Ivan Vukomanovic’s side had perhaps their best season in ISL history.
Kerala Blasters started their season by having the longest pre-season of all the teams in the league. They participated in the Durand Cup before playing friendlies with some of the second division and ISL teams. During these games, coach Ivan Vukomanovic stressed a lot about having a mix of experienced foreigners play with some of the most talented youngsters he had at his disposal.
It was no surprise that these young talents contributed as much, if not more than their foreign colleagues, in Kerala’s run to the finals of the ISL. The key to the successful campaign was the Tuskers’ flexibility in adapting to the different ways in which their Serbian head coach wanted them to play. Some days the team focused on catching their opponents off-guard in their transitional plays, whereas on others, they were happy to go all out in attack.
Kerala had one of the best defences in the league, after a season where they had conceded the second-most goals in the league. Kerala always looked like the team to beat.
Fact Sheet for Kerala Blasters in Indian Super League (ISL) 2021-22
1. Adrian Luna
Everything that happened in the offensive third for Kerala Blasters involved Adrian Luna. The Tuskers captain was the most aggressive presser of his team in the opposition’s defensive third, winning the ball back more than any of his teammates (19). He recorded the most key passes per game (2.3) and the most chances created (10) for his team.
However, the Uruguayan midfielder not only helped his team in offence. Luna led his team in the number of successful tackles per game (1.2). I could keep going on about his contributions using stats. But, what the stats wouldn’t tell you is how crucial Luna’s leadership quality was for the Blasters after the Kochi-based side lost Jessel Carneiro due to an injury.
2. Alvaro Vazquez
Vazquez was the focal point of all the crosses. He got the most shots on target per game for the Tuskers (1.4). Apart from being the joint-top scorer of his team (8), Alvaro Vazquez was the workhorse of his team. Not only was he an aggressive presser in the final third (15 possessions won in the final third), the Kerala No. 99 never shied away from contributing to the defence.
Vazquez’s pace allowed him to track back quicker than others. His last-ditch effort to get the ball away from Aniket Jadhav in the finals through a tackle after tracking back when Hyderabad FC caught Kerala on the transition was a testament to his defensive contributions.
3. Ruivah Hormipam
Ruivah Hormipam was Kerala Blasters’ find of the season. The 21-year-old centre-back impressed the national team’s head coach Igor Stimac so much that the latter started him against Belarus.
Kerala’s frontline had three foreigners and the defence was led by Marko Leskovic. There was no way Ivan Vukomanovic could play Enes Sipovic consistently. So, the Serbian needed someone from the Indian contingent to step up and Hormipam rose to the occasion. In the nine games Hormipam started in the league phase, Kerala lost points in only two, kept clean-sheets in five and conceded only four goals.
Hormipam made Ivan overlook not only Bijoy Varghese, but he also managed to overshadow his veteran partner in defence on many occasions.
Underperformer of the season
Chencho was Ivan Vukomanovic’s go-to man whenever one of Vazquez, Luna or Jorge Pereyra Diaz was not available due to injury or suspension. The Bhutanese forward even got minutes when these three played, by coming off the bench. However, regardless of the number of opportunities provided, Chencho Gyeltshen drew blanks.
He often had an impact on the game in other ways. However, Chencho shooting blanks hurt the Blasters a lot. Statistically speaking, Chencho made 18 appearances during the league phase. However, he only has an assist to show for his 376 minutes of game-time.
1. Mumbai City 0-3 Kerala Blasters
2. Kerala Blasters 3-0 Chennaiyin FC
3. Jamshedpur FC 0-1 Kerala Blasters
Manager’s Report Card
Ivan Vukomanovic started his Kerala Blasters pre-season with some clear objectives. One of those objectives was the inclusion of youngsters in the first team from the reserves side. He promoted five players along with Bijoy Varghese to his team for the friendlies. He also handed youngsters like Ayush Adhikari and Ruivah Hormipam their debuts among others. Other youngsters who formed the core of the Serbian’s team were Rahul KP, Jeakson Singh, Prabhsukhan Gill and Lalthathanga ‘puitea’ Khawlhring.
Vukomanovic’s other objective was to fix the leaky defence that Kerala Blasters had in past seasons. The sufferings were largely a result of the absence of experienced players like Sandesh Jhingan. However, Vukomanovic turned the tide and that too with a balance of experienced and young players.
Enes Sipovic, Harmanjot Khabra and Marko Leskovic brought calmer heads. Meanwhile, youngsters like Bijoy Varghese, Ruivah Hormipam and Sanjeev Stalin added athleticism and pace to the backline.
Ivan Vukomanovic also ensured that the tighter defence wasn’t coming as a trade off for a weaker offence. The Blasters didn’t need a single outlet for goals. The Serbian had four players in the top 20 scorers list for the season. The Serbian has confirmed his stay for another season. One could really hope for the Kochi side to do even better in the 2022-23 campaign.
Lessons to be learned
What would a team that failed in the final only on penalties have to learn to win? What would a team that slipped down in the league table partly due to a COVID-19 outbreak in their camp have to learn? Maybe, football is sometimes unfair. Or, you don’t always get what you deserve.
Kerala had a largely successful season. Their head coach, players and all the fans would have to continue building on the good work they did in the 2021-22 term. If nobody leaves, Kerala seem to have the right balance.
Maybe, they could get better ball distribution from Prabhsukhan Gill. Also, the full-backs could do more in the final third. Of course, they have to absolutely do better the next time they are involved in a penalty shootout.
Arjid B: It was nothing short of a fairytale run. Like a Phoenix, the club rose from the ashes and gave us something which was special. A task which was almost an unrealistic once was made a realistic by Ivan Vukomanovic & Co. They surpassed all the big tests, including the COVID scare, and finally were rewarded with a place in the Grand Finale. Even though the team stumbled in the last hurdle, we are proud of the team and the supporting staffs, who made us believe.
If we can frame an equation for success, the best one will be ‘Motivation, Confidence, Belief, Consistency, Hardwork and Dedication.’ The team, as a unit, applied this equation to solve a tricky puzzle and they did it with ease.
The season gave us a handful of memories and gems. Adrian Luna has been the star for Kerala Blasters throughout the campaign. His contributions holds as much value as diamonds. Also, how can we forget the contributions of our local lad, Sahal Abdul Samad? He has yet again stolen our hearts with his performance.
Alvaro with his cheeky skills, Diaz with his amazing runs and agility, Leskovic and Hormipam with their superb defending, Jessel with his brilliant captaincy, Khabra, Sandeep, Sanjeev, Dene with their contributions, Puitea and Jeakson shielding the defence, Prabhsukhan Gill with some stunning saves….. The contributions are numerous and has a trillion dollar value.
From the magical moments of Adrián Luna to the long range goal of Vazquez, from the valuable goals of Sahal to the rise of champions like Hormipam and Gill, from the solid backline to the ferocious frontline, this team is so so unique!
Ivan, how can we say Thank You! You made us believe, you assured us of our glory days, and you gave us the best gift you can ever give us. You are our Leader. Lead us from the front again, Boss! Kerala is waiting for you!