A Legion Longing for Longevity || Know Your Opponent ft. Hyderabad FC

 A Legion Longing for Longevity

11 June 1963 was a dark day in Indian football. It was the day which marked the passing away of a revolutionary, a fighter, an orchestrator, and arguably the greatest ever footballing influence the country has ever seen and ever will. Syed Abdul Rahim, lovingly known as the Grand Old Man of Indian Football, had a short playing career but was deeply involved in the proceedings of Hyderabadi and Indian football. He became one of the founding members of Hyderabad FA in 1939 and became its secretary four years later. He coached and scouted players for Hyderabad Police (renamed Andhra Police in 1956) for the last 13 years of his life where he championed the Durand Cup four times, the Rovers Cup eight times, the Santosh Trophy twice with Hyderabad, and meanwhile also leading the Indian National team to clinch the Asian Games Gold Medal twice in ’51 and ’62. 

The 1950 Durand final is when Rahim declared himself and Hyderabad as the answer to the traditional giants of Indian football as they defeated Mohun Bagan 1-0 in the replay after levelling terms from a 0-2 trail in the first final (back then if a knockout match was drawn, it was replayed again). Hyderabad Police were a dynamic and adaptable team who would tweak their approach depending on the scenario, which led them to numerous comebacks against mighty clubs like IFA, Gorkhas, MB and EB. Off the field, his influence was crucial in the establishment of player and coach training problems, running of inter-school tournaments and inflow of monetary grants from AP Government. 

1962 Asian Games winning Indian football team (Collected from Stars Unfolded Website)

It can be said that he was the sole reason of the continuance of dominance of the Andhra Police, unlike other remarkable institutional teams who withered away after one good set of players. Thus, after his death, this team too began its fall from grace. There was nobody now to scout, develop and arrange funds for the young talents as they were swayed away by the big three in Kolkata. Eventually, factionalism in the 80s put the final nail to the coffin of a once grand football hub of the country. So, in 2019, when former Kerala Blasters CEO Varun Tripuraneni partnered with businessman Vijay Madduri to acquire majority stakes in a financially struggling FC Pune City and relocated the club to Hyderabad, donning the famous yellow and black colours of the Andhra Police, it was an emotional moment for the football fanatics of Hyderabad and enthusiasts across the country. 

I. Getting Things Started

“When you're making such a decision it's also a motivation to revive that history and you want to bring back the glory days of Hyderabad football and that was a strong point for us.”

In a podcast with Khel Now TV released on 18 Jan 2021, Varun Tripuraneni spoke about his motivation behind going all out for his football club, and the challenges they faced in their first season.

“Off the pitch you know we hardly had any time to work on our training pitches because that does make a massive impact for the team performance. We didn't have the luxury of time at our disposal; the main pitch as well had a lot of work to be done, infrastructure at the stadium. There was a massive investment which went in for the flood lights itself so we were sort of prepared that we just have to get through the season.” 

“We didn't really have any expectations in terms of where we want the team to finish; we obviously didn't want to finish last but that's where we sort of ended up.”

Hyderabad FCs first season (Courtesy: ISL Media) 

So, that was Hyderabad FC’s welcome story in a nutshell. The season began with a 5-0 defeat to a rejuvenated ATK under Antonio Lopez Habas, which was followed by a 3-1 defeat at Jamshedpur, their first goal being scored by ISL legend Marcelinho Leite. Quite poetically, their first win came against the team their owner was the former CEO of, a victory at home over Kerala Blasters. They only won one more game throughout the season (5-1 against North East), drew four while lost twelve games in total, having to concede an embarrassing 39 goals. The team had largely inherited the struggling Pune City FC squad, thus quite obviously Phil Brown even after trying his level best couldn’t get what he asked from his players.

