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Why botched recruitment is the key factor behind Kerala Blasters' woes?

Published at :June 24, 2021 at 9:24 PM
Modified at :June 27, 2021 at 10:49 PM
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Harigovind Thoyakkat

Multiple issues have cropped up for the southerners in the last few years, keeping them from replicating their initial success in the league.

Indian Super League (ISL) outfit Kerala Blasters had a forgettable campaign in the 2020-21 season. The Kochi-based outfit could register just three wins from 20 league matches and wrapped up the season at the 10th spot in the standings.

They started their campaign with a defeat against ATK Mohun Bagan. Despite a season opening defeat, much was expected by them. Most of their players had already proven their abilities in the past, at other clubs. There was very little evidence to believe that they may not impress for the Yellow Army in what would go on to become yet another disappointing season.

As the season progressed, Kerala Blasters showed little signs of improvement from their opening match. Their first win came on December 27, over a month after that defeat against the Mariners. They were able to win just two more games in the remainder of their campaign. Eight other clashes ended as draws.

The two-time ISL finalists managed just 17 points from 20 matches, with an average of 0.85 points per game. In terms of performances, the southerners scored 23 goals while conceding 36. That averages to just 1.15 goals scored per game, as opposed to 1.8 goals conceded in every match.

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All of this should be enough to prove that the club underperformed in both attack and defence. This, in turn, indicates that their scouting of players may not have been good enough or may not have been suitable for the coach. A part of the problem would also be the head coach, who failed to identify the best-suited playing style for the team, one which is both comfortable for the players and guarantees positive results.

Keeping all the aforementioned issues at mind, we try to analyse how Kerala Blasters' recruitment failures have resulted in their ongoing slump.

Scouting of players

The club's Sporting Director Karolis Skinkys himself had admitted that Kerala Blasters have made mistakes in the scouting and recruitment of players in the 2020-21 season. "We did some things badly with the scouting - we expected a better performance from a couple of players," he told Goal following the conclusion of their ISL campaign.

Foreign players
The overseas players failed to create a lasting impression for Kerala Blasters in the 2020-21 season

The centre-back pairing of Costa Nhamoinesu and Bakary Kone kept making mistakes or getting ruled out of matches due to injury. Eventually, it led to the Blasters' defence becoming the second-worst in the league.

Juande Lopez, who came in during the mid-season transfer window, did not get enough chances. Vicente Gomez and Facundo Pereyra tried to create an impact, but their efforts frequently lacked an end-product.

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Gary Hooper took time to adapt to the Indian conditions and the nature of the league. Sergio Cidoncha's injury ruled him out of the team since December.

Gary Hooper and Jordan Murray after scoring for Kerala Blasters against Odisha FC

Among these names, only Hooper and Australian striker Jordan Murray created some positive impression. The duo accounted for twelve goals and five assists between them.

With the exception of Murray and Cidoncha to an extent, one common factor that binds these foreign players would be the fact that they were all past their prime. Each of them have excelled at one time or the other, but those were all in the past. Hence, they were able to showcase only a shadow of their past abilities in the ISL. Another one of the Blasters' Asian signing options was Imad Khalili, who also fits the same bracket.

We cannot help but feel that Skinkys maybe underestimated the standards of the ISL. They perhaps felt that experienced (and slightly aged) foreign signings would be sufficient for the team to do well in the league and if yes, they have been proven wrong.

We understand that the likes of Bartholomew Ogbeche, Igor Angulo and so on have performed well despite their age. But then again, they are also players who have been replicating their best self consistently since the past couple of years, as opposed to some of the signings that the Yellow Army made.

Indian players

Even to a layman, very few complaints about the recruitment of Indian players at Kerala Blasters should be there. Most of them, including Sahal Abdul Samad, Rahul KP, Jeakson Singh, Sandeep Singh and others have signed long-term deals. That should serve as a boost to the club.

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However, there's more to this. For a team that should give more onus to Indian players, Kerala Blasters' domestic stars are yet to match their expectations in the 2020-21 season. With three goals, Rahul KP topped the goal-scoring charts among the domestic players at the club. When you compare that with the top Indian goal-scorers of leading sides like Mumbai City (Bipin Singh with six goals) and ATK Mohun Bagan (Manvir Singh, also with six goals).

The same observation can be made about players at other positions too. For someone who excelled as a full-back in previous seasons, Lalruatthara failed to create an impact last season, when he featured as a centre-back in the very few chances he got. Most of the signings in the Indian contingent was made prior to the arrival of the coach - perhaps they did not suit his style, or he couldn't identify the right style for his players.

This summer as well, the club have made some interesting domestic signings so far. The players that the club have talked to so far indicates that their scouting is good if not great - when it comes to finding local talent. Still, there is room for improvement. We hope that the management are aware of the fact that team needs more experienced signings both in attack and defence. Hopefully they are doing something about it too.

Recruitment of coaches
Steve Coppell was the longest serving head coach in the history of Kerala Blasters

We begin this section with a disclaimer. There are no doubts about the quality of coaches who have represented Kerala Blasters till date. But were they the right fit for the club?

It was evident from 2019-20 itself that the Yellow Army do not have a squad that is comfortable with building out from the back and playing a passing and possession-based style of play. Yet, Kibu Vicuna - who successfully guided Mohun Bagan to the I-League title in 2020 using a similar system - was roped in as their new head coach last summer. Sure, under him the team displayed some attractive football once in a while. However, it was not worthwhile at the end.

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His methods seemed to be alien to the team's defence. They often made glaring errors while trying to build up from the back. Striker Gary Hooper who was used to receiving balls in the opposition box, often had to come down to midfield to fetch them at his new club. Eventually, he played as a No.10, focusing on creating chances for another player in front of him.

Sahal, who is as an attacking midfielder by trade, regularly played at left-wing. Credits to him for not struggling too much in a new position. At times, Vicuna also decided against making enough substitutions in favour of his playing style, especially when players were tired in the second half.

It's safe to say that many of these decisions have stood in the way of the club achieving more positive results.

Earlier in June 2021, Kerala Blasters announced the signing of Ivan Vukomanovic. The 43-year-old is their 12th managerial appointment since the club's inception in 2014. We have already highlighted how the Serbian's arrival could either be a calculated move or a shot in the dark - but we cannot say for sure until he leads the team in a few games in the upcoming season.

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