Indian Super League: A Season in Review

Atletico De Kolkata, ISL Champions
Atletico De Kolkata, ISL Champions

Atletico De Kolkata, ISL Champions

This is the first time I’ve sat down to write anything about the Indian Super League after that fateful ISL Final. That final was the culmination of Atletico De Kolkata’s topsy-turvy season where they started like a house on fire but ended in an as underwhelming manner as a biryani made for the international crowd.

Their performance in the league and knockout phases, both could be seen as flawed in one way and resilient in another. The winner of the whole affair… no it’s not football as most pundits like to say but instead us football fans.

Who would’ve thought that Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, and Borussia Dortmund (although their fan base may be dwindling rapidly after recent performances) in India would finally get to see good quality football in their own cities?

But, that’s exactly what’s happened. Let bitter people (some from mainstream media and some former players) denigrate the Indian Super League (ISL) as much as they want to. For me, the ISL was a huge success and will remain so unless the organisers really bungle the next instalment of the great tournament. This is my review of a tournament that I have no qualms saying was a tremendous success.

Reviewing Indian Super League, it’s Performance, And Its Format

So, how did the Indian Super League perform in its inaugural season? There were good and bad both. The good, without a doubt for me, was the way the people of our great country took to the Indian Super League like a long lost child come back after getting lost in the stereotypical Kumbh Mela.

I love the fact that a lot of the people following the Indian Super League were people who had no affinity for football before. I love it even more that people who followed more high profile leagues from Europe all their lives chose to reward their love to our own domestic league.

I especially love the fact that barring few teething troubles such as lights going out and poor parking provisions at venues the organisers did a brilliant job with an event. If you consider the fact that the initial expectations from the Indian Super League weren’t anywhere near the popularity it managed to achieve, it is an even greater achievement from the organisers.

The Great Indian Super League

The Great Indian Super League

The quality of football, itself, was comparable to the second tier leagues of the footballing nations of Europe and South America. Our champions Atletico De Kolkata may get taken apart by the bigwigs of the English Premier League, La Liga, Serie A and Bundesliga but I have a feeling that they would give the level two teams a run for their money. Heck, our flair child FC Goa was more entertaining and effective attacking wise than many European clubs. I’m looking at the football team from the Middle Earth of Stoke.

Our Indian Super League teams even managed to draw more crowds than most leagues of the world. In fact, only the English Premier League and the Bundesliga are more watched as of now. That was only because some of our stadiums are smaller than the smallest stadiums on other continents.

I’ll give you a prediction. You give our teams bigger stadiums to fill and I promise you they’ll fill it! Watch out UK and Germany, Indian football has been resuscitated and is coming after you next!

The format is the only thing I have a bone to pick with. I like the fact that we have a combination of league and knockout because that is what is needed in a country like India. The Indian Super League is nascent in nature and needs its popularity and entertainment to be boosted. If we were to only use the league format, I think the league wouldn’t be as popular as it was. The knockout phase adds a certain spice to the whole meal for our uninitiated countrymen.

At the same time, I don’t like the fact that we have a 1st vs. 4th and 2nd vs. 3rd format. I believe we would be better off if we drew lots for who will play who. I know that the Major League Soccer uses this playoff system but even there I don’t approve of it. You might say that when we have more teams, this is something that will cease to matter but I don’t agree entirely.

What’s the point of making the leaders play the lowest qualifying team? I say, we draw lots because that will add another level of excitement as fans will start to speculate who their teams will play in the next round. Imagine not knowing who your favourite Indian Super League team will play in the knockouts. Doesn’t that send a tingle down your spine as you speculate whether you’ll meet the in-form team or the pushovers? Does to me which is why I think it’ll be good for the common football fan.

Reviewing Indian Super League Players, Indian and Foreign

Ahh, the Indian Super League players, did they perform? Did the foreign stars do justice to their legends? Did our Indian players make the step up? Could our stars match the best geriatrics legends that the world had to offer? Is the concept of ISL marquee player good for our country? Interesting questions and the answers are not black and white.

