The Blasters appear a side transformed midway through the season…
Kerala Blasters have been one of the most topsy-turvy sides in the Indian Super League. The Sachin Tendulkar-owned side reached the Final in the first edition of the tournament, only to be defeated by Atletico De Kolkata. David James was the marquee player-cum-coach and rallied his side brilliantly.
In the second season, Peter Taylor and Trevor Morgan were at the helm, but defensive woes saw the side languishing at the bottom of the table, conceding 27 goals in the league. Such was the ignominy that Steve Coppell was brought in to rejuvenate them and put the team back on track at the beginning of the third season.
The Slow Start
The season began on a low note, with marquee player Aaron Hughes leaving the team for national duty and the coach needing to re-shuffle his plans accordingly. Playing the first match of the league against NorthEast United FC, Kerala Blasters started on the defensive. Playing away, the team looked a little jaded and could not even make one attempt on target, losing 1-0. Mohun Bagan playmaker Katsumi Yusa scored the only goal for the home team to grab the first three points of ISL 2016.
The next game was at home, against the side which defeated them in the Final of the first campaign, Atletico De Kolkata. The visiting team defeated the home side, breaking their perfect record of home victories in the first games in the last two campaigns. Spanish attacking midfielder Javi Lara scored the only goal of the game, flooring the Kerala side to their second consecutive defeat.
Steve Coppell was anxious with his team’s display. The team was showing enough grit and determination at the back and had leaked goals only due to momentary errors, but their lack of attacking prowess was a major worry for the gaffer. The team welcomed the return of marquee player Hughes, who seamlessly drifted into the center-back role with experienced French defender Cedric Hengbart.
The change in approach
In the next game against Delhi Dynamos, Kerala Blasters managed one shot on target, their first in three games! The team did earn its first points of the tournament, drawing the game 0-0. With terrible need of attacking intent, Coppell tinkered with his side, giving Michael Chopra an important role, who had, till now, been a bits-and-pieces player.
With the change in personnel and tactics, Michael Chopra scored the only goal against Mumbai City FC, giving the Blasters their first victory of the season. In this match, Mohammed Rafi started as the main striker and Kervens Belfort created a lot of chances from the left wing and the side looked different. It was clear that Coppell had learnt from his experiences well and was prepared to revamp his approach and the side’s tactics.
The next game was against FC Pune City and center-back Hengbart opened the scoring in the 2nd minute, the fastest goal of the season. The team, though, conceded another goal and the match ended 1-1 at the final whistle. Kerala had dominated their second game on the trot and showed a different vigor and valor in their attacks, much to the liking of their manager and supporters.
In the next game against FC Goa, Kervens Belfort was, yet again, handed a start. The Haitian did not disappoint his coach. Running behind defenders at will and dribbling four players at one instance, the striker-converted-into-winger was in the thick of things in the game. FC Goa’s Brazilian journeyman Julio Cesar headed in a goal in the first half, but the team fought back with goals from striker Mohammad Rafi and Belfort, both players thoroughly deserving their goals. The striker, particularly, looked sharp and was easily the best man on the pitch.
Steve Coppell believes in the quote: ‘Strikers win you matches, defenders win you leagues’ and it shows in his team selection on the field. The experienced coach knows how to win and understands the requirements of the game well. Starting the game from the back, Coppell has two ball-playing defenders in Hughes and Hengbart, who are beasts in defending.
On the defensive flanks, Josu Currais has made the left-back position his own with brilliant performances in every match. Sandesh Jhingan is arguably India’s best right-back by a mile and the burly defender loves to make runs on the flanks, providing ample support to his attacking teammates.
In the early stages, Coppell was trying to play a creative striker with three men behind him in a 4-2-3-1 formation. the Englishman, with time, has understood that there’s always a fine space between the defence and midfield line of the opposition and asked his creator-in-chief, Michael Chopra, to exploit that. Ever since the team has shifted to 4-4-1-1 with Chopra playing as the support striker, results have been favorable for the side.
The transformation of Belfort, Duckens Nazon and Antonio German on the left wing is another masterclass from the British coach who has proven, yet again, that he’s willing to learn and change according to the situation. In the ISL, teams usually play with two center-backs, giving no working space to the main striker. Thus, transferring the creative and speedy players to the wings has brought positive results to the team.
Having conceded just four goals in 6 matches, Blasters have the best defensive record in the ISL this season, as of yet. This stat proves how things have changed under Steve Coppell and if the team keeps performing this way, they can surely replicate their journey in the first edition.
For a team which unarguably has the best fans to support, it will be inevitable that Kerala Blasters would always have a 12th man cheering for them. At their helm, they have a calm, cool and composed manager, who knows the game and has had a long journey. Steve Coppell looks like a disinterested coach, but is a tactical genius. Not showing his emotions on the sideline is another virtue the coach has learnt with time and the Blasters would be thanking their coach for their recent turnaround.
Editorial by Punit Tripathi Khel Now Correspondent from Delhi – A sports enthusiast. Freelance writer on football and cricket. A die-hard Manchester United follower. You can Follow him on twitter .