The Southerners had one of the most star-studded teams on paper but they failed to come together as a unit.
Just before the Indian Super League season started, Kerala Blasters FC were considered as favourites to challenge for the trophy. The team imported a star-studded foreign crew to their ranks and their domestic draft picks weren’t bad, minus some loopholes here-and-there. Kerala Blasters, who were edged out by ATK at the final hurdle last season, were all set to go one better this time. Or at least, it looked that way.
Rene Meulensteen, who helped talents like Cristiano Ronaldo and many others become who they’re today, was appointed the coach of the Tuskers on a three-year contract. To a surprise to the fans, the club brought in the likes of Dimitar Berbatov and Wes Brown, once the fan-favourites at the Theatre of Dreams.
Looking at their domestic crew, it framed into some of India’s best talents. From Captain Sandesh Jhingan to veteran Sandeep Nandy, it looked varied for the Blasters. As the season turned on, it didn’t take much time for the fans and the experts to agonize at the fallacy. In spite of the squad being star-studded, they found imbalances. There weren’t players to fit in some positions, and the coach, Rene Meulensteen was forced to chance his arms.
Dimitar Berbatov was one of the biggest names to grace the ISL this season
Let’s get into detail and analyse the contingent. Kerala Blasters’ foreign squad had the likes of Dimitar Berbatov and Wes Brown but Besides that, nothing. The remainder of their crew consisted of inexperienced players, with even Berbatov and Brown being shadows of their Old-Trafford days. Berbatov, in particular, looked incompetent to battle against pacey and creative players.
The presence of Thangboi Singto didn’t work out the way the club had intended. Look into KBFC’s squad and you realize the ethos of Singto fitting perfectly with them. In the draft, KBFC picked a lot of players under the guidance of Singto, comprising a lot of youngsters, who had performed well under his regime at Shillong Lajong. He prioritized signing north-eastern players. As aforementioned, it negatively affected the outcome.
In ISL Season III, Kerala Blasters had no left-backs, and Josue Currais, a natural left winger, played for them. Nevertheless, the team didn’t learn from their previous-year mistakes. This year, the club had no defensive midfielders, and the impact it had was massive. The midfield failed to command, control and dominate the game.
One, though, cannot refute the claims that KBFC had the better attacking sect, at least on paper. The team had the services of CK Vineeth, Iain Hume, along with Berbatov made their frontline a nightmare for any defence. But, on the ground, it was a different story altogether. The trio looked otiose, ran desperately for the ball, but whenever they had the opportunity to make things count, they fluffed.
Their performances were frustating, upfront. They were an out-and-out herd of mismatched attackers. The reason for their pathetic performance was simple, the kind of players they had in their armour were same.
Iain Hume and CK Vineeth, both are known to be brilliant finishers or poachers. The attacking front lacked the presence of a player, who dribbles past defenders, take them out of the equation, and helps his teammate score. Despite the team having the aforesaid players, who’re all adept at ghosting into the box, there were nobody to help KBFC the launch ball into the box.
Well, we cannot lay the entire blame on the attackers for the floundering journey the team had. Midfielders orchestrate the game for the teams, and they’re the ones appointed to help strikers by splitting defences open. Kerala Blasters had a feckless bundle of midfielders. Their midfield looked vulnerable everytime KBFC set foot on the pitch.
Dimitar Berbatov’s role at KBFC was that of a midfielder. However, the decision to let him play in the middle of the park was one of the worst decisions made by the manager. His movements were at snail’s pace, gradually decreasing the tempo of the game. His lazy approach made Kerala Blasters inept at launching counter-attacks. At times, when he was playing, he seemed like a liability for the team, which eventually helped opponents turn things in their favor.
Besides Berbatov, their midfield crew contained Milan Singh, who had a fantastic season with Delhi Dynamos in the third edition. However, he failed to replicate his previous performances for the Blasters, and was often forced to ply his trade at various positions. Another attacking midfielder, Arata Izumi was deployed in defensive midfield, when Rene Meulensteen was at the helm. It depicts the misery of the team, and it depicts how vital Mehtab Hossain was. The Blasters missed a warrior like Hossain, a ball winner. They were struggling to appoint a player to close gaps between the defence creative lynchpins.
