When City Football Group, the owners of Premier League outfit Manchester City, bought majority stake in Mumbai City FC in 2019, an upturn in the club’s fortunes was always on the cards.
The track record and the financial muscle of the new owners was renowned and so were their lofty ambitions. Even though CFG made little noise in the initial months, to an extent that the anticipation surrounding their impact was almost lost, the belief was there.
But during the off-season, when the world was grappling with a pandemic, CFG and Mumbai City FC were doing the business quietly. A few big names were linked to the club but even the most optimistic of Mumbai fans wouldn’t have imagined what their club would pull off.
Bringing in Sergio Lobera as head coach was a sign of their intent but the raid on FC Goa, that saw Mumbai City FC sign five main players from the team that had won the League Winners’ Shield last season, was quite stunning.
There was going to be more to it. Other big names players like Bartholomew Ogbeche, Adam Le Fondre, Cy Goddard and Hernan Santana followed. Top young Indian players from the existing squad were retained and the likes of Vikram Pratap Singh were signed.
The club didn’t just recruit an entire spine of a successful team, they strengthened it even further with quality additions across the board.
It was a coup that no ISL club had ever pulled off before in the transfer market. Mumbai City FC were quickly installed among the favourites for the season. But doubts over their ability to overthrow some established powers remained. Too much change can be a bad thing too.
The season was to be played in a bio-bubble and with an almost non-existent pre-season. Lobera had a reputation for using a very specific style of football which had taken three years at FC Goa to produce tangible results.
So with little time together before the season, Mumbai City FC’s overhaul was deemed too big to be digested in a single season.
But as things turned out, that prediction was perhaps an under-estimation of Lobera’s managerial qualities.
In the very first game under the new boss, Mumbai City’s quality was on show. Even though they went down 1-0 to NorthEast United, there was a sense that the team wasn’t far away from hitting their stride.
And in a blink of an eye, Mumbai City FC had four wins on the spin where they had conceded just one goal. Lobera-ball was rolling and with a much greater pace than what anyone had anticipated.
“The coach came in with clear ideas. He knew exactly what he wanted each one of us to do and what our plan as a team was going to be. The way he made us understand his requirements was great as we didn’t get a lot of time with him. He is definitely one of the best coaches I’ve ever worked with,” Mumbai City FC’s captain Amrinder Singh had said ahead of the final.
“But what also helped was the addition of players that had already played with him before. They knew everything about him and having them in the team made it easier for us to adapt to the coach,” he added.
Banking on ISL experience
The CFG India CEO Damian Willoughby had made it clear in a recent interview with the Hindustan Times that Sergio Lobera’s familiarity with the ISL and the Indian players was a key reason behind his appointment as a coach.
A similar approach was also evident while recruiting. Out of the 17 new players that Mumbai signed before the season ten had played in the ISL, two had played in the I-League and only five players were completely new to the league.
A lot of foreign players in the past have found it hard to adapt to Indian football in the first season and with even lesser time to prepare the team for the new season, CFG decided to invest in players who had the experience of playing in the ISL.
“We really worked hard to make sure the team was prepared - players coming in the best possible shape, ensuring they had the necessary things to prepare during quarantine, dealing with a condensed pre-season window,” Willoughby told Hindustan Times.
“It was tough for a new team with a new style of play and a significant volume of new players. It helped that Sergio and his staff were very familiar with the dynamics of the ISL, the player pool in the league and number of players that we brought in.”
Preparation mode: Always on
However, getting recruitment right was only a part of the job. Despite all the planning, getting the players to gel together and making them perform on the pitch was a challenge that was made harder by the new experience of the bubble.
But for Lobera, there was an opportunity in adversity. Even though there wasn’t enough time to spend on training ground, the Spaniard utilised the extra time he got with his players in a bio-bubble to push every detail of his thought process through.
“The one positive of the bio-bubble was that I had the players with me 24x7. It was of great help as I was able to give them a lot of tactical inputs and make them understand what I wanted from them better. It would not have been possible in a normal situation,” Lobera said.
“I could make them watch videos and really drill into them every tactical input. This was definitely an advantage for us,” he added.
After the opening game defeat, Mumbai City FC went on a 12-game unbeaten run and won nine of those games. They played some of the best football seen in the ISL during that period. But a sticky patch followed where they managed just one win in five matches that put their hopes of topping the table and qualifying for the AFC Champions League in jeopardy.
But the Islanders picked themselves up, with a little bit of help from elsewhere, just at the right moment and beat ATK Mohun Bagan in a virtual playoff for the top spot in the final match of the league phase to win the League winners’ Shield.
Mumbai City FC had won their first-ever silverware and booked a ticket for an Asian expedition. It was a great achievement for the first year of the mega-project but Lobera wasn’t done.
Not just about flair
In his previous three seasons, he had found the playoffs a hurdle too big to overcome and was determined to clear it this time around.
His FC Goa teams, despite playing some great football in the knockout games, had found themselves on the wrong end of results. And with only one previous table-topper going on to be ISL champion, there were a few jinxes to be broken on the night of the final this time.
In the semi-finals and even in the final, Mumbai City FC didn’t display the swashbuckling football that they had played all season long. In fact, in the semi-finals, they were second best to FC Goa in both games but made the big moments count and competed hard in the tough ones. In the final on Saturday, Mumbai City were far from their free-flowing best but having equalised through an own goal, made the opponents pay for another mistake.
Simply put, Lobera’s men were simply ruthless in the knockout games.
In the league stage, when consistency of performance was required, the Islanders delivered and when the need was to grind the results in knockout games, Mumbai City FC came up trumps again.
Lobera produced the perfect champions even if he did it at times in quite non-Lobera ways. The man who had never failed to reach the playoffs in the ISL, finally managed to emerge a winner at the end of it.
Surely he was hugely helped by CFG’s investment, but he ensured that he made it count.
“Money doesn’t guarantee you success, hard work and consistent efforts do. That’s what we did,” Lobera said.
And thanks to him, CFG have conquered it all in Indian football in the very first go: Asian campaign coming up plus the silverware to go with it. Now they can dare to extend their gaze towards the continent and with Sergio Lobera at the helm, they’ll not hesitate to dream.
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