged ATK Mohun Bagan to win the League Winners’ Shield and thus bag the AFC Champions League spot for next season.

In the penultimate game, FC Goa held their nerves to secure a 0-0 draw against Hyderabad FC and join Mumbai, ATKMB and NorthEast United in the semi-finals.

There were some great goals scored even as goalkeepers lit up the opening part of the season with some breathtaking saves.

Even though the football played left a lot to be desired at times, there were plenty of takeaways at the end of a closely-contested league phase.

Contrasting starts for Kolkata giants

The biggest talking point ahead of the season was the entry of the two big Kolkata clubs. Mohun Bagan merged with ATK while SC East Bengal joined the competition after a successful bid. ISL thus had the most heated rivalries in Indian football on board.

However, the two clubs had a contrasting first campaign in the new Indian top-flight. ATK Mohun Bagan, that largely inherited the triumphant ATK squad from last season, built on it to finish second to Mumbai City FC. Antonio Habas’ men kept ten clean sheets, the most by any team in the league while being extremely efficient at the other end of the field.

On the other hand, SC East Bengal who barely managed to assemble the squad ahead of the new season never got going. Having lost their first three games, the Red and Golds registered their first win in the ISL in their eighth match. Their struggle to score goals was real as they managed just 22 goals all season. Unfortunately for SC East Bengal, they were in the news a lot more for their coach Robbie Fowler’s controversial post-match rants than their football.

SC East Bengal may close the gap on the Mariners in the coming seasons, but this campaign belonged to the green and maroon half of Kolkata.

Refereeing mistakes continue to haunt ISL

Refereeing decisions caused plenty of controversies in the 2019-’20 campaign and it was no different this season as well. In fact, the refereeing standard seemed to have dropped even further this season as there were several cases where the referees didn’t get even obvious decisions correct.

The officials were constantly at the receiving end of the head coaches who couldn’t hide their frustration at the quality of refereeing or the lack of it.

“The referee situation, I don’t understand. In my opinion, a referee can commit one mistake or two mistakes but cannot commit three mistakes in the same match. We need to support the referees but sometimes I don’t understand their decisions,” ATK Mohun Bagan coach Antonio Habas said after the match against NorthEast United.

East Bengal coach Fowler, too, was constantly unimpressed with the men in the middle

“The refereeing is bordering on disgraceful sometimes. I am mentally exhausted because I am fighting battles with the referees every single game. It’s an absolute joke. We can’t keep doing this,” he said after his team’s 0-0 draw against Chennaiyin FC.

In January, the All India Football Federation removed two referees for poor performance. However, the standard of refereeing in the league has remained poor, thus hurting the competition’s reputation.

City Football Group hit the ground running

City Football Group buying a majority stake in Mumbai City FC was a big fillip for the ISL. The group that owns Premier League giants Manchester City took a bit of a time to assess the situation but meant business once they got their teeth into it.

After appointing Sergio Lobera, the coach that had guided FC Goa to the League Winners’ Shield in 2019-’20 season, the Mumbai club went on a spending spree buying the best proven talent in the league. Mourtada Fall, Ahmed Jahouh, Hugo Boumous, Mandar Rao Dessai and Amey Ranawade joined from FC Goa, while Batholomew Ogbeche was signed from Kerala Blasters. Adam le Fondre, the second highest goalscorer in the A-League last season was also recruited, so was former Tottenham trainee Cy Goddard.

Even though they got off to the worst possible start, losing 1-0 to NorthEast United, Lobera’s men kicked on from the second game. Dominating every opponent that came their way, Mumbai City FC played at a level few teams had reached in the ISL in the past.

A minor hiccup during the end of the campaign almost cost them the top spot but they showed immense character to fight back and beat ATK Mohun Bagan on the final day to clinch the League Winners’ Shield.

With AFC Champions League football acquired, expect CFG to further strengthen the side. It’s only the beginning for Mumbai City FC under CFG and what a start it is.

Young Indians impress but...

There were quite a few breakaway Indian stars that caught the eye in the ISL this season. None had a bigger impact than Bipin Singh who finally delivered on his promise. With nine goal contributions to his name, he is second only to Sunil Chhetri on that front among Indians.

Ashish Rai and Akash Mishra, the Hyderabad FC full-backs, were other players who earned plaudits for their performances with several voices calling for the duo to be picked for the national team.

FC Goa’s Ishan Pandita has largely been a substitute but his impact on his side’s season has been immense. Scoring four times as a substitute, Pandita’s goals have been the difference between FC Goa making the semi-finals and losing out on it. His teammates Alexander Jseuraj and Glan Martins also delivered noteworthy performances.

Lalengmawia, the NorthEast United skipper led extremely well by example helping the team finish in the top four places for just the second time in their history. His teammates, Suhair VP and Imran Khan also caught the eye.

The key for these Indian players now would be to sustain these performances next season. It’s a challenge that’s proven to be daunting for youngsters in the previous seasons. Hope 2021-’22 season changes that narrative.

Bengaluru FC in need of a rebuild

The Blues from Bengaluru failed to qualify for the semi-finals for the first time in their history. Coach Carles Cuadrat lost his job midway through the season as Bengaluru FC looked a pale shadow of itself.

Finishing seventh, the Blues lost the defensive solidity that had seen them reach the semi-finals last season. They conceded 28 goals, fifteen more than what they did in the 2019-’20 campaign. Upfront there was an improvement but not of the magnitude that was needed to match the drop-off in the defence.

The team was too predictable and relied heavily on set-pieces for goals. The spine of the side that got them so much success over the years seemed past their prime and there was a lack of energy, drive and imagination about Bengaluru FC this season.

