Punjab FC : A Success Story Waiting to be Told || Know Your Opponent ft. Punjab FC

Punjab FC : A Success Story Waiting to be Told

As the dawn of a new Indian Super League (ISL) season approaches, the excitement among football enthusiasts across the nation is palpable. The ISL, known for its star-studded line-ups and high-octane matches, offers a fresh canvas for teams to paint their aspirations. Defending champions Mohun Bagan welcome the freshest face of the league, Punjab FC on 23rd at the Salt Lake in the opening fixture for both teams. Emerging as the new entrants into the ISL, Punjab’s ticket was punched through a stunning conquest in winning the prestigious I-League. 

Punjab’s journey to this point has been nothing short of remarkable, defined by attractive dominating football, and a potent mix of Indian youth talent with a deft and skilful foreign contingent. The match against the Mariners is a chance for the Mohali Warriors to make their mark in the topmost division. This showdown marks the beginning of a new chapter in Indian football, where history and ambition collide in a match that promises to set the tone for an unforgettable ISL season.

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Part 1: “If you don’t succeed, try, try, try again”

I. Unexpected entry

Punjab FC's ascent to the top tier of Indian football was a story waiting to be told. Back in 2016, when Minerva Punjab FC found themselves surprisingly entering the I League due to the Goan club boycott saga, they were, let’s just say, a bit clueless. "Our players didn't even know each other's names until about the third game," says Ranjit Bajaj, the owner of the club. They barely managed to survive on the final matchday which they began on the bottom of the table. Mumbai FC lost their game but the Minervans managed to pull off an incredible 4-4 draw against DSK Shivajians with their equalising goal coming in 4 minutes into injury time.

II. Indian Leicester City

Next season, they had different plans. After intense scouting, they brought in multiple foreigners in the midfield and forward, three of which became instrumental in their I League run, namely William Opoku, Kassim Aidara and ‘Bhutanese Ronaldo’ Chencho Gyeltshen. They scored majority of the goals between them, and combining with the young Indians from the academy such as Sukhdeep, Kamaljit, Amandeep and Gagandeep, they held on their winning position till the very end, thus doing a Leicester City in the Indian league. 

Just like with any breakout team in any league in the world, it gets nearly impossible to maintain the same level of performance the season after as all their primary players are snatched away by elite clubs, and Minerva Punjab were no exception. After a rather underwhelming 2018-19 season finishing only above Indian Arrows, they started a rebuild from scratch again, leading to a third place finish in the 19-20 season, equalling the points tally of second place East Bengal.

III. So close, yet so far

After another impressive season, fans again feared that their best players would again be taken away from them, but this time around, there was a new name in the equation, a certain Round Glass Sports. After a 100% acquisition, the investors revamped the youth system of the club and provided access to professional coaches and scouts. They managed to retain their successful academy players like Akash Sangwan, Kiran Limbu, Hormipam Ruviah, Bikash Yumnam and Sourav Das, Chencho Gyeltshen came back for his second stint, along with Mohun Bagan stars Joseba Beitia and “Baba” Diawara, who led them to a second place position in the regular season. The champions dream was alive until the team couldn’t compete with the other top clubs in the championship season and ended up finishing 4th. 

A similar scenario played out next season, when they finished 3rd in the regular season and were underwhelming in the second championship half, ending 5th among the top 6. Although the decline in position was not huge, a deeper problem emerged. Their transfer window before that season was rather underwhelming, which led to accumulation of deadwood from ISL and I  League clubs in a team which was known for its dependence on its academy with expert foreign scoutings. This is exactly when Punjab FC reinstated their faith in the philosophy which had gave them their first I League back in 2018. 

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Part 2: “Arise, awake and stop not till the Goal is reached”

I. The Grand Rebuild

A new batch of academy graduates such as Maheson, Abhihek and Freddy were trusted onto the first team.  Loaned in players included Valpuia, Naocha Singh and Pranjal Bhumij from Mumbai City FC and Ajay Chettri from Bengaluru. Free Indian transfers included Samuel and Daniel from Odisha, Deepak Devrani from Chennaiyan, Brandon Vanlalremdika from Mohammedan, Suresh Meitei from Army Red and Mohammed Salah from Sreenidi among others. Among foreigners, club legend Chencho Gyeltshen was brought for the third time (in winter), Luka Majcen and Juan Mera were welcomed from Gokulam and NEROCA respectively, and Aleksandar Ignjatovic was scouted from the Albanian League, all for free. The team was rebuilt with ISL and I League players again, but this time the players were comparatively younger, and most of them had their breakout season that year. 

