ISL Preview: SC East Bengal & NorthEast United FC
This article was written for and published in the November 2020 Issue of Stadium Echo Magazine – an all-encompassing magazine, started by Ritwik Khanna, that covers Indian Football. Download the ISL Special Edition from here: https://www.stadiumecho.com/the-magazine and read previews of the other nine ISL clubs as well.
SC East Bengal
SC East Bengal’s maiden ISL campaign is set to begin with a blast – against their arch-rivals, ATK Mohun Bagan, in India’s biggest club game – the polarising Kolkata derby – on November 27 at the Tilak Maidan Stadium in Vasco.
The confirmation of their inclusion in this season’s ISL came in late September, meaning that manager Robbie Fowler and his seven-member support team – including assistant coach, Renedy Singh, and Indian football’s first specialist set-piece coach, Terence McPhillips – received a truncated pre-season to work with their squad.
In this short period, the club has moved quickly and brought in some quality domestic and foreign stars to give their team a smooth blend of experience and energy. The Liverpool legend resorted to tried and tested international players as he mainly recruited from Brisbane Roar, a club that Fowler formerly managed, and Wigan Athletic.
Brisbane Roar’s right-back Scott Neville arrived first and was followed by the striker, Aaron Amadi-Holloway. Seasoned centre-back, Daniel Fox, and, attacker Anthony Pilkington, were brought in from Wigan, while Jacques Maghoma and Matti Steinmann were the other overseas signings that strengthened the midfield.
From the domestic market, East Bengal’s pick of the lot was the striker, Jeje Lalpekhlua - a two-time ISL champion with Chennaiyin FC. Besides bringing him on board, the Red and Gold Brigade have also elevated their quality in most areas of the pitch, at least on paper, by adding skillful players like Balwant Singh, Narayan Das, Gurtej Singh, Eugeneson Lyngdoh, and Md. Rafique among others.
Fowler has been fairly vocal about the type of football he envisions his team to play. While he doesn’t want to entirely limit his team with a rigid philosophy and wishes them to adapt according to the situation, he also insists that his team will play attacking, possession-based football which would involve short intricate passes, a polyphony of runners in the attacking half of the field, constant pressing, and a relatively high-defensive line.
While Fowler and his staff were short on time, they surely aren’t short of player options. Finding the right balance in the starting XI would be the manager’s utmost priority. He’s likely to install the likes of Fox and Singh at the heart of his defence with Neville and Das monitoring the flanks. Fowler would also be banking on his leading striker, Jeje, to form a good connection with Pilkington and Amadi-Holloway. Players like Rafique, Lyngdoh, Maghoma, and Steinmann are anticipated to be important figures in the midfield. The 21-year-old Yumnam Gopi Singh, an exciting attacking midfielder who displayed his skills for Bhawanipore FC in the recently-concluded I-League qualifiers, is another player to watch out for.
Fowler has landed on a club of enormous stature which boasts of a vast, passionate, and opinionated fan-base. The lack of in-stadia support would most definitely be a boon instead of a blessing, yet the Bangal Brigade would demand nothing short of an exciting, joyful, and respectable debut season from their team.
NorthEast United FC
The 2020-21 ISL season would be the seventh season in the top flight for the Guwahati-based NorthEast United FC (NEUFC) – a club which is a representative of eight states from the north-eastern part of the county, namely: Assam, Nagaland, Manipur, Meghalaya, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Tripura, and Mizoram. The Highlanders kick off their campaign against Mumbai City FC on November 21 at the Tilak Maidan Stadium in Vasco.
It has become almost ritualistic for NEUFC to begin their new season with a new manager, and such is the case for the seventh time as well. The 35-year-old Spaniard, Gerard Nus – a UEFA Pro License holder, a former member of Liverpool and Brighton’s backroom staff, and ex-assistant coach at Melbourne Heart and Ghana national team – has been handed the reins of the club, making him the youngest-ever manager in ISL history.
In an attempt to mend their leaky defence, which conceded 30 goals in 18 games last season, the Highlanders spent big and ushered in seasoned overseas defenders like Dylan Fox from A-League’s Central Coast Mariners and Benjamin Lambot from Cyprus’ Nea Salamina Famagusta FC. Furthermore, experienced Indian players with rich ISL or I-League exposure like right-back, Ashutosh Mehta; left-back, Gurjinder Kumar; and, goalkeeper, Sanjiban Ghosh have also joined the ranks. Like a foil to these wise-heads, young, home-bred defenders like Rakesh Pradhan and Nabin Rabha would provide the apt depth and competition to the Highlander’s defensive line.
If NEUFC’s defense was a matter of concern last season, their output in front of the goal was downright shambolic. The Highlanders managed to net merely 16 goals in the whole of last season – the lowest in the league. Nus and his team have tried to redress that problem by bringing in the two centre-forwards: Guinea’s Idrissa Sylla and Ghana’s Kwesi Appiah, along with the Portuguese winger Luis Machado. The Highlanders would wish that one of them comes close to replicating Bartholomew Ogbeche’s 2018-19 feat of scoring 12 goals in 18 games.
While Greece’s Federico Gallego, the club’s all-time top assist provider, will continue to marshall the midfield, a few exciting additions like Mauritania’s Khassa Camara, formerly Mohun Bagan’s Britto PM, and locally-developed, NEROCA FC’s Imran Khan have been brought in to aid him in supplying the new strikers. Meanwhile, 20-year-old Lalengmawia and 19-year-old Ninthoinganba Meetei, both former starlets of Indian Arrows who broke into the first team last year, are expected to continue growing in stature.
Nus has asserted that he desires his team to play offensive football, but won’t impose a hard-line, inflexible ideology on his players, rather he would base his philosophy on the type of players that are at his disposal. He has asked his team to toughen up, cultivate a fighting mentality, and make things happen by adapting to and fusing with the external situation and the culture.
In their six-year stay in the ISL, the Highlanders have qualified only once for the playoffs – a feat they achieved in the 2018-19 season under Eelco Schattorie. While it’s a given that they would expect to better their last season’s points tally of 13, their ambition might be to cross the 20-point mark – a threshold that they’ve reached only twice – and somehow sneak into the playoffs.
Download the ISL Special Edition from here: https://www.stadiumecho.com/the-magazine
PC: khelnow.com, espn.in