It is time for Kerala Blasters to set aside the rivalry with Gokulam Kerala and learn a few things from their I-League victory.
In March, Gokulam Kerala FC created history by becoming the first team from the state to lift a national league title, when they won the 2020-21 I-League. It is certainly a watershed moment in Kerala football, as the state which has always produced good players had lately been failing to create a good impression across the country. Going ahead, Gokulam Kerala’s success, along with the presence of Kerala Blasters in the Indian Super League (ISL) is very important for the development of the sport in the state.
However, on the other hand, the current situation at the Yellow Army is not so great. ‘Underwhelming’ would be too tame a word, if one were to use it to describe how they fared in ISL 2020-21.
The team from Kochi finished at tenth place, only above Odisha FC on the points table. They were able to manage just three wins in 20 matches and also conceded 36 times. To top it all off, head coach Kibu Vicuna parted ways with the club even before the season came to a close. Interestingly, had the ISL and I-league been part of a promotion-relegation system, the Kozhikode outfit would be playing their trade in the top-flight league next year while the Kochi-based club would get demoted.
Almost all football fans in Kerala will also know that there is some sort of a rivalry between KBFC’s fans and those of GKFC. This is despite the fact that they play in different leagues, and it is mainly due to them being the most prominent professional clubs from the state. While the Blasters loyalists have often waged wars with their counterparts at Gokulam, we think that it is now time for them to sit down, think and learn a few good things from the I-League champions.
3. Use players and coaches that fit the system
With nine coaches in seven seasons, Kerala Blasters have never had a coach who stay on for longer than a year. This is far more dangerous than it may seem at the outset.
Different coaches mean different playing styles. Each of the nine tacticians that have plied their trade at the club had a varied approach to the game. When it did not work with players, they were let go. This led to a constant chopping-and-changing in the squad as well – and today, the team lacks a definite identity.
The Blasters reached the finals of ISL 2016 under Steve Coppell who liked to keep his defence solid and attack on the counter. Years later, the same team were playing under Vicuna who was keen to play out from the back by maintaining ball possession. Ultimately, what playing style do you associate the club with? Nobody has an answer. On the other hand, Gokulam Kerala are yet to face such a problem.
When Vincenzo Alberto Annese arrived last summer to coach the Malabarians, it was initially assumed that the Italian would undo all the good work that Fernando Santiago Varela – his Spanish predecessor – had been doing. But Annese stuck to an attacking strategy, probably having understood that his players work best in that situation. His efforts and ideas finally bore fruit on March 27, when GKFC skipper Mohamed Awal lifted the i-League trophy with his teammates.
2. Invest more in young players, include them in long-term plans
The current Gokulam Kerala squad has more than a few players who have been with them for a long time. Apart from the foreigners and recent signings like Deepak Devrani, the rest of the team knows each other pretty well.
In addition, the Malabarians have used their Reserves team exceedingly well to develop many talented players. The likes of Emil Benny, Thahir Zaman and others initially cut their teeth in the GKFC Reserves side before stepping up for the first team. When the second-string team lifted the Kerala Premier League (KPL) trophy in April, they themselves talented names like Rishad and Ganesan who narrowly missed out getting selected to the I-League 2020-21 squad.
On the other hand, Kerala Blasters are somehow yet to make proper use of their own Reserves team.
When you take a look into the Kochi outfit’s first-choice starters for ISL 2020-21, only Sahal Abdul Samad made his way into the side from the B-team. This needed to change at the earliest, and gladly, there has been a lot of progress on this lately.
Right now, majority of the young and developing players in the KBFC roster are tied to the club by long-term contracts. Nishu Kumar, Jeakson Singh, Givson Singh, Puitea, Rahul KP and so on are all on extended deals and will be playing together in the coming seasons, as of right now. In addition, the Reserves team starlets like Sreekuttan VS, Sachin Suresh, Gotimayum Muktasana and others have also been attending training sessions and more alongside their seniors, in a bid to elevate their standards.
1. Scouting of players and sensible signings
There is no easy way to say this – but the scouting at Kerala Blasters is very poor at the moment. This is evident from the performances of their foreign contingent in ISL 2020-21. Apart from a few displays here and there, the club’s overseas stars failed to create an impression in the league.
Gokulam Kerala, on the other hand, did well in terms of scouting – as evident from their signings. Deepak Devrani and Mohamed Awal linked well together in defence, while Naocha Singh was so good that he earned himself a move to the ISL after two brilliant seasons with them.
Vincy Barretto, Dennis Antwi and Philip Adjah led a potent attacking team while Sharif Mukhammad controlled the game from the midfield. There are more examples, but even the few ones above prove our point well. After the departure of stalwarts like Marcus Joseph, Henry Kisekka, Nathaniel Garcia and more, the Malabarians knew exactly what they wanted across all departments and brought in the right players to meet their requirements.
Kerala Blasters could definitely take a leaf out of their book, in preparing for the upcoming ISL season. Most fans would have a rough idea of what all their team should be looking for right now. This includes and experienced Indian centre-back, a right-back, a goal-scoring forward, reinforcements on the flanks, etc. It is now up to the Yellow Army to realise the same, and start working in the right direction.