ISL 2020-21: Bengaluru's blues to Spanish imprint, key takeaways from league stage

Tanay Apte
·7 min read

It was a final matchday that promised to deliver so much and in the end it did, with Mumbai City FC wresting back top spot from ATK Mohun Bagan after doing the double over them and clinching that much desired AFC Champions League place in the process.

Elsewhere, FC Goa booked their place in the semi-finals after holding on for a goalless draw against Hyderabad FC despite a nerve-wracking last few minutes. And with that, the league stage of the Indian Super League 2020-21 came to end.

It has been a strange season in many ways, not least because of the COVID bio-bubble the players, staff, and officials were forced into. Here are some of the talking points that shaped the season.

East Bengal join big boys' table

Less than two months before the start of the season, East Bengal officially became the 11th franchise of the ISL after the Kolkata-based Shree Cement Limited acquired a majority stake in the club. This development reunited them with arch-rivals Mohun Bagan who merged with ATK earlier on. With a short pre-season and a squad equipped for the I-League, as head coach Robbie Fowler pointed out earlier on in the season, the Red and Golds endured a difficult start to the season, failing to even find the back of the net in their first four games, and winning only in their eighth.

File image of Robbie Fowler.
File image of Robbie Fowler.

File image of Robbie Fowler.

Following some press conference rants and touchline bans, Fowler got them back on track, playing some good football along the way and introducing the ISL to the irresistible Bright Enobakhare, whose solo goal against FC Goa will live long in the memory. Finishing ninth will be a disappointment to one of the country's legacy clubs but they will be hopeful of kicking on from their debut season.

Lobera perfect for using City Group blueprintDuring his time as FC Goa coach, Sergio Lobera made it clear that he was not a man who would change his philosophy even if things weren't going his way. It was these principles that made Mumbai City FC sit up, take notice and eventually offer him a job, and boy has he delivered. The Islanders play an attractive, possession-based style of football that would make their big bosses in Abu Dhabi and Manchester proud. City Football Group have made it clear that they would like to see a similar style of play implemented throughout their teams across the world thereby making it easier for players to internally swap teams and make the transition easier. Will a Mumbai City player be playing at the Etihad Stadium soon then? Probably not.

Habas forced into releasing handbrake, with delightful resultsThroughout his various stints at clubs in the Indian Super League, Antonio Habas has always favoured a pragmatic approach with his teams sitting compact, hard to beat, and a threat on the counter-attack. This season started no differently as they ground out 1-0 wins which had neutral viewers snoozing. But after the 0-1 defeat against title rivals Mumbai City, the Spaniard surprised us by naming as many as four attacking players in the matches to come. January loan signing Marcelinho, Manvir Singh, Roy Krishna, and David Williams clicked spectacularly after a few games and the goals started to flow for ATKMB like never before. More of the same please, Señor Habas.

Bengaluru's first real rough spell

Bengaluru FC have been country's model club since their formation in 2013 with their smart recruitment domestically and internationally, but for the first time, they are facing real questions.

There is talk of players leaving and a freshening up of the squad is certainly a step in the right direction after a sustained period of success. Despite having promoted Carles Cuadrat to the top post, there seemed to be a lack of planning on the field, with the Spaniard correctly pointing out a lack of backing in the transfer market to replace outgoing stalwarts in key positions. The appointment of former Germany youth team coach Marco Pezzaiouli is an intriguing one and it will be interesting to see how he gets on in the AFC Cup this summer before domestic duties resume next season.

Aussies join the party

To fulfill their Asian player quota, all ISL clubs bar Chennaiyin FC set their sights Down Under to tap Australian players of varied talent. With seemingly better finances on offer than in the A-League, we were given a glimpse of what these Socceroos had to offer and they were success stories in most cases. The bar was already set by Erik Paartalu and David Williams but Kerala Blasters' Jordan Murray and Hyderabad FC's Joel Chianese found themselves among the goals while Scott Neville and Dylan Fox acquitted themselves well for East Bengal and NorthEast United respectively. Former Premier League striker Adam Le Fondre however, takes the cake with his goals powering Mumbai City to the top spot.

Usual suspects bring up the rear

It was yet another disappointing season for the Kerala Blasters, considering their finances and inimitable fanbase would really be hoping to be competing at the top of the table. With a less than convincing Albino Gomes between the sticks, a shaky backline, and a midfield that never clicked, Kibu Vicuna got the axe before the end of an underwhelming campaign.

Rahul KP was one of the bright sparks, along with Murray and the revitalised Jessel Carneiro but the same cannot be said of Sahal Abdul Samad who continues to be inconsistent. Odisha FC have had it even worse, not even registering double figures on the points tally until an absolutely bonkers last game of the season against East Bengal. Stuart Baxter's appalling comments and immediate dismissal makes it a season to well and truly forget for a franchise struggling to make their mark in this league. Top scorer Diego Mauricio brought a few smiles and he will have no shortage of suitors for next season.

Goa, NEUFC, and Hyderabad thrill neutrals

Mumbai City and ATK Mohun lived up to their pre-season billing of favourites but the chasing pack of FC Goa, NorthEast United, and Hyderabad FC certainly caught the eye with some positive football and especially the performances of their Indian players. Juan Ferrando had the unenviable task of replacing Sergio Lobera but he has met, if not surpassed expectations with a top-four finish.

Gerard Nus had NEUFC going at a steady pace but Khalid Jamil has turned it up a notch with a great deal of help from Federico Gallego, Luis Machado, Deshorn Brown, and "Apuia" Lalengmawia. The Highlanders are dark horses for the title, having already beaten the top two during the league stage. Hyderabad fell short of the semi-finals on the last day of the season but Manolo Marquez has worked wonders with a squad that finished bottom last time round. Well-drilled, easy on the eye, and lethal on the counter, Hyderabad FC used their domestic contingent to the fullest and as a result, we have on our hands some real prospects like Asish Rai, Liston Colaco, Akash Mishra, and Mohammed Yasir.

Route-one football no longer the norm

The days of hoofing the ball up the field seem to be a thing of the past as the Indian Super League has caught up with the global tactical trend of a possession-based style of play. This is evident from the fact that seven out of 11 franchises started the season with Spanish coaches and Spain being the most represented country amongst the foreign player contingent in the league. Indian players have definitely benefitted from playing this kind of technical game and this has attributed to the development of the likes of Brandon Fernandes, Rowllin Borges, and Suresh Singh Wangjam who could become mainstays in the national team for years to come.

Also See: ISL 2020-21: NorthEast United FC score late equaliser to hold Chennaiyin FC to 3-3 draw

ISL 2020-21: SC East Bengal and Odisha FC look to end season on winning note

ISL 2020-21: Kerala Blasters, Kibu Vicuna part ways after club fails to qualify for playoffs

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