The Southern outfit are currently seventh in the league standings with a win, four draws, and two losses.
On 12th November 2016, in the 89th minute of the South Indian Derby, Cedric Hengbart would clear a ball, which would fall to Antonio German inside their own half. German, who plays for Gokulam Kerala in the I-League this season, would make a quick transition, turn defence into attack, and his pass would find CK Vineeth, who would make no mistake in slotting it past an onrushing Duwayne Kerr. Kerala Blasters had just put the game to bed, in front of a packed stadium. They had come from behind to register a thumping, 3-1, victory against their arch-nemesis Chennaiyin FC.
On 11th November 2018, Kerala Blasters hosted FC Goa at Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, Kochi. FC Goa defenders would clear a ball, Ahmed Jahouh and Edu Bedia would make a quick transition, turn defence into attack, and would pass the ball to dangerous Ferran Corominas. The 35-year-old Spaniard would run forward with the ball, get past Krcmarevic with ease, find space and shoot, and FC Goa would double their lead.
But, contrary to what had happened almost two years ago, Kerala Blasters lost the game. FC Goa clobbered the hosts, on all aspects of the game. A lot has changed, certainly, in two years, but what has happened to the character of a side that had defied the odds to reach the final of Indian Super League in 2016?
Ahead of their clash against FC Goa, Thangboi Singto said, “With due respect to Goa, they are an attacking team, but if you see records, they do concede goals also.” Responding to it, Sergio Lobera said, “I respect the opinion of the second coach of Kerala. Let us see who scores more goals tomorrow.” And on the pitch, FC Goa did what their coach had told the media, while Kerala Blasters failed to execute what they had planned.
The gulf difference in quality between these two sides was discernible and overt throughout the 90 minutes. Ahmed Jahouh threaded long diagonal balls with utmost precision, while Kizito misplaced even short passes. While Coro found the back of the net with a shot from outside the box, Kerala struggled to do it from close distances.
James hasn’t found his winning combination yet
Under the tutelage of Steve Coppell, who now coaches ATK in the same league, Kerala Blasters reached the final of ISL 3, and what Kerala Blasters are lacking at the moment are exactly the qualities Steve Coppell’s Kerala had in 2016.
Then and now, Kerala Blasters are blessed with talented and experienced players in their defence. But, the difference in how these two coaches – Steve Coppell and David James – deployed them made the difference, which, evidently, was huge and influential.
Then, in 2016, Kerala Blasters started most of their games with Sandesh Jhingan, Aaron Hughes, Cedric Hengbart and Josu Currais in defence, and the team contained and foiled the movements of the opponents successfully to a greater extent. The experience of Aaron Hughes and Cedric Hengbart helped Kerala do their defensive duties to perfection.
In 2016, Kerala Blasters did not lose a single game when Jhingan, Josu, Hughes and Hengbart played together, and when they did not, the team suffered, the 5-0 thumping by Mumbai City FC when Hughes did not play is an example.
Now, this season, Kerala Blasters started their games with different players at defence. Sandesh Jhingan is the only defender to have played in every minute for Kerala this season. The frequent changes in their defensive lineup affect the momentum and it was on show against FC Goa. Anas Edathodika replaced Nemanja Lakic Pesic, who impressed in Kerala’s recent games, and the defence floundered.
Meanwhile, James decided to start Rakip ahead of Cyril Kali, who had delivered solid outings in their recent games. The former Liverpool shot-stopper would eventually make a substitution at the start of the second half and the Frenchman would go on to deliver a strong performance. What was the motive behind benching Cyril Kali, James?
He also made changes to their midfield and attacking departments but the results he wanted did not come. Len Doungel, Sahal Abdul Samad did not feature in the starting XI against the Gaurs, and Holicharan Narzary and Kizito did not influence the result in Kerala’s favour. To add credibility to the claim, Len came off the bench in the dying minutes of the first half, replaced Slavisa, and he pioneered some attacks which troubled the FC Goa defence. Again, David James failed to do the right thing. What was the motive behind benching Sahal Abdul Samad and Len Doungel, James?
Steve Coppell, who has coached the likes of Manchester City, is, understandably, way too ahead of David James when it comes to implementing the right tactic. Under the guidance of Coppell, Kerala Blasters played defensive football and emphasized on counter-attacks to score goals. The individual brilliance of their players like Belfort, Nazon and German also helped Kerala score goals.
Matej Poplatnik has been good but has fallen short lately
In ISL 3, Kerala Blasters also scored goals from set-pieces, and this season, Kerala Blasters have failed to utilize set-pieces effectively despite having players like Sandesh Jhingan and Nemanja Lakic Pesic, who are dominant in the air.
Kerala Blasters have had 48 corners, two penalties and many freekicks this season, but have only converted three. A vast majority of the corners Kerala Blasters have taken so far did not even trouble the opponents. The absence of a quality set-piece taker has come to haunt Kerala.
But, make no mistake, Kerala Blasters’ midfielders have performed dominantly than the enforcers the club had in recent seasons. Sahal Abdul Samad has impressed, though he needs to improve on many aspects, Len Doungel has shone, but needs to be more clinical, Prasanth has talent, but raw, and the coach, David James, must focus on utilizing that appropriately.
Courage Pekuson has only played a few minutes of football this season, while Keziron Kizito has failed to dictate the tempo for Kerala, making flaws more often than not. Narzary showed signs of improvements but no longer. Krcmarevic has done well and good, but the ease with which players get past and create space is a serious concern for Kerala.
Kerala Blasters give away possession and concede space too easily, putting their chances at jeopardy. One area where Kerala must improve largely is at denying the opponents time and space to deliver punishing shots. The number of long-range goals Kerala have conceded so far validates the aforesaid claim.
In ISL 3, Kerala Blasters had Mehtab Hossain who would do all the dirty works and hold fort strongly, narrowing space and tackling and even bringing down opponents when situations warranted. Nason and Belfort would dribble past defenders, find space and score goals. Coppell gave Chopra chances to capitalize and shine but the former Newcastle man struggled and lost his place in the starting XI.
Kadio Boris and Azrack Mahamat would command the midfield for Kerala, alongside Rafique. They would also drop down to help defenders defend. Elhadji Ndoye would make infrequent appearances, displaying versatility on the pitch. Mohammed Rafi played 13 games, but could not impress as he did in ISL 2, and would go on to score a goal in the final.
This season, Matej Poplatnik and Slavisa Stojanovic, two proven attackers, started promisingly and they, in spades, have talent and spunk but have fallen short of lately. The lack of creative minds behind them could be pointed as a reason, but the ultimate cause is beyond that. Meanwhile, CK Vineeth, who would produce jaw-dropping moments in ISL 3, has cut a frustrated figure this season. He has struggled and failed to use chances. James, unlike Coppell, has so far stuck to CK Vineeth in spite of disappointing turnouts.
Nevertheless, one must admit that the current crop of players Kerala have is way too superior to those they had in recent seasons, but one that, seriously, lacks the ability to produce efficacious results, possibly because of blemished guidance.
What James needs to do is to rectify a few mistakes, and the result, the one that is expected and desired, will come the way. The fans, who back the club and its players, deserve better results. The lovers of the game, who travel from lands evem 300km away from the stadium to support Kerala Blasters, come with hope and faith that their team will produce moments to remember and cherish forever.