CHENNAIYIN FC: Every Cloud has a Silver Lining || Know Your Opponent ft. Chennaiyin FC

 CHENNAIYIN FC: Every Cloud has a Silver Lining

I: Nalla aarambam paadhi vettri
“A Good Start is Half the Victory”

It’s 2014. India is experiencing a transformative period where innovation and progress are sweeping across various fields. From politics and technology to entertainment and space exploration, something new and exciting is unfolding in almost every sector. In sports, legendary boxer Mary Kom and wrestler Yogeshwar Dutt have just won the gold medals in the Asian games, while Dipa Karmakar has become the first female gymnast to score the first ever international medal for the country in the sport at the Commonwealth games. But right now, the biggest buzz in the Indian Sports scene arguably is a franchise based football league, a Super League. 

Indian Football now has its’s IPL equivalent. While most other teams have been finalised by late August, there is utter chaos with the Chennai, and potentially Bangalore franchise. After Sunil Gavaskar’s proposal to set up a team at Chennai fell through after a Supreme Court order making him the interim president of BCCI, Sun Group showed interest in having a franchise from Bangalore, which when didn’t materialise due to unknown reasons, Bollywood superstar Abhishek Bachchan and the Dani Foundation, and later Mahendra Singh Dhoni, joined forces to finally provide a club from Chennai. 

Chennaiyin FC dressing room in 2014 ISL (Courtesy: Chennaiyin FC Media)

Time was running out, and things had to be done quickly, but they ensured that no compromise was made in the player quality. A strategic mix of youth with experience was established. Balwant Singh, Jeje Lalpekhlua and Shilton Paul were brought from Mohun Bagan, while their city rivals East Bengal saw Abhijit Mondal and Harmanjot Khabra move to the Marina. The foreign contingent was arguably the strongest in the league where the youngest marquee player of the season, Elano Blumer combined magically with young forwards Stiven Mendoza and Bruno Pelissari, and supported by accomplished French defenders Mikael Silvestre and Bernard Mendy at the back, Chennaiyin FC would finish the regular season of the first edition of the Indian Super League at the top of the table. 

They scored the most goals, 24 from 14 games, but also conceded the most goals after Mumbai City, as their player-manager, none other than the headbutt receiver Marco Materazzi adopted a high momentum play style where the team would move up quickly in numbers, a philosophy which also exposed them at the back on multiple occasions due to the sub-par pace of an aged Silvestri. The season ended with a 3-1 win vs Kerala Blasters at home at the second leg of the semi finals, as they couldn’t recover the deficit from the 3-0 loss at Kochi. Due to a foreigner injury crisis, the team just wasn’t strong enough for the knockouts, even after brining legendary Italian defender Alesandro Nesta later into the season.

For the second season, the ambitious investors aided an incredible transfer window where the team not only retained their most influential players, but also was bolstered by the additions of Atletico de Kolkata talismans Fikru Teferra up front and Edel Bete at goal. With the departures of Gourmangi Singh and Silvestri, an experienced Mehrajuddin Wadoo was brought in, while Harmanjot Khabra was transitioned from the midfield to the defense. Although the team looked solid on paper, that did not reflect on the field at all as the team found themselves languishing at the bottom of the table with a 10 points after 10 games. The defense again struggled with maintaining their structure and committed rash challenges leading to them conceding an embarrassing amount of 8 penalties. The attack was overly reliant on only Elano and Mendoza, and when teams could properly mark those two men, it turned out to be a rather easy victory for the opposition. 

But it was not all over, since ISL 2015 was still an 8 team tournament, so no team could ever be out of contention for playoffs. Chennaiyin had a lot of factors in favour for their last four games. The teams they would face were struggling too, three games were at home, while Jeje Lalpekhlua picked up an incredible goal scoring form as a 4 out of 4 victories ensured a 3rd place finish. The goals continued to flow as Atletico de Kolkata were humbled 4-2 on aggregate in the semis, and a fairytale comeback against Goa in the ISL final with 2 goals in the 90th and 91st minutes completed the comeback of dreams from the very bottom to the very top in just 7 games. Chennaiyin had just won their first ISL!

