Just three minutes into the contest between Bengaluru FC and Odisha FC on Wednesday evening – the sixth of this ISL edition – Gurpreet Singh Sandhu wore a look of faint disbelief. The Bengaluru FC and India goalkeeper, who has played a Europa League qualifier, had just committed an uncharacteristic but costly blunder.
Faced with a seemingly innocuous long ball from his counterpart in the Odisha goal, Kamaljit Singh, the tall, wiry Sandhu chose to charge out of his territory instead of letting his defenders deal with it. Once he did decide to wander outside the 18-yard box, what should have followed is an authoritative clearance that quelled the prevailing confusion within the Bengaluru defence. All Sandhu managed was to fluff his shot and be stranded in no man’s land.
Sandhu’s clanger meant that the ball fell kindly to Odisha’s Javi Hernandez. There was still plenty to be done, but Javi, blessed with a cracking left foot, managed to chip the ball over a posse of Bengaluru players from around 35 yards out. Odisha 1-0 Bengaluru FC.
In many ways, it encapsulated the first round of games that we have had in the eighth edition, where goals have ranged from sublime to ridiculous. And there have been plenty of goals to boot. As Odisha eventually strolled to a 3-1 win in their opening game of the season – Javi doubled his tally with an irrepressible free-kick past Sandhu later in the game – the goal count went up to 22 with a goal approximately every 25 minutes and an average of 3.67 goals per game. For the record, no season has seen as many goals in the opening round as this.
If ATK Mohun Bagan forward Liston Colaco’s curling effort into the top corner in the opening game of the season and Javi’s long-range strike on Wednesday are early contenders for the goal of the season, there has been no shortage of sloppy defending and glaring errors either. While Mashoor Shereef of NorthEast United FC (NEUFC) suffered conceding an inexplicable own goal in their 2-4 defeat to Bengaluru FC – he smashed the ball into his own net under little pressure – there have been other instances where poor marking and a lack of defensive cohesion have been equally calamitous.
As much as Javi’s brilliance made the difference for Odisha on Wednesday night, Bengaluru FC coach Marco Pezzaiuoli conceded that his own team’s defensive unit was not up to scratch.
“In the first five minutes, we made a big mistake for the first goal. And then also for the second goal, Udanta (Singh) lost the ball and we gave the free-kick to the opponent. Sandhu’s position for the free-kick was also not proper,” the German said.
A high goal count and end-to-end goal-bound action make for enthralling viewing, of course, but the jury is still out on what it tells about the quality of football. “In terms of the league, I don’t see high-scoring games as a bad thing. I think it’s a good thing that the teams are scoring goals,” said Pezzaiuoli.
Lack of game time
NEUFC, who conceded four goals in their opening game against BFC, put their defensive frailties down to a lack of competitive games in the lead-up to the season. Goalkeeper Subhashish Roy Chowdhury pointed out that the BFC clash was their first game since February and that a handful of pre-season games were nowhere near enough to gear up for the thick of the action.
“Obviously, we do not feel good that we lost 4-2. It was the first match. After 9-10 months, we are playing. It is very difficult to adjust to the situation. We know the mistakes that we committed. We will try to improve. We played a couple of practice matches, but practice games are completely different from competitive games. We will learn,” said Chowdhury.
The lack of cohesion in NEUFC’s all-Indian backline were also in full view as Gurjinder Kumar, Jestin George, Shereef and Provat Lakra struggled to contain BFC’s attacking players. With the number of foreigners in a playing XI shrinking to four from the earlier limit of five, it will be compelling to watch how teams accustom themselves to a rule that is now in line with AFC guidelines. On this count, FC Goa struggled in the 0-3 loss against defending champions Mumbai City FC.
Teams no longer have the luxury of using foreigners across the spine of the team while limiting the influence of Indians to the wide positions. Nonetheless, NEUFC are eagerly awaiting the entry of Australian centre-back Patrick Flottmann.
“Flottmann was not available for the first game. He had a stomach ache. Now he is fit. You need at least one foreign centre-back to guide the team,” said Chowdhury.
Kerala Blasters, too, gave away four goals in the opener against ATK Mohun Bagan. While coach Ivan Vukomanovic will certainly want his side to tighten up at the back, he, like Sergio Lobera in his first season at FC Goa, wouldn’t be too flustered as long as his forwards can compensate for it at the other end.
“This is the style that many clubs want to play. Offensive football brings more goals. I rather win 5-3 than 1-0. So that’s the football I like. We have an interesting group of players who like to play with the ball. With that quality, we want to have ball possession and control of the game,” he said.
Vukomanovic is clear that the high frequency of goals is more down to defensive errors than attacking quality. “In the case of the other clubs too, we saw more defensive mistakes than quality going forward. Because this season has just started, all the clubs will hope to avoid those mistakes in the future. The decrease in foreign players is crucial because it means that clubs will have to work in the direction of promoting domestic players and working with the youth, which is lacking in Indian football. Once youngsters are developed, there will be lesser mistakes and better defensive organisation.”
Vukomanovic’s coaching tenets seem to be in sharp contrast to Chennaiyin manager Bozidar Bandovic, summed up by his assertion that “I don’t like wild games”. It is hardly startling then that the only 1-0 result of the season so far came in Chennaiyin’s victory over Hyderabad. Mind you, there were plenty of gaps in Chennaiyin’s defence too that weren’t punished by Hyderabad.
“Some of the games have been wild. I don’t like wild games. I want discipline and I want my teams to be compact. This is one thing we will try to do over the course of the season,” said the hard-nosed Montenegrin.
It seems safe to say that Sandhu won’t be prone to too many more errors considering his experience and standing. If the other teams can also iron out defensive flaws, the league’s attack-minded players may need to work a little harder for their goals.