The quality of football in the Indian Super League was better than what many and I myself had expected. In some games, the quality of football was breath-taking while in others it was poor. A large percentage of the latter could be attributed to Atletico De Kolkata but they won so they justified it all with the big T.

What about the ISL marquee players from abroad? Again, some of them showed their capabilities while others fell flat on their faces. However, it wasn’t the stars we expected to do well who did well. It were the unfancied stars that did it.

Elano, Golden Boot Winner

Elano, Golden Boot Winner

Elano lit up the league but he relied on set pieces a lot which isn’t something that requires a lot of stamina. Luis Garcia did it somewhat through his passing but couldn’t step up in terms of assists and goals. David James really did it but he was another who didn’t rely on his fitness because he wasn’t an outfield player.

The Anelkas, the Trezeguets, the Ljungbergs, the Del Pierros, and I’m sorry to add the Pires are the ones that couldn’t do it. Did I leave someone out? Well, you can add them to the last group because if they weren’t memorable then they didn’t do it.

Best Foreign Player 11 of ISL

Best Foreign Player 11 of ISL

Apart from the ISL marquee players, there were other foreigners in the Indian Super League too. The ones that stood out for me were (in no particular order) Apoula Edel, Josemi, Fikru Lemessa, Bernard Mendy, Bruno Pelissari, Stiven Mendoza, Gustavo Dos Santos, Andre Santos, Zohib Amiri, Bruno Pinheiro, Iain Hume, Colin Falvey, Stephen Pearson, Pavel Cmovs, and Jan Stohanzl.

My best 11 from this lot is in image. In honour of the finalists, theirs are the colours I have chosen.

The best part of the Indian Super League was the Indian players. They really turned on the magic if you ask me. I’m not going to talk about the players who never made it onto the pitch as so many others have chosen to do. I’d rather be positive and talk about those that merited a spot in their teams and showed their merits in grand style.

The pick of the lot for me were Romeo Fernandes, Narayan Das, Sandesh Jhingan, and of course Arnab Mondal. Romeo is a star in the making and he didn’t only show it with his goals and assists but also with the skills that don’t get counted. He passed well, ran well, and even tackled well. Das, Jhingan, and Mondal are all defenders who were like walls for their teams.

There’s news that Mondal may even get picked by Atletico De Madrid albeit only for their B team. It’s still a step up for the 25 year old and I wish him all the best. I hope he climbs up the ladder, faces Messi, and shows how good Indian defenders are by nullifying him left, right, and centre. That’s a nice dream isn’t it?

Best Indian Player 11 of ISL

Best Indian Player 11 of ISL

While these were the standout performers for me, there were others who deserve credit for standing tall too. These were (again in no particular order) Dhanachandra Singh, Balwant Singh, Debabrata Roy, Bikramjit Singh, Mandar Rao Desai, Sandip Nandy, Rehenesh TP, and Durga Boro. (If you feel I have left our some players then let me hear it in the comments section)

Now, I know that my lists lack players from FC Pune City and Northeast United FC but that’s only because those two teams didn’t have any standout performers for me. They were both well drilled teams that played as a team. Give them a star and they may even surprise us all next season.

Reviewing Indian Super League Fans

They said it best!

They said it best!

You can’t fault the Indian fans for showing heart. They truly know how to cheer even if they can’t appreciate the game. There were many instances where I heard the fans cheering for no rhyme or reason at all.

It doesn’t matter though because at the end of the day the fact that they cheered is more than enough. The understanding of the game and the resultant arguments with best buddies will come later.

Some of the stadiums truly showed the kind of fan following any sport in the country can generate. Examples of great stadiums and great fans include the champions Atletico De Kolkata, the favourites Chennaiyin FC, the team with heart Kerala Blasters FC, the down but not out Mumbai City FC, and even the outlying Northeast United FC.

Delhi Dynamos FC fans can learn a thing or two from the fans of those teams. Delhi Dynamos FC’s stadium sorely needed some good support.