Stiven Mendoza celebrates after scoring the 91st min winner in ISL Final 2015 

(Courtesy: Indian Super League Media)

II: Veedhal Ezhupan Veeran 
“A warrior who falls will rise again”

After a wild campaign, the Nandri Machans again found themselves struggling to find victories, as lack of concentration by the defense often led to equalisers and late wins for the opposition team as they found themselves in a near exact scenario as the previous season after 10 games, the only difference this time being that such a comeback could not be pulled, as they finished second to bottom at the end of the season. Marco Materazzi’s lack of confidence which was evident in the press conferences, rather the lack of them as he nearly stopped talking to the media, led to him parting ways with the club at the end of the season. It was not all sorrow as the team continued impress in the attack with the second highest number of goals scored after Delhi Dynamos as Dudu Omagbemi, Jeje Lalphekua, Raphel Augusto and Jerry Lalrinzuala had commendable individual seasons. 

It was high time now that the defense, their primary problem since their inception, had to be finally galvanised, which happened through the names of Henrique Sereno and Mailson Alves in central defence and Inigo Calderon at right back. Also a transfer masterclass of Indian players from CTO Amoy Ghoshal led to new additions Bikramjit Singh, Dhanpal Ganesh, Francis Fernandes along with their promising contingent of Jeje, Karanjit, Jerry and a young Anirudh Thapa being retained. Under new coach John Gregory, they played more practically under a 4-4-1-1 which was more favourable for the skillset of the group. Gregory’s adaptability is probably what set him apart from the other coaches that season who were stuck with their own philosophies as Chennaiyin would yet again champion the ISL. They didn’t have the superstars, they were only 6th when it came to the number of goals scored, but they had the experience needed to churn out victories in crucial games and sustain leads. 

John Gregory with 2017-18 ISL trophy

(Courtesy: Chennaiyin FC Media)

The winner’s curse struck again as the team finished dead last the following season with only 2 victories and 13 defeats. What went wrong? An absolute failure in the transfer window. The management hoped that the same set of players would bring in the good performances again and hardly made proper replacements to their departures. A season ending injury at the heart of their midfield to Dhanpal Ganesh, along with Jeje Lalpekhlua disappointing in the attack, and having no other alternatives, Chennaiyin scored the least amount of goals in the league as well as conceded the most ending the campaign with an embarrassing -16 goal difference.

. . .

"When I was a player-coach, I remember my manager saying to me, 'Listen, Coyley, You've got to understand. When you become head coach/manager in your own right, not everyone is going to be as enthusiastic about football as you.' And I said I don't understand that. I still don't. I simply cannot understand that. Because to go out there and be able to kick the ball and that's your livelihood? It doesn't get any better than that." These are the words of Owen Coyle in an interview with ESPN before the 19-20 season ISL final. Born to Irish parents in Scotland, Coyle had built an impressive managerial resume after helping Burnley get promoted to the top division of English football after 33 years and nearly making to the finals of the League Cup after defeating Chelsea and Arsenal in 2008. After continuing his success as Bolton, he might not have achieved much on field success in his subsequent stints, but his fighting spirit had never failed to impress.

Coyle came in after Gregory left at a time the team was stuck at bottom position after 6 games and instilled his passion and deep understanding of the game into the rebuilt team lacking chemistry. A staunch believer in attacking football, the Marina Machans rampaged the league with an 8 game unbeaten streak, winning 6 of them, thus causing a near repeat of their 2016 season, the only difference this time around being that they couldn’t overcome the hurdle of the ISL final against Habas’ Kolkatan giants who netted in 3 goals with only 31% possession of the ball. Throughout the season, he took multiple bold decisions such as shifting Vanspaul from the right back to the midfield to pair along with Anirudh Thapa, who by then had become a fan favourite. He was instrumental in shaping Lallianzuala Chhangte into the ISL Golden Ball winning winger as he is today and setting up the ideal conditions for the Lithuanian forward Nerijus Valskis to become a cult hero of the club.

