ISL 20/21: Kerala Blasters vs ATK Mohun Bagan – tactical analysis
Finally, we are off and running into the seventh season of the Hero Indian Super League. Five months of non-stop football is a treat for everyone who loves Indian football. The opening match was played between the same teams as last year, Kerala Blasters vs ATK Mohun Bagan.
The Tuskers parted ways with Eelco Schattorie to bring in the Spanish coach Kibu Vicuña who won the I-League last year with Mohun Bagan. They had a good pre-season where they won two, drew one and lost one out of the four matches. They also kept clean sheets in three of those four games.
On the other side, we have champions of both the leagues ATK (ISL) and Mohun Bagan (I-League) coming together to form one entity ATK Mohun Bagan. Antonio López Habas will continue his impressive stint with the formerly merged side. ATK Mohun Bagan is the only team who didn’t play any preseason friendly and yet they came out as the winners of this fixture.
Kerala Blasters started in a 4-2-3-1 with Albino Gomes in goal. The new signings Bakary Koné and Costa Nhamoinesu formed the centre-back pair and were supported by Jessel Carneiro and Prasanth Karuthadathkuni in the backline. Former La Liga midfielder Vicente Gómez and Sergio Cidoncha formed the double pivots. Ritwik Das made his ISL debut on the left-wing and Nondamba Naorem played on the opposite flank. Gary Hooper played upfront and Sahal Samad played behind him.
ATK Mohun Bagan played in their preferred 5-3-2 formation. Arindam Bhattacharya took charge between the sticks in behind the Pritam Kotal and new signings Tiri and Sandesh Jhinghan. Prabir Das and Michael Soosairaj played as wing-backs. Pronay Halder, Carl McHugh and ex-Real Madrid youth academy player Javi Hernández formed the midfield three. Roy Krishna and Edu García were paired as attackers.
Kerala Blasters’ build-up plan
Structure in possession
In possession, the Yellow Army’s shape varied from 3-3-1-3, 3-3-3-1 and 3-4-3. Gómez dropped extensively between the two centre-backs stretching them wider than before. This rose to a 3v2 situation against the ATK Mohun Bagan forwards. The Yellow Army was determined to keep the possession in the game and ATK Mohun Bagan was congenial of the idea. Habas’ side didn’t change much of their tactics from the last season. Out of possession, they had a central pentagon sitting in front of their back five with the team ready to soak the pressure.
In the first half, the Blasters were forced to play it from the wings as the central corridor was concentrated by the opposition players. Yet they didn’t face much pressure in the first two phases of the build-up. The full-backs were left unmarked by the ATK Mohun Bagan players. Once the ball went wide, ATK Mohun Bagan trapped the Kerala Blasters’ player with the help of side-line.
To ensure possession, the midfielders dropped into the defensive line from time to time. It was strange to see Sahal (AM) drop between the centre-backs on occasions in order to circulate the ball. This seemed like an excessive rotation which deeply affected the numerical strength and support upfront.
Sahal and Cidoncha kept dropping deep to help, while one went down the other surged forward to ensure positional balance. On the right side, Prasanth hugged the touchline to keep the width of the team while Das tucked into the half-space. On the left flank, Carneiro occupied the left halfspace and Naorem was the widest man on the side. Despite minimal pressure on the first line of attack, the Tuskers lacked penetration to create chances.
When Sahal played a first-time ball back to Gómez, Halder was slow in closing the gap in front of Gómez. However, the risk-averse approach of Gómez ignored the brilliant positioning of Naorem. He instead opted to switch the play on right to Prasanth. Even when the team managed to breach through the compact lines of ATK Mohun Bagan, due to their tremendous horizontal support line, they lacked verticality to carry the move forward. The only options upfront would then be Hooper who was easily marked by the extensive defence line.
But with the help of switches, they wanted to exploit the space behind the defensive line. As Prasanth would get the ball, the left wing-back Bose would step out to close him down. At this time, the inverted winger Das would make a run outside. Unfortunately, Jhingan was watchful of the situation at all times. Although the build-up till the half was unopposed, the real issues came to light in the final third.
Kerala Blasters’ offensive strategies
Hooper was playing as the lone striker upfront while Das had tucked into the right half-space. Naorem kept shuffling between the half-space and flank to support the ball carrier. These two players were marked by Kotal and Jhinghan when they dropped back to help in possession. Due to which they were not allowed to turn on the ball and were forced to release it quickly. As Tiri was marking Hooper and Sahal was marked by McHugh, the inverted role didn’t help much as there were not enough players in the forward line to pin the back three.
Qualitative and tactical differences
The team also sacrificed on vertical lines (continual penetration) due to this inverted positioning of full-back and wingers. The Tuskers managed to create one chance with two direct passes down the ground. However, Hooper took his first touch away from the goal which allowed Jhinghan to cover the angle. This was the only time Kerala could play through the Mariners but they failed to take the opportunity. ATK Mohun Bagan’s defensive display was fantastic, Tiri made 11 interceptions in the game and made seven ball recoveries. The new signing McHugh was by far the most impressive of all, he made 11 ball recoveries and six interceptions. ATK reestablished their defensive prowess coming into the new season.