II. Rebuild to Glory

It was a much improved Season 2 for the Nizams as they narrowly missed out on the playoffs even after losing just three games, but drawing 11 out of their 20 games is what prevented them from making the cut. They had signed a world class coach in the form of Albert Roca, but he ended up being so world class that he was called by Ronald Koeman to become his assistant at FC Barcelona. Thus, hastily the club brought in another top quality name, Manolo Marquez Roca. After drawing four out of their last five games, FC Goa, under Juan Ferrando, leap frogged them on the penultimate match day to get the fourth spot. This began the now famous rivalry between two Spaniards, Juan and Manolo. Guided by his expert developmental prowess, it was the breakout season for full backs Ashish Rai and Akash Mishra and CB Chinglensana Singh as the team conceded 20 less goals compared to their first season, from the worst number of concessions to the team which conceded the third lowest number of goals, and also scoring six more goals than previous season.

Unlike other ISL club managements who probably haven’t heard the phrase “second chance” in their lives, and are prone to sacking their coach even if the team misses on the playoff spot by a single point, the ambitious folks at Charminar City decided to trust on Manolo Marquez for a second season and they got their reward for their patience, in form of the ISL trophy itself. They were very close to losing out in the final, if not for that Sahil Tavora banger from outside the box which took things to penalties against Kerala Blasters. It was just after somehow managing to sit through Juan Ferrando led Mohun Bagan’s attacking onslaught in the second leg of the semi finals which did end up being a 1-0 defeat for the Nizams, but they already had taken a comfortable 3-1 lead in the first leg. Just a few days before that, they missed out on the ISL Shield after losing out in the deciding fixture between themselves and Coyle’s Jamshedpur, due to multiple key players missing out after catching COVID-19.

HFC Celebrations after winning ISL 21-22 (Courtesy: ISL Media)

It was the season the performances of Akash, Ashish and Sana reached their crescendo as they were the second lowest goal conceding team, only after shield winners Jamshedpur, and meanwhile also scoring the most goals among all teams, thus ending the regular season with their joint record best goal difference of +20, a statistic which was maintained even in their next season. Up front, it was another ISL legend, big Bart Ogbeche who scored 18 goals from 32 shots on target. Joao Victor, Joel Chianese and Siverio Toro registered 6 goal contributions each. They had 11 different goal scorers and 14 different assist providers, which goes to show the freedom given by Manolo Marquez to all his players, meanwhile also assuring that someone was there for cover when a deeper player ventured forward. His coaching tactics, training sessions, pep talks and psychological influences is regarded as one of the best ever managerial performances the ISL, if not Indian football, has ever seen. It is to be noted that it was all done by a three year old club which ranked 7th in terms of squad value. 

2022-23 ended up being another so close yet so far season for Hyderabad, both in the League as well as the championship. Even after ending up with four more points than their ISL winning run, Manolo’s boys couldn’t taste that elusive league shield as Mumbai City FC went on an invincible run to the shield. In the semi-finals, they yet again met that annoying Ferrando whose Mohun Bagan put up one of ISL’s best defensive displays across the two legs and eventually progressed to the final on penalties. A deeper tactical discussion on Manolo Marquez will be made in our Know Your Opponent of FC Goa to be released on 21st December, 2023.

III. Adios Manolo and Financial Struggles.

It was all smooth sailing for the club in terms of on field performances, but it was the rather opposite behind the scenes. The first signs of worry started when reports arose Hyderabad FC had not cleared the due salaries of many players. FIFA took note and immediately suspended the team from engaging in transfer related activities until the dues have been cleared. It was a player from their first ever ISL season, Nestor Gordillo, who complained to FIFA that his salary was not paid. They eventually managed to clear the dues and were able to register their signings for the 23-24 season, which included Vignesh Dakshinamurthy and Jonathan Moya. Due to the financial crunch, they had to let go of their starmen who had been wooed by superior prospects. Akash Mishra went to Mumbai, Bart Ogbeche, who had turned 39, was also let go. Other major departures included winger Halicharan Narzary and Rohit Danu to Bengaluru, Siverio Toro and Borja Herera to East Bengal and crucial defender Odei Onaindia to Goa. Another individual who went to Goa, was none other than their maestro, their messiah himself, Manolo Marquez.

"(Last season was) very, very difficult. There was more merit (in last season's performances) than when we were ISL champions. When you are playing, and not receiving salaries, and the team continues winning, it's very difficult.

