The Islanders have made some stellar signings to bolster their squad depth.
With a revamped roster, Mumbai City FC will head into the upcoming Indian Super League (ISL) season all guns blazing. The Islanders failed to mount a legitimate title defence last season as they missed out on both the league Winners’ Shield and the ISL trophy. However, the team made landmark progress in this year’s AFC Champions League Group stages.
In his second season in charge, Des Buckingham will hope to build on his squad’s strengths and mitigate their flaws. After a few phenomenal signings, Mumbai City seem to have found their optimal squad depth. Ranging from fluid attackers to versatile midfielders and marauding fullbacks; the Islanders have it all this season.
One of Buckingham’s fatal drawbacks last season was overusing players and not allowing room for rotation. Accordingly, he must figure out the perfect mantra to field in-form players as well as surprise opponents. So, let us take a look at how the Islanders can line up in ISL 2022/23.
Goalkeeper: Phurba Lachenpa
Mohammed Nawaz’s signing from FC Goa last season expressed Buckingham’s desire to start the youngster in place of the outgoing Amrinder Singh. Although Nawaz impressed on a few occasions, a few glaring errors on his part cost his team gravely. Phurba Lachenpa started in the final league game for a change of scenery, but he didn’t offer much. However, in the AFC Champions League, Phurba stepped up his game by a mile and a half.
From outrageous splits to fingertip and point-blank saves, Phurba did it all. His height advantage over Nawaz also grants him aerial dominance over threats from set-piece situations. The same belies his cat-like reflexes and his tendency to play as a sweeper keeper. His decision-making and shot-stopping have improved remarkably and have made him a notable candidate to start as the Islanders’ goal custodian.
Right-Back: Rahul Bheke
Despite the energetic presence of Amey Ranawade, Buckingham is likely to opt for Bheke’s experience and versatility. The makeshift centre-back has bags of pace in him still, to match the league’s electric forwards. Having played five games more than the injury-prone Ranawade, Bheke also made 22 interceptions last season.
He also made 10 more tackles and had a better disciplinary record than the young Amey who was sent off once. With a defence featuring the likes of Mourtada Fall, Rostyn Griffiths, and Mehtab Singh, Bheke has the license to go forward and feature in his favored role this season.
Centre-Back: Mehtab Singh
While Rostyn Griffiths starting more is a legitimate possibility, Mehtab’s breakthrough form should guarantee him more playing time this season. The 25-year-old expert on the cover would do extremely well in a back four as well as a three-back. A perfect new-gen centre-back, he boasts the perfect balance of defensive stability, composure on the ball, and set-piece threat.
His performance against FC Goa last season demonstrated the same. Should he be started with the likes of Apuia, Jahouh and Noguera, his buildup play and attacking output should also increase significantly.
Centre-Back: Mourtada Fall
The Islanders’ captain has always been a defensive stalwart but last season, his disciplinary record marred his reputation. Given his towering stature, a lot of the league’s tricky attackers exploited his balance. Despite being caught out of position often, the Senegalese centre-half scored thrice and was a routine set-piece threat.
Des Buckingham must find a way to restore the hulking defender’s past days of glory. If managed properly, Mourtada Fall is sure to lead the Islanders well as he did in the 2020/21 double-winning season.
Left-Back: Sanjeev Stalin
The Indian Arrows graduate left last season’s ISL finalists Kerala Blasters for a run at more game time. One of the primary reasons Buckingham signed him is his tendency to shift between underlaps and overlaps. The Islanders desperately needed a positionally sound fullback who can operate as an extra wide midfielder as well as provide central support. Stalin is the go-to guy in this aspect as game-time under Vukomanovic has groomed him to be flexible.
While he offers as much defensive stability as Mandar Rao Dessai and Vignesh combined, his disciplinary record is better. Additionally, Stalin’s attacking contribution is more comprehensive as he knows when to bomb forward and when to hold his runs.