Reviewing Mainstream Media

This is where I have a problem. We have a well-developed and cash rich mainstream media. It is because of this reason that I find it surprising that the big channels and newspapers couldn’t find a good football expert to write and report for them. It was a pity reading some of the reports that our media churned out. They were poorly researched, lacked insight, and were depressingly drab.

Now, I am not saying that I want something like the overzealous media of England but we could do with some passionate and hard-hitting journalists who actually know what they’re spouting. Even the Indian Super League website’s reports were poor when compared to European media. I guess they’re learning too. Hope they can buck up their part in the big scheme of things because the media is actually responsible for creation a lot of passion amongst the populace.

Form and SWOT Analysis of ISL Semi Finals’ Teams

ISL Semi Finals
ISL Semi Finals

ISL Semi Finals

The Indian Super League official website has an article today on the four teams in the ISL semi finals.

Looking at the kind of stories that their official website churns out, it’s clear to me that they either don’t employ a good writer or have a research oriented editing team than anything else.

Everything on their website, for some reason, focuses on statistics. If they want to give a head to head, they give stats. If they want to analyse the semi-finalists, they make graphics based tables and display them.

Where is the thinking in that? Where is the innovation? Where is the style? Where is the story? Where is the magic? Now, I’m not saying that they should sensationalise everything. What I am saying is that they should give insights with those statistics.

I am writing this piece after seeing their pointless effort at explaining how the teams in the ISL semi finals stack up*. I think I can do a better job although I don’t know how effective my insights will be for you guys or even how accurate. Still, one must try or one will never learn.

I will analyse each of the 4 semi-finalists on the basis of three things. These will be:

  1. Their form coming into the ISL semi finals,
  2. Their strengths, & weaknesses, and
  3. What can they do to go further?

I believe these three things should act as a good report card for them. So, tally ho**!!!

Chennaiyin FC

Chennaiyin FC qualified from the first spot which essentially makes them the champions of the league phase. They boasted of a very vocal home support with a good number of Arsenal fans thrown in. They also went through the latter part of the league period without key players like Elano, Mendoza, Silvestre, Gouramangi, and a few others.

It was impressive how Chennaiyin FC and Marco Materazzi adapted because the hits they got in the season were quite serious and potentially debilitating. That resilience will help them a lot in the long run.

Form

Chennaiyin FC

Chennaiyin FC

Chennaiyin FC have had a stop start end to the league phase before arriving to the ISL semi finals.

This can be attributed to the fact that they had all but confirmed their qualification very early.

They let their foot off the pedal and it showed in their performance. Loss of key players may have a lot to do with their drop in performance as well.

In their last 10 games they’ve had 3 wins and 5 draws. In their last six, they’ve won 3 times as well. Not exactly a team in great form but a well drilled and efficient team.

Strengths & Weaknesses

Chennaiyin FC’s main strength is not their team spirit, although it’s very good. It is Elano, plain and simple. If they get Elano back then they have a great chance of winning it all. Another strength of Chennaiyin FC is their defence which now even boasts of the legendary Alessandro Nesta.

They have two weaknesses, according to me. One is their attack. Don’t be surprised by this. They’ve scored a total of 24 goals of which 8 were Elano’s. Without Elano, they would be at 16. Equal to what Delhi Dynamos FC managed for the 5th spot. If they don’t get Elano back, their attack can be shut down.

Their second weakness is the temperament of Bernard Mendy. In their game against FC Goa, Andre Santos humiliated Mendy and Mendy couldn’t really take it. He picked up a yellow card. If someone does that to him regularly in one of the ISL semi finals, he will lose it and can pick up a sending off.

Future Strategy

Elano, Chennaiyin FC

Keep him protected boys!

Chennaiyin FC’s future strategy depends entirely on whether Elano is available or not.

If Elano is back then they can follow their pre-injury strategy of funnelling everything through him.

If he hasn’t come back then they’ll rely on defence more with counterattacks.

This is exactly what Materazzi has been doing since Elano got injured. This strategy for me, commendable as it is, is not as effective as one Elano.