"This is the reason in practically every press conference I said these players deserve a monument in the middle of Gachibowli (Stadium) or the city. For me, the owner is a good person."

"If I have to tell you something, it's that Hyderabad missed Sujay Sharma a lot. This is my opinion. He's one person that I argued with, fought with him, but he's very smart and a very good person. He's with Mumbai (City) now. This is for a reason."


Such were the words of Manolo in an interview to the Times of India after joining Goa. In November 2023, after complaints by many more players and coaches, Hyderabad yet again received a transfer ban from FIFA. Such was the dire state of the finances. While it's not exactly clear as to what caused such a distasteful environment in a club who achieved so much in so little time, it can probably be attributed to a lack of financial planning. Through Manolo’s honest hard hitting words; “For me, the owner is a good person” and that “Hyderabad missed Sujay Sharma a lot”, it can be inferred that this dire state was not caused from a lack of intent or motivation, rather than a lack of vision and planning. After all, Varun Tripurapeni himself discussed his inexperience in owning and managing football clubs in the Khel Now podcast by saying it was his first big ownership after a stint with a local Chennai club.

Although, probably all hope is not lost. There already were some reports that there is an investor from the Middle East who is interesting in funding the club. Now, quite recently @90ndstoppage has exclusively confirmed on November 26 that some “major reshuffling” and “off the pitch changes” are expected. Now, these words imply more towards the club management positions side and not that of an entirely new investor, but if this new investor rumour happens to be true, this will be the second ISL club to be funded by Middle Eastern Corporations, the other being Mumbai City FC. The only difference in this investment that it is still not clear whether this investor has affiliations to any Government or gets its income from the oil industry. Atleast, it can be said that the club would then be able to come out of their financial tension and will be able to continue their project in full swing.

IV. ISL  23/24 + The Road Ahead

It is an undeniable truth now that the honeymoon period at Gachibowli is over. The 17k capacity stadium was built in 2002 to host the Afro-Asian Games. It has a cantilevered roof which gives unobstructed vision from every part of the stadium, making it a delight for every spectator to enjoy the glorious few years of their local team. 2023-24, quite expectably is now not a season for such expectations. After the first seven games, they are the only team along with new entrants Punjab FC to have not won a single game. After suffering defeats through a solitary goal margin against East Bengal, Jamshedpur and Chennaiyin in their first three games, they drew against 10 men Mumbai, staged comebacks against Bengaluru and Punjab FC to level the scores, and then lost to Kerala away 0-1.

In their first three defeats, they lined up in a 4-2-3-1 with Joao Victor forming the pivot either with Finnish midfielder Pennanen or with Sahil Tavora. Mohammed Yasir was put in the CAM or LW, while Australian winger Joe Knowles was switched between both wings. The back line featured Poojary and Vignesh as full backs, with either Oswaldo Alanis or Nim Dorjee pairing with Sana in the center, and to finish it off at the top, an Indian striker Aaren D'Silva. After failing to win a single game with this formation, their de-facto head coach Connor Nestor (de-facto cause due to coaching license issues he cannot be registered as head coach, and thus officially is an assistant) made a remarkable formational change to a 3-4-3 (in build up) and/or a 5-4-1 (while defending). 

Vignesh was dropped for young left wing back Mark Zothanpuia, who came through the SAIL Bokaro U16s, joined Pune City FC U18s and moved on to Hyderabad reserves after the takeover. Nikhil Poojary initially shifted to the right wingback role, with Joe Knowles and Bengaluru FC youth product Mohammed Rafi playing that role in subsequent matches. Such radical changes are required for this team, especially at a time they have probably understood that their chances of making it to the playoffs is next to none. So, giving chances to youngsters will probably make the best out of this season, especially in times of financial crises where already proven players cannot be afforded. 

