After two seasons of underachievement the Mumbaikars are finding form in ISL 3…

Mumbai City FC’s journey in the Indian Super League so far had been one of underachievement, squad disharmony and a group of stars failing to gel as a team. The factors leading to a disappointing second from bottom finish in the inaugural campaign, that was marginally bettered in 2015 when the team finished 6th.

A woeful away record of just win in two seasons that coming at Atletico de Kolkata in the final game of the last campaign. The propensity to ship goals for fun and to not score enough at the other end, were just symptoms of the broader malaise that had plagued the side from the metropolis. To put it simply, in the first two editions of the competition, they resembled a captain-less ship wandering to nowhere in the deep sea.

Fast forward to 2016 and they are a team transformed. With two wins and a draw in their opening three games the Mumbaikars sit on top of the table ahead of a pair of away games against Kerala Blasters and Delhi Dynamos. So, what has led to this change of fortunes? Let’s explore a few reasons.

The Start

If a good start is a harbinger of better things to come Mumbai could not have asked for worst beginnings to their previous two campaigns. In the first season a 3-0 thumbing at the hands of Atletico de Kolkata was followed by a somewhat reassuring 5-0 drubbing of arch-rivals FC Pune City only to suffer a 0-2 home reversal to NorthEast United in the very next game. The season followed a similar pattern as the team struggled to build a sequence of good results. A 7th place finish was underwhelming to say the least for a side from whom much was expected at the outset of the campaign.

But, if it were possible the Ranbir Kapoor-owned side made an even worse start to the following season. A 3-1 defeat to Pune was followed by a poor goalless draw against Kerala Blasters and a 0-2 home defeat to eventual champions Chennaiyin FC.

This term though those stats have been flipped on their head. Efficient 1-0 wins over Pune and NEUFC were followed by a hard-fought 1-1 draw with heavyweights ATK.. The three games so far have provided much insight into the transformation of MCFC.

The Personnel

The lessons from the debacles of the last two seasons seemed to have been learnt well and early. With the deadwood from their previous campaigns cleared, it has been the shrewd acquisitions in the Indian and foreign markets that have made the difference.

Marquee forward Diego Forlan has added star power to the club and although the former Uruguayan international has been a peripheral figure at times in the games he has played, he has played a role in two match-winning events against the Stallions and NEUFC.

Brazilian youngster Gerson Vieira impressed against ATK while former Dynamos man Anwar Ali and Romanian Dorin Goian have formed a solid partnership at centre-back. Hungarian midfielder Krisztian Vadocz can play across midfield and has brought creativity and flair to the middle of the park, with Sena Ralte and Aiborlang Khongjee providing plenty of width from full-back.

However, the two standout performers have been midfielder Leo Costa and former Argentina international winger Matias Defederico who is emerging as one of the finds of the season even at this early stage. Indian youngsters Boithang Haokip and Jackichand Singh have brought dynamism and pace to the table.

Flexible Tactics

Mumbai boss Alexandre Guimaraes has largely stuck by a standard 4-2-3-1 formation right through presason and the early part of the campaign. A back four of Ralte, Ali, Goian and Khongjee are screened by the midfield pairing of Pronay Halder and Sehnaj Singh. In attack the trio of Defederico, Costa and Vadocz support the lone frontman in Forlan or Sangoy.

Interestingly following the 1-0 win over the Highlanders a few days ago the Costa Rican acknowledged that his side nicked a goal against the run of play and defended ‘like lions.’ When he was questioned about the conservative approach the manager said that he had used the club’s preparatory camp in Dubai to instill different formations and ways of playing in his team. While it was predicted that this flexibility would be tested during the course of a long season, little did we know that the manager would choose the very next game against the Kolkata outfit to exhibit his team’s tactical versatility.

With Forlan rested Mumbai shifted to 4-1-4-1 formation that saw Vieira replace Ali at the back. Sehnaj shift to the right of a four-man midfield that flanked lone frontman Haokip.

Although they eventually had to settle for a draw after Defederico’s initial strike was cancelled out by Javi Lara’s sublime effort from distance, truth be told.. Mumbai looked all set to make it three wins out of three until Halder’s needless sending off for two yellows.

Though points were dropped there was enough substantiation of the manager’s assertion that his side can easily adapt to different game situations. Not only did the team look equally fluent in a different shape but they also adapted seamlessly to the absence of marquee skipper Forlan.

It is worth remembering that the Mumbaikars are still not at full strength. The Bengaluru FC players like Amrinder Singh and forward Sunil Chhetri are still away on AFC Cup engagements while Haitian Sony Norde has just returned from international duty. Further, the club’s leading scorer in pre-season Gaston Sangoy is still nursing an injury. With these additions to bolster the group further, the permutations and combinations with this squad are aplenty.

The Manager

Former Costa Rica boss Alexandre Guimaraes has brought with him a sense of stability and calm. He has to him the air of a man who knows what he’s doing, someone who is not only in control of himself, but also of those around him. Most importantly though, he has brought the one thing Mumbai sorely missed in the previous seasons, leadership. This is a welcome change for a franchise that suffered first under the eccentric Englishman Peter Reid and then maverick French player-manager Nicolas Anelka.

The season ahead is sure to provide its own twists and turns but with a balanced squad and able leadership both and off the pitch, Mumbai look certain runners for a play-off spot and are emerging as early title contenders if they can continue to build on this early success in the games to come.

Photo © ISL Media

Editorial by Khel Now-Content Editor Mrunal Nakashe. A sports buff, he’s also a foreign policy enthusiast and keen North Korea watcher. Mrunal loves gaming, reading, traveling and is a self-confessed Football Manager addict. You can follow him on Twitter.