Chennaiyin FC players celebrate their win against FC Goa in 2019-20 ISL semi-final first leg

(Courtesy: Saikat Das / SPORTZPICS for ISL)

III. Kazhtham vanthalum kappal kattum

(Even if there’s hardship, the ship will be built)

The Chennaiyin faithful yet again had to endure one of the troughs in their osciallating journey in the ISL. With Jamshedpur FC snatching away not only their clinical forward Neijus Valskis, but also their grandmaster Owen Coyle himself, their replacements were just not deft enough. New forwards Jakub Sylvestr and Esmael Goncalves had a season to forget as they scored only 6 goals between them. The season was marred with the lack of chance conversion, which is evident from them topping the chances created table. Although they were defeated only one more time compared to last season, they drew 11 games which could only get them an 8th place finish under new coach Csaba Laszlo. Also injuries to their midfield maestros Rafa Crivellaro and Anirudh Thapa was an important factor in the lack of key and progressive passes in the final third.

Chennaiyin were desperate to succeed again, but this desperation probably what cost them of a better 2021-22 season. ISL managements have been notorious for changing coaches judging only through on field performances, not taking into consideration th role of other factors which can be tweaked to take the team back to winning ways. The new coach’s carelessly aggressive 3-5-2 tactics wasn’t digested well at all by the team which conceded more than twice the number of goals they conceded ending up 8th, yet again. Nerijus Valskis was brought back amid much fanfare but his finishing abilities had taken a sharp drop by then. Player transfers, especially in the foreign department were disappointing to say the least with their primary creators and forwards being aged 33, 33, 32 and 31. There’s a point after which age catches up and only experience doesn’t help.

Now this brings us to last season, a season of so much potential but everything breaking down due to bad luck, and worse defending. Scoring 36 goals, more than the team had ever scored in a season, joint 2nd highest in the league along with Hyderabad and Goa, and still ending with a -1 goal difference is the summary for the disappointment with Thomas Brdaric’s group. Apart from Thapa, pretty much every position had a new face as the management undertook an admirable transfer window. Their attack was lit up by Moroccan magician Abde Nassr El Khayati, Peter Sliskovic, Julius Duker, Kwame Karikari, Vincy Baretto and even Akash Sangwan as they toyed with opposition defences producing some magnificent team goals.

El Khayati and Sliskovic in their 3-7 win against NEUFC

(Courtesy: ISL Media)

The same couldn’t be said on the other side of the pitch. The defense didn’t have any constant face as the side experimented with 5 different players at center-back, 5 at full back and 3 at goalkeeping position, none of the permutations and combinations yielding any stability as the team left huge gaps in and around the box for deft poachers across the league to have ample time to finish the chances given. “Rome wasn’t built in one day” said Brdaric towards the end of the season which brought out multiple promising youngsters such as Jitheswor Singh, Sajal Bag and Samik Mitra, who would now look onto the very latest season with a glimmer of hope, as Chenniyin FC try to find something from their glorious past through the return of a special someone who had orchestrated remarkable successes at the club, his excellency Owen Coyle.

What Coyle did at Jamshedpur FC needs no explanation. In a repeat of his first stint at Chennaiyin, he reinstalled the fighting spirit in a demotivated team, brought out the best out of the Indian players yet again, and conquered the ISL shield in an incredible fashion with the highest ever points tally in the league till then. Just imagine him managing our national team someday. After returning home due to personal reasons at end of 21-22, he spent few months at Queen’s Park FC in the Scottish 2nd division where they missed out on direct promotion due to a final matchday loss and then failing to make it though the playoffs. His influence at Queen’s Park is evident as now they sit 7th in the Championship after 8 games with 5 consecutive defeats. Although with the club hero being back along with a lot of promising signings, Chennaiyin FC have failed to score a goal yet in this season after two matches, while conceding 5.