HFC Avg. Formation against (Sofascore) CFC (L) and JFC (R) highlighting the absence of a proper winger leading to an important attacking channel getting closed off

Before a deeper discussion into the latest 3-4-3 approach, a few points need to be put forward regarding why the 4-2-3-1/4-3-3, a formation Hyderabad FC is synonymous with was ditched. Although the team was lined up on paper like that, the actual positioning on pitch was far different from that. The primary problem was that due to failure to buy a proper winger, one of the wings was totally switched off (left against Chennaiyin, and right against Jamshedpur), as the team tried to make quick passes through only one channel to move forward. Pennanen shifted to one side, while Yasir was found in the central zones. Occasionally Joe Knowles would shift wings but overall, there was lack of support from the left, as evident from Hyderabad FC’s average positions. A consistent attack from both wings to stretch the defense is crucial in a 4-3-3 system such that enough spaces between the defenders can be generated to provide the ball to the lone striker. 

So has this tactical change worked? Maybe. After 3 defeats and a draw with the 4-3-3, this new style has yielded them 2 draws which followed a defeat at Kochi. There has been a notable general improvement in the pleasantness of the buildup, which has become lot more varied and distributed compared to the one channel dependent moves in the first four games which were being tackled easily by overloading that side of the pitch. Also, after generating just 2 big chances in the first four games, that number has tripled in the next three, which brings us to the most important problem this team is facing this season: Poor finishing. After entrusting Aaren D'Silva with the job up top, his inability to position, receive and finish chances became apparent as Jonathan Moya was put in his place in the more recent games, but he too hasn’t performed well in that role. They have missed 6 of the 8 big chances they have created this season. Maybe if Joao Victor was played along with Pennanen in the central mid, while sacrificing Alanis, the foreign CB, then a formidable creative pair can properly aid Joe Knowles and Jonathan Moya by creating even more chances, which is the topmost priority now given the poor finishing which is currently plaguing the team.

The switch from 4-3-3 to 3-4-3 ensured both wings were being utilised effectively (Courtesy: @totalf0otball on X)

In purple: Pass map against JFC

In red: Pass map against KBFC

Now, xG (expected goals) is a model which determines how many goals a team should have scored by considering various factors such as distance and from goal, position of defenders and GKs etc. This is built upon by another cool stat xGOT (expected Goals on Target) which determines how well the chance created was utilised by the shooter. If xGOT is less than xG, it indicates that the shooting quality is sub par, and vice versa. In their first four games, the players generated an xG (expected goals) of 3.33 while only an xGOT (expected Goals on Target) of 1.87. Within the next three, they matched their xG of 3.33 while also performing better in xGOT (2.04). Thus, the gap between xG and xGOT goes to show that HFC lack serious firepower when it comes to putting the ball into the net, which might help put a number to the attacking woes this season. If this difference continues, HFC will lose out on nearly 9 goals by the end of the season. Also, Joe Knowles and Aaren D'Silva have the second and third highest numbers of attempts on goal without scoring this ISL season.

When it comes to the individual performances, Nikhil Poojary, Sana, Joao Victor, the most prominent of the “old guard” of the club have performed their roles commendably. Joe Knowles’ runs down the wings and cheeky wing rotations have also troubled opponents. Apart from the attackers, another player who seems to be performing to his potential is Petteri Pennanen. He has completed the 6th highest number of key passes among all players this season (11), but his movements and positioning seem to be a bit out of order. In the absence of Joao Victor, and lack of distributive skills of Sahil Tavora (observed from the lack of strong connections in the red pass map above), he forced to operate from a very deep position which takes away the creative fervour from the central attacking mid, making the attacks mostly wing focused.

Read More : Know Your Opponent ft. Jamshedpur FC

The charming city of Hyderabad, with such a glorious history in this game, had again got a source of footballing pride through another team donning the yellow and black. Orchestrated by the brilliant Manolo Marquez, this team dominated the Indian footballing landscape for 2 good seasons, but it all seems to be spiraling out of control this time around given the dire off field situation. All of this seems like a fast forwarded version of that Hyderabad Police team which got immense success largely due to the prowess of a single man, after the departure of whom things went south. Hyderabad fans, and the greater Indian football enthusiast fraternity can only pray that such a thing doesn’t happen again and the current cuts and bruises will slowly but surely be healed over time.

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