FC Goa

FC Goa have been lighting the league up. They’re disciplined, they have flair, they have combativeness, they have highly talented Indians, and most of all they have a brilliant manager.

They were pathetic in their early games but turned things around to reach the ISL semi finals in grandiose fashion. It wasn’t like they got new players either. They turned things around with the same players, the same manager, and the same fans. It should be called the Great Turnaround. Lame… I know.

Form

FC Goa

FC Goa

FC Goa are clicking at just the right time. Don’t believe me?

Consider this. They’ve not lost in their last 8 matches!

Or this, in that period, they’ve won 5 games.

Or this, from their last 24 points, they’ve taken 18 points!

They would’ve been top but for a lucky penalty call from the referee in favour of Atletico De Kolkata***. They’re also the second most attacking team in the league and the team that has let in the second least number of goals in the league. They’ve scored 21 and let in 12.

Strengths & Weaknesses

In simple terms, FC Goa has lots of strengths so I’ll focus on the most pertinent ones. The first is that they have turned around their season from being bottom to being in the ISL semi finals. This means that they’ve seen the worse and know how to counter it.

This has relevance in various ways. For instance, even if they go a goal down in a game they won’t start feeling sorry for themselves. They are also currently peaking in terms of form which means that they’ll be uber confident.

Finally, they’re probably the only team in the league that doesn’t rely on its ISL marquee player. In fact, theirs, Robert Pires, hasn’t even played that often. They have a good old fashioned team where everyone contributes.

Please note that I’ve had to dig deep to find their weakness because as of now, none are visible overtly. In my humble opinion, they are a little lightweight. Oh, they fight back when pushed around especially led by Santos and Gregory but they aren’t going to win in an all-out physical contest.

Moreover, they play the only team in the last 4 that can provide such a physical challenge – Atletico De Kolkata. This could be a problem and an interesting conundrum for Zico.

Future Strategy

Romeo, Santos, Mandar, FC GoaSince I can only see one flaw in FC Goa, I can only try to project a solution for it. FC Goa must continue the way they’ve been playing. Romeo Fernandes, Andre Santos, and Mandar Desai, all need to be protected and encouraged.

As for their problem of an overly physical opponent, they mustn’t do anything. What does this mean?

They must learn to control their anger (especially Andre Santos), when the opponent tries to rile them up.

They can neither react in anger and lose their heads or start getting involved in a physical game that they can’t win. They mustn’t do anything. They must continue to play their game the way that only they can.

Atletico De Kolkata

Atletico De Kolkata has been an enigma in the league. They started on fire but then were doused by what I can only imagine to be an extremely sticky fire retardant substance like the booger from the nose of a huge ugly asbestos based monster.

Considering the marshy nature of West Bengal, I’m sure some exist somewhere there. Atletico De Kolkata lost their way fairly early into the campaign too. In fact, by the end of it, everyone had started worrying if they’ll miss out on the ISL semi finals displaying what would’ve been an unbelievable collapse.

Form

Atletico De KolkataAs mentioned, Atletico De Kolkata aren’t in great form right now. They haven’t won in their last 5 games and have only won once in their last 10.

The good thing is that they’ve drawn 6 times in their last 10 games. Their ability to draw is why they qualified.

The dip in Kolkata’s form came with the dip in the forms of Fikru Lemessa and Luis Garcia. To be honest with you, I don’t rate either of them that much.

I never liked Garcia even in his peak years and I definitely don’t like Fikru who is a bully and diver on the field. I do like the hard working nature of Fikru though. The man never gives up and you have to appreciate a quality like that.

Strengths & Weaknesses

I think Atletico De Kolkata have been hanging on by their toe nails and can thank their lucky stars for being where they are. Their greatest strength for me is their resilience.

They just don’t want to lose. When they’re losing they try everything from diving to intimidation. Regardless of how they channel their desperation, the desperation to win itself must be appreciated.

Their other strength is their physicality. In India, players aren’t all that physical. This is evident in the fact that the other 3 teams can’t match Kolkata when it comes to physicality.