Kerala’s possession play demands players to constantly move out of their position and play quick passes. The striker too had to play a part, in the same manner, to get involved in the game. However, Hooper is a different breed of a forward who excels when he is provided with service inside the box. Yet the system demanded a link-up role from him for his team which he is not accustomed to. Also, the occupancy of multiple vertical lanes diminished the opportunities of immediate overlapping full-backs and hence their supply through crosses.
How inverted play affected the dynamics of the game
However, the team’s best chance came from a cross which tells us exactly what they were missing. When Naorem was in possession in the final third, Sahal went around him to be an overlapping option. Since ATK Mohun Bagan didn’t have wide players in the natural wide players in midfield and forward line, it was difficult to cope with Sahal’s runs. This put Prabir in jeopardy for a split second which allowed Naorem to get the ball on this right and deliver an inswinger towards Das who came very close to scoring. This was arguably the best chance of Kerala Blasters and showed what they needed to do the most.
Sahal repeated this movement whenever possible but on the downside, it reduced an offensive player from the box. Hence the full-backs would have been ideal to execute this strategy instead of them staying deep or occupying the half-spaces. The overall quality of the performance was not up to the mark in this match but that’s understandable as it’s the first match of the season. Pransath and Carneiro combined to deliver 10 crosses with three of them being accurate. Most of these crosses came from the deep and were delivered in the area away from the six-yard box and second six of the penalty area.
In the last fifteen minutes, after the substitution of Murray, Kerala played with two strikers upfront. They tried to find them by launching continuous long balls which were all dealt with by ATK Mohun Bagan’s backline. The desperate attempts didn’t bear fruit as the team looked a bit clueless in the last quarter of the game.
ATK Mohun Bagan’s ball progression
The Champions are known to have a route one approach rather than a build-up from the back under Habas. Their goalkeeper Bhattacharya is not keen on rushing his distribution, instead waits for them to set into their positions. He hits the ball long to his forward line where one of the front two contests for the aerial duel. The other attacker makes a run forward in case of a flick-on. The midfield three along with the ball near wing-back shield the area to contest for the second ball. The high number behind the ball guarantees quick retention higher up the field without having to worry to about the playing through the opponent in their own half.
The Mariners on winning the possession in their own half or in case of a short goal kick pushed their wing-backs higher to join the midfield line. The Yellow Army lined-up in a 4-4-2 where Sahal joined the striker Hooper upfront to press. The front two didn’t press ATK Mohun Bagan’s back three but rather just pressed the ball carrier while the other covered the pivot (McHugh). ATK Mohun Bagan’s centre-backs didn’t take many risks and looked to go long as soon as they were put under pressure. They didn’t show much confidence in passing and hence as a team had only 32% ball possession.
ATK Mohun Bagan’s attacking chances
Winning the second balls is an imperative part of ATK Mohun Bagan’s gameplan. When the centre-backs go long, the forwards would head back for the midfielders to pounce on it before Kerala’s players. The midfielders showed excellent energy and judgement to get ahead of their player in order to win the ball. Krishna’s lay-off to Garcia was met with a first time shot which curled away from the goal. Also, the introduction of Manvir Singh was important as he would run wide as his team would win the ball. He would then look to receive the long pass on his run while stretching the opposition wide when they are already unorganised.
The only goal in the match originated from Tiri’s long ball to Manvir which he flicked forward. Krishna made a timely run to get there before his marker as he has the pace and he played it back to Manvir who was then running forward. The goal came from a mistake due to the miscommunication between Gómez and Cidoncha who both went for the same ball and miscued their header. Krishna was patiently waiting outside the box and he seized the opportunity by receiving it first on his chest and then half volleying it with the outside of his left boot into the net.
The Champions are a patient team who like to wait for their opportunity as and when their opposition presents. Their pressing in the first half was quite effective along with many mistakes made by Kerala players on the ball to give opportunities to ATK Mohun Bagan. Krishna took five shots in the game out of which three of them were a result of Kerala’s mistakes. He was quick to take a shot and tried to do things himself when they won the ball in opposition’s half.
Costa played a huge role in such turnovers as he slid and blocked two chances, other than that he made seven defensive challenges with 100% accuracy and made five interceptions for his side. ATK Mohun Bagan’s general strategy in counter-attack was either to go directly long to the forward who is making a run or using García who is primarily an attacking midfielder to combine for an up-back pass which would serve enough time for the wing-backs to rush forward for the final switch to them. Bose didn’t have the same offensive impact as Soosairaj as he is a more defensive full-back. Prabir attempted some early crosses but were gathered safely the goalkeeper.
It is tough to pass any concrete judgements on either side as it’s still very early in the tournament. Kerala Blasters have shown their intent for the possession-based football they want to play. Yet they need to convert this possession into a substantial outcome by finding solutions into the final third. ATK Mohun Bagan with their new additions defensively looks stronger than ever. But how will they cope up with the injury of Soosairaj, especially offensively? Its time to look forward to the biggest derby in India, SC East Bengal vs ATK Mohun Bagan which will be played on Friday. While Kerala Blaster face Northeast United on Thursday.