The Orange Brigade finished as the runners-up last season.
NEROCA FC’s debut season in the top flight was the story of last term. Defying huge odds, the team from Imphal almost achieved the unthinkable, coming close to winning the league. The Orange Brigade will be embarking on the new season with high hopes, but will have to do without the coach who was at the helm ever since they started out as a professional club at the national level, the inspirational Gift Raikhan who switched sides to northeastern rivals Aizawl FC.
Here, we’ll look at how the club are shaping up heading into the new season, their weaknesses, strengths and take an in-depth approach to ascertain what they can provide on the pitch and exactly how far they can go.
Last Season’s Performance
Having just secured promotion into the top division and assembling a squad sans any big names, not many fancied Raikhan’s men to figure anywhere in the top half of the table. But, the Orange Brigade emerged as one of the most well-drilled sides in the league, their grit securing them valuable points, especially away from home.
After a defeat in their opening game, NEROCA went on an unbeaten run of nine games that put them firmly in the race for the title. However, they blew hot and cold in the remaining stretch of games, but were in the hunt right up to the final matchday, eventually falling short of champions Minerva Punjab by three points.
NEROCA did not have a very elaborate pre-season like the other teams, choosing instead to train at their new picturesque training facility. They did, however, play in a couple of friendlies, firstly against ISL side NorthEast United at their home ground Khuman Lampak Main Stadium, which they won 1-0.
They then travelled to Kolkata to take on ATK’s reserve side emerging victorious with a 1-2 scoreline.
After Gift Raikhan stepped down at the end of last season to take over the reins at Aizawl, the job went to Spaniard Manuel Retamero Fraile, who coincidentally was once the head coach at his predecessor’s new club.
The 45-year-old tactician spent the majority of his coaching career in Spain, notably managing the youth sides of Real Betis and Real Valladolid. He had a couple of spells in Asia, and in 2016 was entrusted with overseeing Aizawl’s maiden voyage in the I-League. However, his time at the People’s Club was cut painfully short just six games into the season.
The Spaniard’s last assignment was at Mongolian club Ulaanbaatar City FC, where he managed to finish second in the league and emerged victorious in the domestic cup.
He is joined at Imphal by assistant coach Wangkheirakpam Shyamjai Meitei who had been doing a stellar job at the Minerva Punjab Academy since 2016. He also served as assistant coach to Khogen Singh at the Punjab outfit last season.
One of the household names of Indian football, Katsumi Yusa joined from East Bengal providing a major boost to the Orange Brigade for this season. His teammate in Kolkata, experienced Brazilian centre-back Eduardo Ferreira also joined forces with him in Imphal. Tall Italian goalkeeper Mauro Boerchio who last played for Maldivian club Maziya, was the third new foreign addition to the squad.
Also joining the club and making a return to their homeland are wingers Sushil Meitei and Malemnganba Meetei, both from NorthEast United. Saikhom Ronald and Sebastian Thangmuansang are also two new signings joining from ISL sides ATK and FC Pune City respectively.
Besides these names, there are a host of young players brought into the first-team from the reserve squad and also from local Manipuri teams.
There were also a number of departures from NEROCA this season, most prominent being that of Fabien Vorbe, who was one of the leading lights of last season. Defender Tondonba Singh, who played every minute of last campaign made the move to reigning ISL champions, Chennaiyin FC. Midfielder David Lalbiakzara and centre-back Govin Singh followed the old boss to Aizawl. Also, French striker Jean Joachim who joined NEROCA for the Super Cup sought pastures abroad with a move to the Cypriot league.
Goalkeepers: Lalit Thapa, Mauro Boerchio, Loitongbam Bishorjit Singh, Golmei Dihempu Rongmei.
Defenders: Rojen Meitei, Moirangthem Dhananjoy Singh, Eduardo Ferreira, Varney Kallon, Moirangmayum Ashok Singh, Sebastian Thangmuansang, Naocha Huidrom, Denechanrda Meitei, Mohammed Abdul Salam, Chingakham Roshan Singh, Thokchom Johnson Singh
Midfielders: Saikhom Ronald, Naorem Tondomba Singh, Subhash Singh, Malemngamba Meitei, Sushil Meitei, Thangjam Singh, Aryn Williams, Biaklian Paite, Katsumi Yusa, Gunajit Singh
Forwards: Jerry Pulamte, Felix Chidi Odili, Surjakanta Tongbram, Ngangom Ronald Singh, Manglem Meitei
Formation & Tactics
Fraile usually lines up his sides in a 4-1-3-2 formation, with one of the deep midfielders moving up the pitch while attacking. Like other Spanish coaches, he too wants his teams to dominate possession of the ball and dictate play, “I always like my teams to keep possession of the ball and play the game in an entertaining manner. if you don’t have the ball, you do not score goals. That is why I want my team to keep possession, score goals and win matches.”
NEROCA FC’s probable lineup in I-League 2018-19
The slot between the sticks is likely to be taken up by the imposing Boerchio. The centre-back partnership of captain Varney Kallon and Eduardo Ferreira will most certainly be the first-choice pairing all season. Ashok Singh and Denechandra Meitei will probably be the coach’s choices for the positions of right and left-back respectively.
Australian ace midfielder Aryn Williams is expected to be the defensive midfielder, whereas new arrival Yusa is expected to don the #10 role. Malemnganba Meitei and Sushil Meitei will be gunning for the places on the wings. The firepower upfront will be provided by fan-favourite Subhash Singh and Felix Odili Chidi, who in tandem can be a fearsome proposition for opposition defences.
NEROCA did an impressive job in managing to retain many of the stars of their breakout season. Also, with the signings made, key areas of the team have been well-addressed. Especially, the likes of Yusa and Ferreira will bring their experience of the Indian game and solidity to the side.
The probable first XI has a nice look about it this season, but in the case of an injury or if the team is chasing a match, the coach will be lamenting the lack of depth in the squad, with most it made up of young lads with little or no top flight experience.
NEROCA FC home fixtures for I-League 2018-19
NEROCA FC away fixtures for I-League 2018-19
Players to Watch
The Japanese playmaker has been one of the most outstanding foreign players in recent times plying their trade in India. He was an amazing player at both the big Kolkata clubs and a player of his pedigree is a great addition to a youthful NEROCA side. The diminutive Yusa’s versatility allows him to play on the wings as well as a second striker. Blessed with great ball control and equally good vision, he will be pulling the strings in midfield for NEROCA this season.
An integral member of NEROCA’s journey to the top flight and also in their debut season, Kallon is the proverbial rock in the NEROCA backline. The Liberian was brilliant over the course of last season, his performances winning him the Best Defender of the Season award. Orange Brigade fans will expect nothing less from him this campaign too.
Having played all over India in a career spanning over a decade, Subash had the best season of his professional life with his hometown club last term. The forward was an inspired character on the pitch for NEROCA, consistently making things happen. His pace and dribbling upfront were a cause of torment for all the defences in the league. NEROCA’s Player of the Season and fan-favourite will certainly be one to watch this season
What To Expect
NEROCA have a good team on paper this season, but still don’t appear to have enough to sustain a challenge over the course of the campaign to the likes of the top dogs, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal. Also, in the past it has been seen that a new foreign coach has struggled to bed in his philosophy across the team, so the Orange Brigade faithful have reasons to be wary.