2023/24 Initial Impressions

Although the results prima facie are sub standard, a deeper look into some aspects of the game along with a few stats might paint a clearer picture of the initial problems faced. It’s not about the lack of attack, rather about the quality of it. 

The Odisha match produced a rather baffling stat as Chennaiyin, although having a mere 39% ball possession, happened to gain authority of 70% of the field tilt. What’s field tilt? Divide the field into three parts, the defensive part where the team’s goal is, the midfield part and the attacking part, where the opposition goal lines. Now in the attacking part or the attacking third, if a team makes 40 touches, while the opposition takes 80, then the ratio becomes 1:2 or 33% to 66%, thus the teams share 33% and 66% of the field tilt respectively. Now why is this weird stat necessary? It helps explain the effectiveness of the possession a team has, since a team might pass around the ball in their defensive third which is not as threatening as passing it around in the attacking third.

Courtesy: @totalf0otball on X (Twitter)

On observing the pass map of Chennaiyin in the match vs Odisha, it is apparent how the ball was mostly played between Battocchio, Jitheshwor, Akash Sangwan, Crivellario and Shields high up the field which pushed back Odisha in their own half. The Juggernauts had a great start to the match just before heavy lightning caused a one-hour break, after which Chennaiyin enjoyed most of the attacking momentum. In typical 19-20 Owen Coyle fashion, the AM was more of a second striker in an official 4-2-3-1 turned 4-4-2 mostly. This was possible due to the dependability of Cristian Battocchio who has arguably been the best player in the team in these two games. Crivellaro, who is now on his second stint, seems to have dropped out of his former flair after a major injury as he has been not upto the mark in creating big chances.

Courtesy: @totalf0otball via X (Twitter)

The team has put a lot of hopes on wide play due to presence of Farukh, Akash Sangwan and Ninthoinganba Meetei, especially in the North East game as the lack of central progression is pretty evident from the pass map and also the fact that Chennaiyin have the highest number of crosses played this season (50). Also, it has to be noted the attacking momentum mostly rested in favour of the Highlanders in their second match. In the midfield, the two matches had an important variation. Ayush Adhikari started the first match towards the right but he didn’t shy away from entering more central spaces, while the encounter versus North East saw Ninthoi acting acting a proper winger, at right in the first half, and then switching to the left, making blistering runs into the box which led to a few chances being created, either directly through he himself taking the ball, or indirectly where his run drew a defender out position for Shields or Crivellaro to attack the space created, with Ayush Adhikari replacing Jitheshwor Singh in the mid field along with Battocchio.

Battocchio’s vision being used to find multiple options along the wings, half spaces and the center from the “Zone 14” (Courtesy: ISL on JioCinema)

Within the limited chances created, new striker Connor Shields has been pretty wasteful too, the biggest let down being missing a free header arising from a perfect Sangwan cross. On the other end of the pitch, it won’t be unfair to say that Chennaiyin have been rather unlucky with their goal concessions. Their first goal concession against Odisha came from a moment of magic by Jerry, the second being from a misinterpreted back pass by Ankit Mukherjee towards Bikash Yumnam which was intercepted and eventually put into the net by Diego Mauricio, while in the North East game, they couldn’t have done anything to stop those two golazos by Parthib Gogoi and Asheer Akhtar. The second NEUFC goal probably was the only time their defensive line and failure to catch the late runner, in this case Pahlguni, was exposed. Even their current xGA (Expected Goals Against) stands only at 1.62, which can maybe justify the poor luck claim.

