ISL Review: NorthEast United FC
Song Recommendation: Winning Hearts And Minds by The Times https://open.spotify.com/track/7fH77Qta27I0GkZT9rhvFH?si=2a88ae6dccf3408d
In a season where the brilliant Mumbai City FC topped the league and secured the championship after beating ATK Mohun Bagan in the playoff finals, they were not the solitary club that stole the show. It was also Khalid Jamil’s NorthEast United FC that received accolades from experts and won the hearts of thousands with their heartening performances.
From a team that finished ninth last season; retained merely 10 of their previous players; had no local players from the national team; and only 13 players from the entire squad had formerly played in the ISL, nobody took them as serious playoff contenders. But, under Jamil’s guardianship, they exceeded all expectations and ended up third in the league standings with 33 points and just three losses. If it weren’t for Luís Machado’s uncharacteristically shocking penalty against the Mariners in the second leg of the semi-finals, who is to say that they might not have pulled off the unthinkable.
Summary of the Season:
Entering the season with Gerard Nus as the manager, the Highlanders began on the high as they defeated Mumbai City FC, one of the biggest fishes of the league, 1-0. Nus’ team’s stable start continued as they embarked on a six-match undefeated streak (4 draws, 2 wins), which was, at that time, a new club record. The Spaniard employed a well-machined, hard-to-break-down defensive system, wherein his team principally sat back and waited to counterattack.
However, soon their good form wore off as they lost three of their next five games, drawing the other two. They missed a multiplicity of chances and found it difficult to score goals. In the games in which they did manage to score, their defense faltered. After the 1-1 Bengaluru FC game, sitting seventh in the table with 12 points from 11 games, the club hierarchy made a daring decision of parting ways with Nus, as they were not satisfied with his defensive philosophy and aimed for higher than a mid-table finish.
Then entered Khalid Jamil with his magic wand. The interim head coach of the Highlanders turned their campaign on its head. His NEUFC went on a nine-game unbeaten run as they finished third and made the playoffs, only for the second time in the club’s history. In the process, the Highlanders defeated the big guns, ATKMB and MCFC, as well as Jamshedpur FC, Kerala Blasters, Odisha FC, and SC East Bengal.
In the first leg of the semi-final against the Mariners, NEUFC extended their unbeaten run to ten after Idrissa Sylla equalized deep in stoppage time, and kept the Highlanders interested in the tie. In the second leg, Jamil’s team was completely blown away in the first half by Antonio López Habas’ tactical brilliance. However, despite going 2-0, they bounced back late in the second half. Machado had the opportunity to level the game in the 83rd minute, but he blasted his penalty high, and brought an excruciating end to a season that had been outstanding, to say the least.
High Points of the Season:
The impact that Jamil made on the club was the loftiest highlight of the Highlanders’ season. With his exploits at I-League clubs like Aizawl FC and Mumbai FC, it was already known about him that he is a pragmatic coach who is great at man-management and working with a team under the constraints of a small budget. Yet, the kind of influence he exerted was colossal. After his introduction, there was instilled a renewed fearlessness and fire in the attitude of the team, which did not leave till the season lasted. By reaching the playoffs, he also created history as he became the first Indian coach to achieve this feat.
Without compromising on the defensive side of things, Jamil addressed the attacking issues that the Highlanders were facing under Nus. While both the managers coached 11 games, Jamil’s NEUFC scored seven more goals; conceded two less; upped their average possession by 11%; and hence, won four more matches than Nus’ NEUFC.
In the aftermath of the season, Jamil has been hailed as a talisman-like figure who would give hope to other Indian coaches and perhaps encourage more franchise owners to put their faith in native managers.
The Highlanders’ success was not centered around one player, rather it was a unified effort. The balance and defensive assurance provided by the ever-present midfield duo of Khassa Camara and Lalengmawia, aka Apuia, was enormous. The latter was also declared the ISL Emerging Player of the League. Also, both of them were first and second in the club’s passing (816 and 811), tackles (110 and 93), and interceptions (50 and 46) charts respectively. Their laborious work enabled the team’s linchpin, Federico Gallego, to play freely and creatively. He was the team’s leading assist-provider with six, to go along with the four goals that he scored. Deshorn Brown's arrival in January was another landmark event as he scored five vital goals in 10 appearances. Machado, NEUFC’s leading goal-scorer with seven strikes, and, the right-back Ashutosh Mehta, also had impressive seasons.
Low Points of the Season:
In a season like this, there were not many low points, however, the seven-match winless streak under Nus, where the Highlanders let in 12 goals, scored only seven, and lost three games, was definitely one of them.
Brown’s hamstring injury during the business end of the league also hurt NEUFC critically as they managed to score only two goals in the semifinal tie versus ATKMB.
The biggest let-down for the Highlanders was their abysmal shooting in the second leg of the semi-final. Out of 18 shots that they hit that night, only six were on target, and just one went in. Barring Machado’s missed penalty, numerous other chances should have gone in, but they were flashed high or wide.
First and foremost, the NEUFC owners must break their streak of entering a new season with a new manager, and, without a drop of a hat, make Jamil their permanent head coach. Additionally, retaining the core of the squad alongside making a few significant signings should also be a priority.