Naushad Moosa’s appointment changed precious little as it seemed like the end of a cycle at the club. The current squad is in serious need of a rebuild and needs a new spine to compete at the top again. With Sunil Chhetri’s contract coming to an end, it remains to be seen if the captain remains in the plans for the club going forward.

A season of draws

The 2020-’21 league phase saw the most number of draws a single ISL season has ever seen. While some may point to the increased number of matches as a reason for that, the percentage of draws too is the highest in the current campaign than any previous season.

This season, 38% of the games ended in draws, 9% more than last season.

Season % of drawn games
2020-'21* 38
2019-'20 29
2018-'19 31
2017-'18 21
2016 34
2015 21
2014 36
* The season is still ongoing. Only league stage data used.

Three teams drew ten or more games this season with Hyderabad FC and Chennaiyin setting a new record for most number of draws in a single ISL season (11).

The lack of fans may have played a part in the increased number of stalemates. In a lot of games this season, coaches adopted a safety-first approach that led to teams cancelling each other out and taking fewer risks to win games.

Maybe with the return of fans, teams might feel obliged to turn a point into three and there might be bit more edge to games than what we saw this season.

Marquez’s young guns a breath of fresh air

Hyderabad FC was this season’s surprise package. They may have missed out on the semi-finals by a whisker but they had a brilliant campaign having been so poor last term. What makes their progress this season even more remarkable is the difficult build-up to their season.

Coach Albert Roca left for Barcelona just months before the new campaign leaving Hyderabad to search for a new coach that would be in sync with the philosophy of the previous coach. But Manual Marquez who replaced Roca did a splendid job. Getting the best out of his Indian players, Marquez’s Hyderabad played a fearless brand of football and gave every team a run for their money this season.

The Nizams lost just three matches despite missing key foreign players like Joel Chianese and Fran Sandaza through injury for long periods. Striker Aridane Santana led from the front and his absence was felt in their final game against Goa that they came very close to winning at the end.

With a year’s experience under their belt, Hyderabad FC are certain to come back stronger provided they keep their players intact. Another challenge awaits the club in off-season.

Sunil Chhetri still the top dog

Chhetri cut a frustrating figure for most parts of the season as Bengaluru FC found getting results very difficult. However, even during this difficult campaign, Chhetri quietly helped himself to eight goals. For the fourth season running he is the top Indian goalscorer in the competition and is likely to remain there unless Bipin Singh and Manvir Singh who are second on the list with five goals apiece find a way to score three more.

Top ten Indian goalscorers

Player Club Matches Played Goals
Sunil Chhetri Bengaluru FC 20 8
Bipin Singh Mumbai City FC 19 5
Manvir Singh ATK Mohun Bagan 20 5
Ishan Pandita FC Goa 9 4
Halicharan Narzary Hyderabad FC 20 4
Lallianzuala Chhangte Chennaiyin FC 20 4
Rahul KP Kerala Blasters 17 3
Paul Ramfangzauva Odisha FC 5 2
Anirudh Thapa Chennaiyin FC 14 2
Rahim Ali Chennaiyin FC 16 2

The percentage of Indian goalscorers has remained the same from last season but the goals-per-game ratio has dropped to 0.64 from 0.71 from last season.

Season Goals scored by Indian players Percentage of total goals scored by Indian
2020-21* 71 24.82
2019-20 72 24.48
2018-19 89 34.76
2017-18 74 28.35
2016 34 23.44
2015 45 24.19
2014 26 20.15
* The season is still ongoing. Only league phase data used.

As foreign strikers continue to rule the roost in ISL, the prospects of Indian strikers emerging remain bleak. The league phase of 2020-’21 edition has not changed that.

Same old story for Kerala Blasters

Kerala Blasters have one of the most passionate fanbases in the ISL but they have been time and again been left disappointed by the team’s performances. But there was renewed optimism before the 2020-’21 season as the club had made a host of changes and brought in I-league winning manager Kibu Vicuna.

But like every season, Kerala Blasters’ team seemed less than the sum of its parts. The Blasters conceded 36 goals and won just three games all season. They dropped 18 points from winning positions, more than any other team in the league.

The Kochi outfit were also inefficient in front of goals scoring just 23 times this season despite having the second-highest number of shots this season.

Vicuna was sacked as the club failed to reach the playoffs and his parting words indicated to a discord between the coach and the board.

“Our scouting of the players was bad, the plans and expectations for the season were higher than the reality,” Vicuna said in his final press conference as Kerala Blasters coach.

Ishfaq Ahmed was handed interim charge of the team but they didn’t manage to eke out a win in the two games he took charge.

The Blasters will go into another season needing a reset but with the burden of underachievement weighing heavier than before.

Khalid Jamil makes case for Indian coaches

One of the most remarkable storylines of the league phase was the NorthEast United’s turnaround under Khalid Jamil. The Highlanders were on a seven-game winless streak when they sacked Gerard Nus. NorthEast United’s history suggests that the club fails to recover from such slumps and few expected it to be any different this time around as well.

However, Jamil galvanised the group and got the best out of the foreign and Indian players as the Highlanders went on a ten-game unbeaten run to reach the semi-finals. It is only the second time that the club have qualified for the knockout phase but it’s the first that an Indian coach that has managed over three matches has qualified for the ISL playoffs.

Jamil came in as a replacement to the foreign coach for the rest of the season but he’s shown that Indian coaches that are qualified to take the job like him can be as effective as foreign coaches. So far no ISL club has appointed an Indian coach at the start of the season but after Khalid Jamil’s heroics with NorthEast United, that perception may start to change.

Khalid Jamil’s coaching template: Building a strong defence, micromanaging players, no switching off