CFC’s wide approach with Crivellaro nearly being a second striker makes them less dominant in the center of the park as 3 v 2 or 4 v 3 scenarios are created against typical 4-3-3 teams like OFC or NEUFC (Courtesy: ISL on JioCinema)

Mohun Bagan’s first two matches and possible approach

After nearly avoiding an embarrassing draw against Maldivian club Maziya in the AFC group stages through an injury time winner by Jason Cummings, the players will be back to the ISL after a 5 day break. A match which brought out the over confidence and casualness of certain players, the team will surely be a lot more focused and alert at the Marina Arena this Saturday. It can be inferred that Ferrando will have made a few changes from his original line-up plan since a lot of main players had to play till the later stages of the match to churn out the victory. Liston, Sadiku, Cummings and Boumous played the full 90 minutes which might put them out of the starting line-up, but a 5 day recovery still seems sufficient for the best possible 11 to start the game. Juan’s new unique 3-5-2 formation with a highly fluid and dynamic midfield has led them to back to back victories against Punjab and Bengaluru. 

Mohun Bagan currently have the joint most goals scored (4) (along with Odisha, Mumbai and North East), have the highest shots attempted (30) and have the best expected Goal Difference among all teams, which shows that the balance between attack and defense has been maintained until now. The back line of Anwar, Hector and Subhashish, and sometimes even wing backs Liston and Manvir, has been rock solid as the team leads the tackles won chart (23), with surprisingly Liston Colaco winning the most tackles (6) among all players in the league! After ensuring an expected comfortable victory in the game against Punjab, they followed a stiff challenge against Simon Grayson’s ultra defensive Bengaluru side but a positional error from Parag Srivas was capitalised by Boumous as he ensured the only shot on target for the Mariners that day was the difference maker. 

Mohun Bagan’s 3-5-2 gives them a lot of advantages in the midfield where they can numerically dominate or equal the number of opposition players and also attack where two strikers, one of which prefers to drop or move on to the wings to draw defenders out of position. Manvir and Liston’s timely trackbacks are very crucial in such a system, and they have been consistent in doing so till now. The build up generally consists of Boumous moving towards a flank and combining with Liston/Manvir to find the third man which can be Sahal or a dropped down Cummings or Petratos, then Boumous or Sahal making a blistering acceleration into the half space before squaring it to one of the forwards, or further sending the ball towards Liston and Manvir who can target the free men inside the box. A 5 man attacking line of Sahal, Cummings, Petratos, Liston and Manvir can also be observed sometimes with Boumous dropping very low along with Thapa which somewhat mimics Battocchio’s role described in a picture above. 

Mohun Bagan general setup (Courtesy: ISL on JioCinema)

The match against Chennaiyin will bring on a new philosophical challenge in front of the Mariners. Bengaluru and Punjab mostly operated on a single striker meanwhile the defending ISL champions would face two very attacking individuals in their first away game. The tactics implemented at Chennai will be somewhat similar to those utilised against Odisha FC where the 3-5-2 alternated with the 4-4-2 as both Hector and Hamill had started due to AFC foreigner quota being more relaxed and Subhashish Bose being the wing back, thus the two CBs could easily take on the 2 forwards Krishna and Mauricio with Thapa and Manvir available to take possession of the second ball and start the attacking move as fast as possible. Since ISL limits the foreigner count to 4, Subhashish will be the CB with Liston operating slightly lower than he usually does.

Possible lineup combinations (CFC vs MBSG)

The Chennaiyin FC faithful have endured their fair share of disappointments in recent seasons, as their beloved club struggled to find its footing in the highly competitive landscape of Indian football. However, there's a renewed sense of optimism through the recent developments. The dawn of this new era for the Machans has promised much, but like any transformation, it has faced its fair share of teething problems. The early matches of the season have not exactly gone according to plan, but there's an unmistakable feeling that this season holds the potential for something special. The key to unlocking their true potential probably lies in the gradual development of team chemistry. It might not be an epic comeback the club has witnessed previously in certain season but a process of slow growth supervised by a remarkable coach who has proven his worth many times now in the footballing scene.

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