The Highlanders endured another disappointing campaign last season once again failing to make the playoffs.
After another disastrous season and a finish at the bottom of the table, NorthEast United are all set for their fifth campaign in the Indian Super League (ISL), with an overhaul of their squad. With last season’s gaffer Avram Grant as the technical director and his assistant Eelco Schattorie as the head coach, along with new players coming on board, the Highlanders are looking forward to making it into the top four of the league for the first time in their short history.
In the following, we discuss NorthEast United and their chances of ending the poor run this term as well as their squad, strengths and weaknesses.
Last Season’s Performance
The 2017-18 season turned out to be the worst ever for NorthEast as they finished bottom of the table and only managed 11 points from 18 matches, which was their worst in the four editions of the league so far. By the end of December, the club decided to part ways with then-coach Joao de Deus and brought in the experienced Avram Grant as his successor to have a turnaround. With Seminlen Doungel and Marcinho as their top scorers, they scored just 12 goals throughout the campaign and conceded 27.
NorthEast United cancelled their foreign pre-season trip and rather opted for a few games against fellow Indian clubs. They won their first fixture against Guwahati Town Club 6-0 on 3rd September and then went on to defeat Shillong 1st Division side Laban SC 4-0 five days later. After these two games, they then flew to Imphal, where they lost against I-league side NEROCA FC by a solitary goal. The Highlanders will play a few more friendlies in Kolkata before the season begins.
Schattorie was appointed as the head coach of NorthEast United a few days ago
NorthEast United decided not to introduce any major changes in their coaching staff and instead stuck to the ones who had dealt with the team in the previous season. With Avram Grant vacating the head coach position and being appointed as the technical director, former Prayag United and East Bengal coach Eelco Schattorie was handed the lead role. On the other hand, former Pailan Arrows and Dempo head coach Arthur Papas has joined the Dutchman as his assistant for the campaign.
Ins: The Highlanders made a complete overhaul of their squad as only five players were retained from their previous season. TP Rehenesh, Reagan Singh, Robert Lalthlamuana, Rowlin Borges and Fanai Lalrempuia were the five players who were asked to continue for another term. The club made their first foreign signing in the form of Nigerian forward Bartholomew Ogbeche to bolster their attack. Ogbeche has previously featured in Ligue 1, La Liga, as well as the Eredivisie in Europe and possesses a real goalscoring threat.
The Highlanders also secured the services of the young forward duo of Augustine Okrah and Juan Cruz Mascia. The Croatian defensive duo of Mato Grgic and Mislav Komorski will play a vital part in their defence, whereas midfielders Jose Leudo and Federico Gallego were brought in to bring stability in midfield.
Veteran defender Gurwinder Singh, pacy wingers Nikhil Kadam and Seityasen Singh were among the major Indian signings. The other Indian signings include: Pawan Kumar (Chennaiyin FC), Gurmeet, Keegan Pereira (ATK), Pawan Kumar (FC Pune City), Provat Lakra (Gokulam Kerala FC), Simranjit Singh (Delhi Dynamos FC), Lalthathanga Khawlhring (Aizawl FC), Redeem Tlang (Shillong Lajong FC), Rupert Nongrum (ATK), Girik Khosla (Minerva Punjab FC), Kivi Zhimomi (Gokulam Kerala FC).
Outs: Though the club did not have a prolific foreign signing last time around, they are most likely to miss the services of Brazilian Marcinho who was their joint top scorer along with Doungel, who left the Highlanders to join Kerala Blasters. The other two major players who left the team are winger Holicharan Narzary, who also joined Kerala and full-back Nirmal Chettri who has joined FC Goa.
Formation & Tactics
Under Schattorie the team will most likely have an attacking aproach to the game, with more of build-up play from the back rather than a direct style. However, with Seityasen out injured with an ACL tear, Eelco will start the season a man short in the attacking third.
NorthEast United’s predicted XI for ISL 2018-19
Schattorie is known for his wide 4-2-3-1 playing style for which he will have the services of Okrah and Nikhil’s pace to help Ogbeche upfront. With Jose Leudo playing a deeper role, Rowlin will have more space in the midfield to dictate the tempo of the game. TP Rehenesh will take the position between the sticks, with the Croatian duo of Grgic and Komorski in front of him. With plenty of choice in the full-back positions, the Highlanders are most likely to start with Reagan and Keegan.
NorthEast United’s alternative starting XI in ISL 2018-19
However, the coach also has the option to opt for a deep 4-4-2 formation, with Rowlin and Leudo as the deeplying midfielders and Ogbeche and Mascia upfront. With two foreigners up top, NorthEast would have to go with two Indian wingers for which they have Nikhil, Rupert and Girik to pick from.
Unlike the previous season, NorthEast’s strength lies in their attack this time around. They have two quality foreigners upfront in Ogbeche and Mascia, who has been great in pre-season, along with the nimble-footed Okrah who so far seems too quick to handle. In the Indian contingent, the Highlanders will have the likes of Nikhil Kadam, Rupert Nongrum, Kivi Zhimomi, Redeem Tlang and Girik Khosla at their service.
Once again NorthEast’s only worry seems like their defence. They have only one experienced goalkeeper in Rehenesh, who is also prone to errors. Though the club have roped in quality full-backs, the central part of their defence still lacks experience and backup. Apart from the Croatian pair and an ageing Gurwinder, they seem to lack options in their backline.
NorthEast United ISL 2018-19 first phase fixtures
Players to Watch
The former Mumbai FC and Mohun Bagan winger seems like a guaranteed starter in Schattorie’s starting XI, as the Dutch coach has the most faith in him among the Indian forwards. Last season, Kadam turned out to be the go-to man for Bagan and played a crucial role in their I-League campaign.
The Nigerian striker will be the first name in Eelco’s starting XI throughout the season as he will be The Highlanders’ go-to man for goals. The 33-year-old striker proved too good for his age last season, when he scored 10 goals for his Eredivisie side Willem II Tilburg. Having played at top tier European clubs like Paris Saint Germain, Bastia, Alavez, Valladolid and Middlesbrough, the forward brings lots of experience to the side and will play the role of talisman for NorthEast.
NorthEast United suffered a huge drop in attendances from the third season onwards. Though poor performances played a part in it, the ever-rising ticket prices also seemed to be a subject of concern. The club recorded the lowest ever ISL attendance last season and with no change in pricing, the attendance is expected to remain low unless there’s a huge turnaround in their performances.
The tickets for the first six home matches are out and prices start from ₹250 upto ₹1200 and are available on BookMyShow.
What to Expect
NorthEast United have put together a better side than last year and are expected to showcase better performances on the field as well. But, compared to the other ISL sides, they still lack quality, which was clear when they lost to NEROCA despite having dominated the entire game.
The Highlander possess a strong attack, but the defensively weaker side may not be able to break into the top four this season either.