The Blasters have reached their first ISL final in five seasons.

Kerala Blasters will play the finals of the Indian Super League for the third time since the inception of the competition. Ivan Vukomanovic’s men beat Jamshedpur FC 2-1 on aggregate to advance from the semi-finals. While it will be the Blasters’ third appearance in an ISL showpiece, they will play in it after a gap of five years.

After reaching the finals of the ISL twice in the first three seasons, the Kochi-based side failed to build anything substantial in the following seasons. Kerala finished second from bottom in the league table twice in the subsequent four editions.

So, when Ivan Vukomanovic took the job, it was clear that the Serbian had a lot to fix. We look at what it took for Vukomanovic to steady the yellow ship.

5. Effective Pre-Season

The 44-year-old Kerala Blasters’ manager was clear about what he wanted in the pre-season. He wished his team to be fitter, faster and most importantly, play competitive games right from the beginning. And so, the Blasters competed in the Durand Cup along with four other ISL clubs.

Kerala failed to qualify for the semi-finals of the tournament, after winning just one game in the group stage. But, it didn’t take long for their head coach to find out their underlying issues and fix them. And once he did that, the results started coming their way. The Blasters won all but two of their remaining pre-season games.

However, what was most important was that the long pre-season prepared the team for what would be the worst of all the COVID-19 outbreaks that happened in any ISL team’s camp. At one point, Ivan Vukomanovic wasn’t sure of being able to field a team. But, his players showed desire and they fought their way into the top four.

4. Finding a stable centre-back partnership

Ruivah Hormipam
Ruivah Hormipam has started nine games and conceded just four goals (Courtesy: ISL Media)

Kerala Blasters were the team with one of the best defensive records for most of the season. But, it was not an overnight fix for issues that had their roots in the previous season. The Blasters had the second-worst defensive numbers in the 2020-21 season. So, from second-worst to suddenly becoming one of the best, Vukomanovic had to pull a rabbit out of the hat.

The 44-year-old tactician had four centre-backs – Marko Leskovic, Enes Sipovic, Ruivah Hormipam and Bijoy Varghese. Marko Leskovic of these was the only definite starter. Vukomanovic played five different combinations of these centre-backs throughout the season, owing to injuries and performances.

Ivan Vukomanovic saw Ruivah Hormipam as the ideal partner for Leskovic. Hormipam started nine games in the league stage for the Blasters and conceded just four goals. He also helped his team keep five clean-sheets, the joint-most. Kerala Blasters lost just a single game when Hormipam started for them.

3. Getting the best out of Sahal Abdul Samad

Jamshedpur FC vs Kerala Blasters
Sahal Abdul Samad celebrates semi-final goal Vs Jamshedpur FC (Courtesy: ISL Media)

Sahal Abdul Samad has been one of the pivotal figures of the Kerala Blasters dressing room. The Indian international may be only 24-years-old, but Sahal has stuck with the Yellow Army since 2017. However, it hasn’t been easy for Kerala’s No. 18. Sahal has struggled with consistency in previous seasons while playing as an inner midfielder.

Ivan Vukomanovic saw Sahal as someone he could take away from the half-spaces and be close to the touchline. The Serbian decided to use Sahal’s work ethic and the exceptional close-control he possesses on the wings instead of asking him to try and break the opposition blocks from central positions.

And what has been the result of this tweak in his game? Sahal has scored six goals for Kerala Blasters this season, the latest of which could be claimed as the goal of Kerala’s season so far, in terms of importance. His game has not just been about goals, though. Sahal presses more effectively than he did before. Some of his pressing triggers have resulted in output that is difficult to attribute to him through any number.

2. Trusting the Indian youngsters

Ivan Vukomanovic keeps repeating how much potential he sees in some of the youngsters he has with him and how he wants to help them fulfill their potential. The development of these talented youngsters was one of the many objectives of the head coach and the club.

The Serbian manager never misses an opportunity to take pride in how good a job he has done with these youngsters this season. The likes of Lalthathanga Khawlhring, Jeakson Singh, Ayush Adhikari, Hormipam, Varghese and many more have played huge roles in the Blasters’ run to the finals.

Vukomanovic and his coaching staff have made the youngsters better versions of themselves. The 44-year-old tactician has handed the likes of Bijoy, Ayush and Hormipam their senior debuts. Hormipam’s impressing outings have earned the youngster a place at the upcoming national camp. And the young defender wouldn’t have been there if the tactician hadn’t trusted him.

1. Goals coming from multiple players

Who is the top scorer for Kerala Blasters this season? Don’t know? I thought so. It is because the Kochi-based side have not been dependent on a single source for goals this season. Instead of feeding one forward with all the opportunities, Ivan Vukomanovic has developed a system that would work regardless of who he has to play.

Kerala’s system focuses on the front two and their wide midfielders (Sahal and Adrian Luna) pressing deep in the attacking third. The pressing patterns have kept varying and are active only after certain situations trigger them.

The result of that system has seen the quartet of Adrian Luna, Alvaro Vazquez, Jorge Pereyra Diaz, and Sahal emerge as some of the most effective pressers in the league. These four players represent Kerala Blasters in the list of the top 20 scorers in the league stage of the ISL this season.

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