With most clubs in the Indian Super League (ISL) having already played eight matches, it is time to look at the key takeaways from what has been another bright and unpredictable start to the season. Remember, this year, six out of the eleven teams get to have a shot at silverware through a playoff format.
But the ISL is more than just about the trophies. The last couple of seasons have gone down to the last game to decide the league shield winners (which qualifies them for the AFC Champions League). Last year’s final went down to penalties, with Hyderabad beating Kerala Blasters to win the championship (which qualifies the club for a possible AFC Cup spot). The league is currently in that sweet spot where stories start to emerge, with new characters, trends and heroes coming to the fore. Here are five key takeaways from the season so far.
Constantine and Cleiton make East Bengal believe again: There was intrigue in Indian football when former national team head coach Stephen Constantine returned to steer the fortunes of East Bengal. The red-and-gold brigade have so far won three games and lost five, but that is a remarkable record when you consider that they won four games in their last two seasons combined. Constantine has added confidence and flair to the club’s counter-attacking system, which is spearheaded by the brilliant Cleiton Silva, who has five goals already.
Cleiton was a Bengaluru FC player for the last two campaigns, but never got to play in Bengaluru due to the pandemic-induced bubble seasons. So when he finally got to play at the Sree Kanteerava stadium, it was in East Bengal colours. In a classic coincidence that only football can throw at you, he went on to score the winner. Another player shining for Constantine is Mahesh Naorem. The 23-year-old left winger has been in scintillating form and became the first Indian to assist three goals in a game in their win against league champions Jamshedpur. Constantine’s next task is to win in Kolkata. All of East Bengal’s points have, so far, come away from home. The images of their fans celebrating in the stands, has become symbolic of the belief returning.
Whisper it but Mumbai City could be invincible this season: It’s probably too early, but the talk of an unbeaten season is simmering in the background. Mumbai are unbeaten in nine games, and have scored 27 goals already. They have let in 10, but coach Des Buckingham won’t mind as long as his side are scoring at this rate. The biggest signing of the season, Greg Stewart, has hit the ground running with the most shots on target (18 in nine appearances), two goals, and six assists. But it is Bipin Singh who is having another fine season. He became Mumbai’s all-time top-scorer in the Hero ISL, surpassing Modou Sogou’s record of 15 goals for the club, and has four strikes already this season. Add to that the resurgence of Lallinzuala Chhangte as a goal-scoring winger. His four goals mean that Mumbai’s wingers have a combined eight goals already.
Then there is the sheer depth of the squad: most of Mumbai’s bench would walk into other starting XIs. But Buckingham is using his riches well, keeping players hungry, and they have started playing with the air of possible champions. A great example would be how he has used Alberto Noguera. The Spaniard has started just two games but coming on as a substitute, he has scored three goals in just 370 minutes on the pitch. It was his strike which was the cherry on the cake as Mumbai dismissed FC Goa 4-1 in their latest game.
Jamshedpur realising how tough it is to defend the shield: No club has ever defended the league shield or the championship trophy in ISL history. Jamshedpur is finding out that this is especially difficult when you lose your head coach and your best player (Greg Stewart played for Jamshedpur last season). With five straight defeats, Aidy Boothroyd’s side are desperately hanging on. The league shield is surely slipping away with a mammoth 17-point gap from the top of the table, but getting into the top six might also be difficult if they don’t string a run of results.
Jamshedpur brought Jay Emmanuel-Thomas to replace the creativity of Stewart, and while the former Arsenal academy graduate is slowly growing in influence, the club still don’t have anything to show for it. Boothroyd has received a boost as Rafael Crivallero has been signed, but he has hardly played any competitive football in more than a year. But he can still influence games with his remarkable quality.
Boothroyd tried to continue with the direct style employed last season, with a clutch of six-foot-plus players going forward, but the Red Miners are leaking goals like never before. Their most unflattering stat is that out of the 15 goals they have conceded, 12 have been from open play. Teams have found out gaps in their defence time and again, and more is expected from an unchanged backline from last season.
Hyderabad recover after losing two in a row: Only for the second time under Manolo Marquez’s stewardship had Hyderabad lost two games in a row before they faced Chennaiyin last week. After winning four games straight, all of them 1-0, the reigning champions then lost two games by the same scoreline. The biggest worry for them is the ISL’s all-time top scorer, Bart Ogbeche (54 goals) is on his longest run of games without a goal. With just two goals in nine appearances, his conversion rate is the lowest since he joined the league in 2018. While Ogbeche struggles for form, the others had to step up. The club’s performance against Chennaiyin was made up of brilliant strikes from Halicharan Narzary, Chinglensana Singh, and Borja Herrera.
Marquez’s critique of his players after their loss in Matchweek 8 seems to have woken his side up. “I’m very unhappy with our performance. One thing isn’t a coincidence, no team can repeat the title in ISL. Maybe now I’m finding the answer to why that happens now. For us, it’s because the players are not hungry to repeat the title,” he said. The players responded to this with a win that showed a lot of desire and hunger. Hyderabad next take on East Bengal in a tasty clash.
Kerala Blasters win four in a row for the first time in their history: The Blasters, finalists from last season, have staged a remarkable recovery after losing three in a row. Head coach Ivan Vukomanovic admitted that he changed his approach and tactics after that wretched run, and they’ve now beaten NorthEast United, Hyderabad, Goa, and Jamshedpur to cement their spot in 5th. That’s the kind of season it is—only a strong, consistent run of wins will get teams any kind of joy. The Blasters looked in complete control against Jamshedpur in their latest win, and have now earned two clean sheets in a row as well. Vukomanovic’s usually attacking approach now has a semblance of patience and a solidity at the back.
Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator and writer.