From ill-advised draft picks to untimely injures, all that could go wrong for the Islanders did, but we explaun why they were the masters of their own downfall.
Mumbai City have always been a club where things don’t always go smoothly for reasons probably as mysterious to them as to us. As the fourth season of the Indian Super League (ISL) draws to a close, there is still no clarity as to what Mumbai City FC are all about From being in the bottom reaches of the table to be the top finishers in the league plase ;ast season and now this season being a mid-table club, MCFC have been everywhere.
Last season when they finished top of the table, there was a sense of urgency and a winning desire to go with Alexandre Guimaraes’ unique pragmatic way of playing football. Even though they crashed out in the playoffs, the team was quite formidable and performed well, making the Mumbai Football Arena their fortress.
But, the team assembled ahead of this season following the domestic players draft was not even a shadow of the side in their league topping campaign and looked set to finish mid-table from day one. Mumbai, this term, were more more conservative with their budget and did not play the MoneyBALL game, unlike many of their rivals. But, for some reason, instead of using their tight budget smartly, they went in a different direction.
The Islanders looked poised to make some serious noise when they picked up Balwant Singh, who was the in-form man for the national team, but then that was all. They proceeded to buy ageing Indians like Mehrajuddin Wadoo and Lawchuankima who were well past their prime. They also added two goalkeepers’ Arindam Bhattacharya and Kunal Sawant to their ranks in spite of having retained, Amrinder Singh for a hefty Rs. 1.2cr per year contract.
The focus of the team management then shifted from veterans to young guns. They quickly brought in Zakeer Mundampara and Davinder Singh alongside, Abhinash Ruidas and Pranjal Bhumij who were all totally untested commodities. Another of their young signings, Aiborlang Khongjee suffered an injury on their pre-season tour and was rendered unavailable before the season could even kickoff.
Even with the foreign recruits, the injuries started creeping in early in the season. Leo Costa, their midfielder, who was very influential in the games in Spain, was injured and Achille Emana just couldn’t arrive on time, courtesy of visa troubles. Even, Thiago Santos was carrying an injury of the ACL and was recovering since nine months at that point.
Balwant Singh failed to adequately shoulder the goalscoring burden this season
To add to all this misery, their only reliable striker, Balwant Singh was injured a week before the tournament could kick-off and carried the same for the most part of the season, playing through the pain. A little later, Zakeer Mundampara also joined the injured ranks and the injury concerns of Mumbai seemed never-ending.
Apart from this, the players they lost were too valuable and were not adequately replaced by the ones who arrived in their place. Christian Vadocz and Diego Forlan were a class apart compared to Gerson Viera and Rafa Jorda.
Udanta Singh was thought to have been replaced by Sanju Pradhan. But his sheer lack of pace and delivery in the final third, tells a different story. Even at the back, Wadoo and Raju Gaikwad massively struggled and were not even a shadow of Anwar Ali who had marshalled the defence alongside captain Lucian GOIAN the last term.
Another issue that Guimaraes faced was the lack of a potent striker. The amount of opportunities squandered by Balwant upfront were beyond belief. The striker who played under the shadow of fellow India international Jeje Lalpekhlua, for the most part at I-League outfit Mohun Bagan, was babled upon as the main goalscorer, but could not deliver the goods on a consistent basis.
On his own, he looked deserted and alone. Simple headed chances that would have taken his tally to 15 were missed; at times in front of unguarded goalposts. Even in the home games, with the fans roaring, he couldn’t touch his best form and that hurt Mumbai’s chances quite a bit.
Continuing on the home form; it could clearly be seen that although Mumbai City started off well and dominated at home, their form faded away soon. They lost important home games and that to, to the likes of ATK and Kerala Blasters who were either winless or low on morale when they arrived in the metropolis.
Even Jamshedpur FC whom they had held spectacularly away from home, scored freely past them and made a mockery of the home support. In any league in the world, the home games play an extremely crucial role and need to be taken seriously. The lack which has resulted in Mumbai City’s woeful season.
Shifting our focus to the slightly positive aspect of the season, we saw the emergence of the likes of Ruidas, Tavora, Davinder and Mundampara. Ruidas isn’t a natural left-back and also struggled at left forward in the initial games. Even Tavora was never an automatic choice for the left wing-back position. But, both were hard-working individuals who kept their heads in the game and excelled on iccasions.
Guimaraes tried to place too many square peg in round holes
Even Davinder and Zakeer who played in their natural positions hardly made any errors and kept the opposition in their pockets. There were three games where Zakeer, a defensive midfielder, maintained a passing accuracy of 90% and made sure he contributed excellently to the game. On another occasion, Davinder totally kept CK Vineeth out of sight in his own backyard.
Such creative solutions and consistent young players were blessings. However, they were only scaffolds which were meant to be used temporarily. A long-term reliance on them meant a gradual degradation of the team and an unbalanced starting XI.
After this horrendous season which will see Mumbai finish nowhere above sixth the table, the management in its entirety, has to go back to the drawing board and discuss who they are and what they aim to achieve through the club. Because, the last four years, two of them under Guimaraes, have brought more questions than answers. What is the their identity, ethos or style of play? Are they an attacking, free-flowing team? Are they a defensive team? Are they a counter-attacking team? Why is there not much pace in the team?
Questions must also be asked of Guimares himself. How much of this failed campaign is down to his inability to get the best out of his resources? Does he still remain the right man for the job going forward? Can he re-invent his ideas with the changing dynamics of Indian football? The Islanders’ introspection on the ruins of this season and the answers they come up with to these questions will go a long way to determining if and how they bounce back next term. Meanwhile, first evidence of that process in motion could be seen at the season-ending inaugural Super Cup which is just around the corner.