Unfortunately, they are physical, they know it’s a unique quality, and this is why they can’t move past it to play football. They keep trying to be physical. They forget that they need to show some football skills too. This happens to be their greatest weakness because it keeps them from scoring goals.

Future Strategy

Antonio Lopes Habas, Atletico De Kolkata

What did you just say to me?

There are two ways that Habas the Henchman can choose for his team in the ISL semi finals. The first is that he continues the way his team has been playing i.e. overly physical and overly defensive.

Before their last game, he exhibited an inclination to continue doing it. This is what I expect them to play like too.

The other way they can go is to become a little more like a football team. They could tone down their physicality and become more technical.

They don’t have many technical players apart from the Spaniards so I don’t see this happening.

Kerala Blasters FC

In the end, it was Atletico De Kolkata and not Kerala Blasters FC who had trouble qualifying for the ISL semi finals. Everyone thought it would be Kerala Blasters FC who were vying with every other team below them in the league except for Mumbai City FC.

They made it, though. Now, they’ll hope that David James is fit again to lead them in the middle of the pitch because he can make a huge difference in a match with his great goalkeeping skills.

Form

Kerala Blasters FCKerala Blasters FC are another team whose form has been uncertain in these last few games.

Kerala Blasters FC have won 3 times in their last 6 games and 4 times in their last 10. It’s like they need 3 games to build up the nerve to win.

The good bit is that they’ve only lost twice in their last 10. This is largely because of James’s performances which have been excellent. He has been a better player than a manager in this season.

Strengths & Weaknesses

Kerala Blasters FC are the poorest team in the ISL semi finals and, indeed, the league when it comes to attacking. They’ve only scored 9 goals in 14 games despite of having Iain Hume in their team. Hume isn’t a bad striker. He just needs the right supply which is why I question James’s strategy.

You give Hume the right ball and he’ll finish it for you but the problem is that the ball is never there. James is a defensive manager it seems. His team has only let in 11 goals, which is the lowest in the league. This is probably why Hume suffers.

So, the strength is defence and weakness is attack or creativity. It’s also worth mentioning that Kerala Blasters FC have a very noisy home support even though they just make noise for the hell of it.

Indian fans, I think, still don’t know when to cheer and when not to. There are times I saw the Keralites in their stadium cheering a Blasters foul. They cheer when their team is suffering. They cheer the other team’s accomplishments. The drums are always playing. It’s like they are on ecstasy or something.

Future Strategy

David James, Kerala Blasters FC

David James, Kerala Blasters FC

Kerala Blasters FC need to balance defence with attack so that the latter grows as much as possible while the former remains as steady as possible.

For me, James is being selfish in making his team defensive. He is their keeper so he’s enjoying the clean sheets I warrant.

Being a manager is about taking a step back. This is something that James hasn’t done. Or it could just be that defence is what he understands being a keeper and all.

If that’s the case, then it’s high time he took advice from his staff or even Hume. Some of them have to know how to attack, right?

A Final Word on ISL Semi Finals & ISL Finals

I may be biased but of the four teams I will pick FC Goa to reach and conquer the ISL finals. My second finalist is Chennaiyin FC who also happen to be my second favourite. I would be very surprised if neither of these teams manages to navigate the ISL semi finals successfully.

This was an extremely long post so I don’t know if you’ll get a preview for today’s game. However, I would like some comments and reviews from you guys who read me here. So, don’t hesitate with the comments.

*One thing that their report did show, however, is that the teams are on the right spots in the table statistically speaking. What do I mean? I’ll show you. The most attacking team in is Chennaiyin FC followed by FC Goa, Atletico De Kolkata, and Kerala Blasters FC. Educational? Consider defensive stats. Order is Atletico De Kolkata, Chennaiyin FC, FC Goa, and Kerala Blasters FC. Barring the anomaly that is Kolkata on top, this is also similar to league standings. See what I mean now?

**If you don’t know what that is supposed to mean. I suggest visiting here.

***I’m still not convinced that wasn’t a call to satisfy the sponsors. Kolkata are a high profile team in the league that is very rich and has European connections. Always a conspiracy theorist, me.