Courage Pekuson was one of the few positives of Kerala Blasters’ season
Courage Pekuson did a commendable job for KBFC in the midfield, but he often seemed like a lone star, who was forced to fade away by the presence of the glittering group of stars on the opposite side of the battle. Pekuson lacked a partner to accompany him run the business. Neither Berbatov nor Victor Pulga became a good partner for him in midfield. For a short-term and late in the league, Ugandan sensation Keziron Kizito partnered Pekuson ably.
The duo ran riots against Pune City FC in the second-half of the game held at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, Kochi, displaying the capabilities of the team. The duo completely outclassed the stronger midfield of Stallions. However, the team was unfortunate as Kizito was ruled out for the remainder of the season after picking up a shoulder injury against Jamshedpur FC, where KBFC lost 2-1.
At the flanks, Kerala Blasters’ situation was not that pathetic, however, it was also not adequate to win intense battles. Jackichand Singh and Prasanth K had pace and often threatened opposition with marauding runs, and blitz through it, but, again, they were unable to whip accurate balls in for the attackers to have a go.
Looking at the defense of the team, Kerala Blasters has given the nation another promising youngster in the form of Lalruatthara, who had been an integral part of their defence with crunching tackles, crucial interceptions and timely blocks. The player has also received the ‘Emerging Player of the Match’ award seven times. Apart from him, Sandesh Jhingan also looked solid at the back, but, he, undoubtedly, was vulnerable and committed errors at crucial moments.
Concurrently, Wesley Brown had a moderate season for the yellow side. His experience has sure served Blasters its purpose, but he appeared to be helpless when he’d to battle with the pace of opposition attacks. Rino Anto was not available for game time and suffered from injuries. This had its own effect and the right-back slot needed to be filled. Elsewhere, Serbian-defender Nemanja Lakic Pesic featured in for the Blasters throughout Rene’s time. However, David James rarely used his services as he opted former Red Devils’ star Brown over him.
Despite these on-field problems, there were many off-field problems that accelerated the debacle. Blasters’ coach Rene Meulensteen’s stint with KBFC didn’t last long as both parties mutually decided to part ways after suffering a defeat in the Southern Derby at New Year’s eve. Muelensteen’s tactics were built around the likes of Dimitar Berbatov, but the star rarely appeared during his days at KBFC.
Moreover, it was reliably understood that players had problems with Rene Meulensteen. He, also, opted to deploy Arata Izumi as a defensive midfielder rather than an Attacking Midfielder. Like Arata, the pieces he ought to fit at some places refused to be effective, which truncated his time at KBFC.
David James was appointed as the successor of Rene Meulensteen at the helm of Kerala Blasters
Replacing him was former marquee-cum-manager David James, who was tasked to bring equanimity into the squad, and to help reiterate the phoenix rising from the ashes. James brought Icelandic striker Gudjon Baldvinsson on for the departed Mark Sifneos and the impact was visible in the results. His beingness brought self-assurance among teammates and there was a seachange in mentality. However, Victor Pulga’s inclusion into the team didn’t really serve the purpose. He failed to bring in the immediate effect the situation warranted, failing to fill the void in midfield. However, under David James, Kerala Blasters played their hearts out, but again, failed to secure a spot in the semi-finals.
In terse, the imbalanced crew dreaming ISL trophy was like holy grail until David James stepped over to establish call and order. Despite his heroic-like acts, David James suffered from Rene Meulensteen’s failure to build a squad, which is another reason for the desperate end this time.
The story of KBFC has given them a lesson to learn, and others too. It has underlined the fact that group of stars will make the lone stars fade. It has asserted that football is a 90-minute game which lives and pre-lives beyond and prior to that. The calculations made off the pitch are as vital as the action throughout 90-minutes. With good tactics, you may win, and moreover, to win, you’ve to play with your hearts out. And not one, but the entire contingent.
There are paradoxes in the Kerala Blasters’ story. From sacking Rene Meulensteen to appointing David James, all looked uncertain for the fans. There are many questions fans are eagerly waiting for, and Kerala Blasters’ performance in the Super Cup shall answer some of them. Are the fans scapegoats of the process happening at the backend? Can David James carry the club from the molasses? Was sacking Rene Meulensteen an aforethought decision to happy the players?
With KBFC extending David James’ contract for three more years, he’s got the rights to build a team, that looks dangerous on, and off the paper, and he certainly has answers to unveil for the questions asked.