II. A New Mentor

Courtesy : ISL Media

There was also another significant change, a new manager, a certain Staikos Vergetis. “I came from Greece and was associated with one team which participated in the Europa League for three consecutive years. And in my mind, I had a model where the tempo of the game is very fast. The players have to think fast, take correct decisions and execute them quickly. This is something I found difficult on my first day here. In India, there is talent, there is quality in the Indian players. But we, and all the other teams, need to improve the intensity of the game. We can build this up from the training; pushing the players to think fast, make fast decisions and execute them correctly.”, said Staikos in an interview before the commencement of the 22/23 season. 

“We are trying to build a team that likes to have possession of the ball. We want to be a team that opens up the field, keeps the possession and tries to find ways to break the opposition’s defence and score goals. I don’t like my team to sit back and wait for the opponent and only play on counterattacks.” 21/22 Punjab FC played a mostly flat 4-4-2 under Dutch coach Ed Engelkes. This did help them by utilising their fast wingers who would send a lot of crosses and cut backs into the box, but such a system didn’t prove as effective against the bigger teams, who dominated the midfield since Punjab mostly had 2 CMs, whose inexperience proved costly as the late attackers were left unmarked. New head coach Staikos had none of it. He oversaw a transfer window of 27 arrivals and assembled a group who could play in a more possessive and balanced approach.

III. Overview of 2022/23 season tactics

Their primary line-up last season was mostly a 4-2-3-1. The defensive duo formed among Hmingthanmawia (Valpuia), Suresh Mettei and Igjnatovic was supported by a double pivot of Freddy Lallawmawma and Ajay Chettri. Wingers Chencho Gyeltshen and Juan Mera made central runs trying to dribble past the opposition full backs while being covered by aggressive full backs Naocha Singh or Md. Salah and Khaiminthang Lhungdim. Brandon Vanlalremdika and Maheson Singh Tongbram played beautiful passes through the spaces from the attacking mid position and joined the attack late to find cut backs or strays. Luka Majcen, physically strong and aerially dominant, wasn’t shy in dropping down to draw in a defender thus finding gaps for Chencho and Juan. The build up had a good mix of long balls and short passes due to the good distribution skills of goalie Kiran Limbu.

The attack was primarily created by foreign recruits Juan Mera and Luka Majcen. Through his sharp turns, phenomenal vision and clinical passing, Juan Mera was instrumental in the attacking successes. Similar creativity emerged from the left wing once Chencho Gyeltshen was brought back in January. Both wingers always preferred to invert into more central positions, supported by full backs in the wings, while Freddie and Ajay Chettri ensuring counters are delayed, giving enough time to Punjab players to organise their defense. In both of these screenshots, the final scorer ended up being Juan Mera.

Out of possession, the team played a high press, with atleast 3 players, 2 from defense or 1 winger 1 defnder along with one of the pivots trying to win back the ball. Due to presence of two DMs, I League teams, which generally have lesser central creativity, were forced to go wide, where the touchline itself acts as an extra defender for Punjab. The solid defense along with exceptional goalkeeping from Kiran Limbu helped them keep an impressive 12 clean sheets. They had the most goals scored (45) and the second-fewest goals allowed (16), just behind Gokulam Kerala. They held Tau Devi Lal Stadium, their home field in Panchkula, as a fortress, going the entire season unblemished, securing 10 victories, and drawing just once to Rajasthan United. Interestingly the only two times they lost (4-0 to Sreenidi and 2-0 to Trau), they had one of their two talismen missing, Juan at Sreenidi while Luka at Trau, thus showing their influence in controlling the possession of the ball.

Throughout the I-League campaign, they etched their name among the big teams of Indian football with their scintillating attacking displays and an unwavering dominance that left fans and pundits alike spellbound. At the heart of their success was an ambitious, exciting, and exceptionally talented young Indian contingent, whose raw potential combined seamlessly with the skills and physicality of their foreign counterparts. The result was a symphony of footballing excellence that brought consistent victories and a sense of pride to their devoted supporters.

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