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ISL: Teams with a small group of foreigners with Indian experience have started well

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While ATKMB and BFC have retained their main players, the Goa difference players have teamed up with Sergio Lobera in Mumbai…

The seventh season of the Indian Super League (ISL) has been underway for over a month and the league standings have gradually started to take shape. It is obvious that some teams are still trying to find their feet in the competition, while a few have already picked up the pace and are collecting the three points more regularly.

Mumbai City and ATK Mohun Bagan lead the field with 16 points each, while Bengaluru FC are close with 12 points. Taking a closer look at their squad roster, all three outfits have one distinct characteristic in common: They haven’t just retained their key players from the previous season.

ATK Mohun Bagan chose to stick to his winning formula and didn’t tinker with his team much. The think tank remains the same with Antonio Habas at the helm of affairs and management has compelled the coach to retain the pillars who had played an important role in ATK clinching his third ISL (Indian Super League) title in six years.

To put things in perspective, the team selected 21 players from the previous campaign, most of them by an ISL team. Against the Kerala Blasters in their opener, nine of the 11 starters had played together in the last campaign. Also, they did not cut and change in the overseas contingent as only Tiri and Brad Inman were added to their roster, with the Spanish center-back directly replacing retired defender Agustin Garcia. And Habas is certainly reaping the benefits.

In the third offensive, Roy Krishna continued his rich form vein in this edition and already has five goals to his name in seven matches. In midfield, Carl McHugh was exceptional with his reading skills and ball distribution. He is ably supported by familiar faces like Pronay Halder, Jayesh Rane and Prabir Das. If Soosairaj hadn’t been injured, he would have been another name in the starting XI who knows Habas’ tactics on the inside.

the Browsers have yet to concede open play and while much of the credit goes to Antonio Habas for his defensive organization, one also has to take into account that they have strengthened their bottom line by hiring the services of the Indian international Sandesh Jhingan and a reliable center-back like Tiri.

Likewise, Bengaluru FC also retained their match winners in key positions and called on Cleiton Silva and Kristian Opseth to resolve their goal issues. The philosophy has been simple, retain experienced performers who know the coach’s master plan.

In their 4-2 victory over the Kerala Blasters, the Blues had eight players on the field who had been together for a considerable period of time. The number could be nine if Rahul Bheke was in good shape. The two new faces were Silva and Opseth who slowly get into the groove after taking a few matches to settle in.

Set pieces have been their forte and it comes down to their incredible understanding with each other during deadball situations. Each of them knows their craft inside out and the execution shows the chemistry they share with each other.

Mumbai City Ahmed Jahouh

Meanwhile, although Sergio Lobera finds himself in a new ship, he was lucky enough to pick up the sailors from the previous one. Mourtada Fall, Ahmed Jahouh, Hugo Boumous, Mandar Rao Desai have all followed their manager from Goa to Mumbai and they are doing well after taking a few initial matches to get their bearings.

Jahouh continues to be the anchor in the midfield while Bomous in a more advanced role produces the goods Lobera expects from him. Having a quality striker in Adam Le Fondre made it even easier, as the French midfielder charges the ball for the striker to pull the trigger.

Another new recruit from Cy Goddard has also adapted quite well to Lobera’s methods and is proving to be an undisputed starter. Therefore, the synergy between midfielder and attacking is almost perfect which is one of the main reasons for Mumbai’s efficiency.

The pandemic has complicated things for the teams as they have had to settle for a short preseason and a limited number of friendlies. In fact, Bagan did not play any pre-match pre-matches. Therefore, teams that have opted for global changes take longer to find the right combination. East Bengal started preparations in the last week of October and that could be one of the reasons for their poor form.

But these three teams played smart and safe in the squad-building exercise. With only 20 games to go, teams that get off to a good start certainly have an advantage over the rest. The top three took the first perfect step, and it now remains to be seen if they can keep the momentum going until the end of the business.