Indian Super League: Kerala Blasters impress in Nelo Vingada debut but still struggle to score

The second half of the Hero Indian Super League started with a bunch of positives for two-time finalists Kerala Blasters, with new coach Nelo Vingada tweaking the system to offer more attacking freedom to his players. Unfortunately for the home side, the freedom only translated into chances and not goals, as they played out an entertaining 1-1 draw against ATK.

Here are three talking points from the first match of the second half of the fifth season of Indian Super League

1) Old habits die hard

Vingada has begun his stint at Kerala Blasters with the same structure he used while he was the manager of NorthEast United in 2016 – a 4-1-4-1 formation with Nikola Krcmarevic playing the shielding role in the midfield. Luckily for the coach, the team he inherited were used to playing a similar system, which meant very little tinkering was required.

The difference was that in David James’ side, the onus was on the front-two, often played by Matej Poplatnik and Slavisa Stojanovic, to score the goals while the wingers whipped in crosses. Against ATK, Vingada’s Kerala had just one target man in Poplatnik, while Stojanovic occupied a deeper position in the midfield. Blasters’ plan was to play to play the ball into Poplatnik’s feet, who would then look for runners from the midfield with a first-time pass. Midfielders took turns to support their primary striker, depending largely on the zone of play. Seiminlen Doungel (Len) was a constant threat cutting in from the left wing, while young Sahal Abdul Samad had another outstanding game, orchestrating everything from the midfield. Prasanth, playing in the right wing, worked tirelessly as Vingada’s side dominated most parts of the match. The defence looked well-balanced too and had the game in control throughout the match.

While the system looked promising and chances were created in galore, Kerala were haunted by the same ghost from the past when it came to actually converting those chances. Len, Prasanth and Stojanovic missed sitters while Poplatnik and Sahal also made goalkeeper Arindam Bhattacharya skip heart beats with their attempts. On another day, the score could have been 4-1 in favour of the home team. But we’ve been saying this about Kerala a lot, right?

The new coach is confident about ending the goal-scoring woes though Kerala, who have just scored 13 goals in as many matches, have very little support in the bench who are proven goal-scorers.

2) Building for the future

With the January transfer window open, Kerala Blasters were expected to add some players to their squad after a disastrous first half of the ISL campaign. But the opposite has happened, with experienced players moving away from the club, while youngsters were signed as a replacement. Vingada had even confirmed to journalists that the decision to loan Holicharan Narzary wasn’t his but the management’s. The January transfer plan actually goes in sync with what they did in the summer too, by signing the likes of 2017 Under-17 World Cup stars Dheeraj Singh and Mohammad Rakip. So what is Kerala thinking?

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A place in the playoffs is realistically unachievable for the Kerala team, so they are instead focusing on building a strong Indian core in the team. The young Indian players, especially Sahal and Len, have shown how game-time in top-level football can be a catalyst in the growth of footballers. Rakip and Dheeraj have been playing a lot too, which means the ISL franchise is prepared to wait a season or two, to unlock the potential in the Indian players in their ranks. A lot of teams promote young players to sell them in the future but Blasters seem to be cultivating stars to make their own future brighter. It is a bold strategy but Floyd Pinto and the Indian Arrows have shown in the recent past in the I-League that consistency and belief can go a long way in getting the best out of young players.

With CK Vineeth and Narzary gone, youngsters Boaringdao Bodo, Nongdamba Naorem, Jithin MS and co, will all be hopeful of playing for the senior team in the near future, especially with Vingada confirming in the post-match press conference that it is very unlikely his club will be making any more signings in the window.

3) Where is the Manjappada?

A new manager and a new year aren’t, unfortunately, good enough reasons for the Blasters faithful to make a return to their home. The home support against ATK, although loud and appreciative of the team’s good work on the field, was still underwhelming. Only 4582 fans turned up for the match in a 45000+ capacity stadium.

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The Manjappada (Yellow Army) are arguably the largest football fan-base in the country but their stand-off with the Kerala management, largely due to the team’s decisions to not sign ‘quality players’ and play a ‘boring brand of football’, has affected the stadium attendances badly.

Hopefully, Vingada’s appointment and the positive football against ATK will bring the crowd back. Football certainly needs Kerala!

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