Central Midfield: Ahmed Jahouh
Ahmed Jahouh’s combination of laser-guided passing and sweeping tackles will be crucial for the central overload that is so characteristic of Mumbai City’s style of play. His untimely injury meant he played only 15 matches last season. However, the Moroccan maestro finished second only to Greg Stewart in the assists tally with seven to his name. He also ranked second for most passes, having completed a whopping 1071 passes.
The skillful regista not only sets the tempo for his team’s play but also disrupts that of other teams. His 32 interceptions helped him to Mumbai City’s second-highest rank and ranked 16th overall in the league. Buckingham should plan how to utilise the midfielder to his best and at the same time not overuse him like last season. Given all his attributes, the best place to start him would be his natural lone number six role. But it remains to be seen how he will be deployed.
Central Midfield: Apuia
In pre-season and in last season’s AFC Champions League, Apuia started in a more advanced role. The naturally gifted ball-winner displayed extraordinary prowess in shifting the ball upfield and progressing play. His tenacity to make late runs and join the attack makes him a perfect box-to-box midfielder. In this new-look Mumbai side, Apuia’s role will undoubtedly be a hybrid between a number six and a box-to-box. Depending on whether Rai or Noguera starts, the young Indian will be fielded to fill in the gap.
Right Wing: Lallianzuala Chhangte
The rapid twinkle-toed attacker seems to have found his scoring mojo finally, finishing as the Durand Cup top-scorer. Chhangte is evidently enjoying his new role as an out-and-out winger. While his role was more limited to chance-creation and supply as a wide midfielder last season, it is more suited to his natural style of play this time around.
Cutting in from the right to confuse the opposition as to whether he would pass or dribble past them and take a shot would be trademark Chhangte. His comfort with both feet would also make him an unpredictable opponent. The same would help him to ease into the byline and send in rasping crosses for the other players to finish.
Left Wing: Bipin Singh
Having rejuvenated his career under Sergio Lobera at Mumbai City, Bipin Singh has made the left wing his own. A forever willing runner, Singh offers as much help in defence as he does in attack. That he finished with 13 interceptions and 33 tackles last season, well ahead of the likes of Mandar Dessai and Mourtada Fall (in tackles) is an example.
Up front, Bipin scored six times and assisted thrice last season. That places him second among goalscorers and thirce in assist-makers among the Mumbai City players. His six goals was also the second highest among the Indian players, behind only Liston Colaco’s eight. With Chhangte driving inside from the right, Bipin’s task mainly would be to hog the wings and put in crosses. His pace during counter-attacks is another advantage.
Centre-Forward: Greg Stewart
The Indian Super League’s biggest signing this summer has to be that of ISL Player of the Season Greg Stewart as he swapped the title holders’ shirt for that of the Islanders. Jamshedpur FC’s majestic attacker had the perfect debut season in the ISL as he lit it up with 10 goals and as many assists.
Not only that, each of his goals and assist were nothing short of breathtaking as he seems to have no weak points. Whether it be laying off the perfect pass to a teammate or feinting his way to an immaculate far-corner finish; the Englishman has done it all.
In Des Buckingham’s team, his duties will be more restricted to the frontlines. However, his pressing style and tendency to drop deep will surely harrow opponents and open up more avenues. Add to that Mumbai City’s possession-based tactics and players in the mould of Apuia and Jahouh and you have a utopian equilibrium.
Centre-Forward: Jorge Pereyra Diaz
Diaz’s signing was probably one of the highlights of Mumbai City’s transfer window as fans were shocked by the Argentinian’s switch. The skillful attacker dazzled Kerala Blasters’ fans last season alongside Alvaro Vazquez and Adrian Luna. Buckingham was eager to replace the outgoing Cassinho, Angulo and Diego Mauricio and seemed to have found the ideal candidate.
Diaz scored eight goals and assisted once as he helped the Tuskers to the ISL final where they lost by a slender margin. In this side, he can be fielded on the left wing or as the striker as he can play the role of creator and finisher both.