ISL Review: SC East Bengal
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The shortness of their pre-season and the haphazard fashion in which they sneaked in the ISL always meant that the odds were against them, but even the most liberal section of the Red and Gold Brigade would not have anticipated such a dismal season, both on and off the field, where they would end up in the ninth in the table, with a meagre tally of 17 points and three wins.
Considering how we are conditioned to understand the world around us through negation, in binaries, by comparing opposites, the fact that ATK Mohun Bagan, their arch-rivals, did a double over them and went on to finish as runner-ups, would have only piled on the misery for the SC East Bengal faithful.
Summary of the Season
With a 2-0 loss in the first-ever Kolkata Derby in the ISL, Robbie Fowler’s team started just the way he would have dreaded. Things only went downhill from there. They gathered their first point in their fourth game against Jamshedpur FC; lost four out of their first five games; scored their first ISL goal in their fifth outing against Hyderabad FC; and remained win-less after seven matches with just three points to show for.
After the turn of the year, with the arrival of new signings, SCEB’s fortunes changed slightly for the better as they won their first game against Odisha FC in their eighth match. In this period they embarked on a seven-game unbeaten streak which was ended by a 1-0 loss versus Mumbai City FC.
Despite their patch of relatively good results and upsurge of form, the Red and Golds culminated the season on a low. Surrounded by controversies off the field, they accumulated only one point from their last four games, lost the last three, and, in their terminal game against last-placed Odisha FC, let in six goals – only for the second time in their history after 1947 versus an Indian side.
Where did it all go wrong?
Having the third-worst defense in the league and leaking a whopping 33 goals, it is no secret that SC East Bengal lacked the kind of defensive assurance that is vital for having a successful league season. A solid centre-back pairing goes a long way in stabilizing the team, and the Red and Golds never landed upon such a pairing. The foreigners brought in to do the job, Daniel Fox and Scott Neville, were underwhelming. The frailty of their defense is reflected in the fact that throughout the season, it was only once for a run of three games that Fowler fielded an unchanged backline. Additionally, his team was not helped by the number of red cards they picked up (5) – meaning that one of out every four games, they were stranded with 10 men on the pitch. Furthermore, neither of their goalkeepers were consistently impressive, rather they were often an element of anxiety. In hindsight, it is not surprising at all that the team ended with only three clean sheets.
On the other side of the pitch, things were also not merry. Scoring only 22 goals, five of which came in the last match, their attacking output was also the third-worst in the league. Their inability to net goals stemmed from not having a proper centre-forward; lacking pacy wingers to widen the pitch; and the want of an insightful creative midfielder. The Welsh star, Aaron Amadi-Holloway, who was supposed to play the number nine role, struggled with injuries. Indian strikers like Jeje Lalpekhlua and Balwant Singh are already past their prime, and barely got any minutes. As a result, Anthony Pilkington, who impressed occasionally in patches, had to play as a make-shift striker, and that remained like a fix rather than gain for the team. The arrival of Bright Enobakhare in January was a much-needed injection of life for the attack-line, but it was too little, too late.
If there were problems on the field, there was no shortage of them off it. While it is worth noting that SCEB did not have the best lot of local players; were hampered by a significant number of injuries; and encountered some appalling refereeing decisions, but how the management dealt with these predicaments was self-sabotaging. Alongside throwing his players under the bus on numerous occasions, Fowler served suspension twice on disciplinary grounds – one of them was a 4-match-ban for allegedly making making "insulting
remarks" on the match officials after the FC Goa game. Tactically also, he was unwilling to make adjustments to the high-intensity, possession-centric style of play that he had envisioned for his team, despite not having optimum resources for the same.
The things that kept the Red and Gold Brigade hopeful were the performances of Bright, the midfield duo of Matti Steinmann and Jacques Maghoma, and the team’s quick-witted business in the January transfer window in general.
Bright’s introduction brightened up the SCEB front-line, as it brought joy and spark to it. Despite playing only half a season, he ended up as the league’s most successful dribbler, with 56 dribbles. He was involved in four goals, three of which he scored himself. His Messi-esque solo golazo against FC Goa is one of the highlights of the season.
Steinmann finished as the club’s leading goal-scorer and assist-provider with four goals and three assists respectively. Maghoma, who also scored three goals and provided one assist, was the team’s most featured player (19), leading interceptor (27), and highest passer (825).
Ideally, the Red and Golds would want to learn and extract as much as they can from their first ISL season, alongside building-up on their relatively good January transfer window. A strong and refreshing pre-season would be on the mind of the coach and the players. However, the club, as of now, is surfing in troubled waters as they are in a disagreement with their investors, coupled with the possibility of serving a two-window transfer ban for non-payment of salaries to footballers signed by erstwhile investor Quess Corp.
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