A Quest for Quality | Know Your Opponent ft. NorthEast United FC

 A Quest for Quality

The Highlanders Brigade unfurling Asia’s largest hand painted tifo before their first game of ISL 23/24 (Courtesy: @HighlanderB8 via X)

When a 15 year old Zohmingliana Ralte stepped foot into the Mohun Bagan academy back in 2005, little did he know he would score the winning goal for Aizawl FC 12 years later against his first ever club to shatter their chances of winning the I League, meanwhile assuring his own team of the coveted title. It was a foggy afternoon at the Rajiv Gandhi Stadium at Aizawl, but Khalid Jamil and his cunning men had the clearest of plans to churn through the decider. It was a bunch of lads with exceptional stamina who would run up and down the pitch with intensity and vigour and assure their presence both in attack in defense, all assembled at a miniscule budget of 2.5 cr INR. 

The Indian National Football team as we know today will not be complete without atleast three to four players hailing from the North East, with the first and second football divisions showcasing a plethora of budding talents and seasoned stalwarts across every position possible, be it David Lalhansanga baffling Indian football enthusiasts with his wonder goals or be it established Jeakson Singh who forms the heart of the midfield at Kerala Blasters and the National team or Thangboi Singto who is the current head coach of Hyderabad FC, but, presence of players from that part of the country is comparatively a newer trend.

The story starts from the establishment of a residential academy at Delhi by B.V.P. Rao, the visionary director of the Special Area Games of the Sports Authority of India which focused specially on players from the North East and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. This interest arose from the marvellous performances from schools in the North East in the Subroto Cup, and soon enough this gamble of the residential academy paid off as two players, Kiran Khongsai from Manipur and Jewel Bey from Assam represented India at the ’89 SAF Games. And it happened to be another academy founded during this time period that became THE outlet for players from the North East, i.e. the Tata Football Academy at Jamshedpur.

Baichung Bhutia after winning the ’97 Federation Cup final, the game in which he announced himself in Indian football (Courtesy: The Bridge)

Soon enough, India’s greatest ever goal machine Baichung Bhutia came from Sikkim, joined East Bengal and his performances served as an announcement for the arrival of the North East as the biggest talent hub of the country. Over time, countless greats of Indian football have hailed from this region, which has been well documented in arguably the most comprehensive handbook on Indian football, ‘Barefoot to Boots’ by the legendary Novy Kapadia. The book quotes Santosh Kashyap, a North-Eastern football expert explaining that the slopy landscape of the hills and mountains, combined with the lack of public transportation has helped develop the athleticism of the players while also describing football as ‘a way of upward social mobility’. 

Once North-Eastern players and clubs came into the limelight, their initial successes of the pioneers created a positive feedback to their communities leading to more enthusiasm from residents and thus more openness to allow the children to pursue the game. When it comes to the clubs themselves, Aizawl FC and Shillong Lajong FC (estd. 1983) are still impressing in the I League, with the latter going undefeated 8 games into the 23/24 season, after which getting defeated 0-3 by Aizawl themselves in front of a full house at Shillong. Due to such an immense fan following, it was logical to have a club from this part of the country in the glittering Indian Super League when it was announced in 2014. Thus, it was an aptly named NorthEast United FC which came through the partnership of Bollywood star John Abraham and Shillong Lajong FC who committed their players onto the new ISL outfit. 

I. Shaky Start, Sturdy Comeback

Owner John Abraham with the players (Courtesy: NEUFC Media)

It was a last place finish for NorthEast United FC in their first ever campaign but in no means the performance was as bad as the position. They totalled 15 points in 14 games, with 3 victories and 6 draws. Even converting 2 draws into wins would have ensured a playoff finish due to the highly competitive nature of the 2014 ISL as only 4 points separated 4th from 8th. Rehenesh TP turned out to be one of the most impressive goalies of the tournament, pulling off some incredible saves as the team only conceded 13 goals, third least after Goa and Kerala who both qualified for playoffs. What lacked was the attacking performances as none of the strikers scored a goal even after multiple player and formational changes and it was upto attacking mid Koke to manage both creation and finishing. Other Indians who impressed were Durga Boro and Len Doungel.

They had to undergo a major rebuild in not only the foreign but also in the Indian contingent as by the end of the 2015 season, Lajong had decided to end the partnership to focus more on their youth development and now NEUFC had to bring in players of their own. They mostly loaned in players such as Siam Hanghal from Bengaluru, Yumnam Raju from Pune FC (not to be confused with Pune City FC), Reagan Singh from Royal Wahinghdoh FC among others. These players along with Sanju Pradhan, bought from Salgaocar, were the impressive Indian players of the season as North East finished fifth after losing out to Delhi Dynamos in the penultimate match thereby the playoff spot. The attack improved remarkably due to Nicolas Velez, Diomansy Kamara and Simao Sambrosa but due to Miguel Garcia’s injury, the defense struggled to keep up with yesterseason’s standards.

2016 happened to be a repeat of their previous season as they lost the crucial last match to Kerala Blasters preventing their top 4 spot, which instead went to ATK who went on to champion the ISL. They somehow managed to have three head coaches throughout the season, Ricki Herbert, Cesar Farias and Nelo Vingada. Due to the break of partnership with Lajong and failing to retain the foreigners, the team struggled with continuity, lack of leadership and low chemistry, which got highlighted even further in their 17/18 season where they finished bottom in the 10 team ISL table, with only 3 wins and 2 draws. 

II. Up, Down, Up, Down, Down

NorthEast United FC's Redeem Tlang celebrates after scoring against Bengaluru FC in the 2018-19 semifinal clash (Courtesy: ISL Media)

After an abysmal season, the Highlanders turned things around with their first ever playoff finish. This was a testament of the clubs ambition to not settle as some minnows of the league, rather be a challenger for the title. The season marked some brilliant player and managerial changes. New coach Eelco Schattorie commanded the likes of an omnipresent Federico Gallego, ISL’s all time high goalscorer Bartholomew Ogbeche. It also happened to be the redemption for Rowlin Borges who was struggling after his impressive 2016 season. They had a painful exit after maintaining a single goal lead till the 72nd minute in the second semifinal against Bengaluru, but Miku and eventually current EB assistant coach Dimas Delgado and Sunil Chettri put their names onto the scoresheet late into the game. Bengaluru would eventually go on to win the ISL.

After such an impressive season, NEUFC brought in multiple promising youngsters such as Nim Dorjee from FC Pune City, Apuia and Ninthoi from Indian Arrows, and gave them quality gametime thus playing an important role in shaping them into the ISL stalwarts they are today. What lacked was the attacking flair as a season ending injury to their star foreign striker Asamoah Gyan led to them only scoring 16 goals in the season, the lowest in the league. It seemed that NEUFC were heading for another period of mediocrity, but much to the surprise of their fans, these investments into the promising young players, especially Apuia and then brining ample squad depth into the attack would lead to a third place finish in the 20/21 season for the club.

Sacking a head coach at the middle of the season mostly corresponds to a poor season by a club, but NEUFC 20/21 were a very rare exception to this. After a 7 game winless streak, Gerard Nus parted ways, and assistant coach Khalid Jamil was promoted to the top job. Yes, that Khalid Jamil who once took the underdogs Aizawl FC to the pinnacle of Indian club football, which he nearly repeated once again with another club from the North East. 6 wins and 4 draws in 10 games ensured a semi final berth, but afterwards the team got blocked from the final due to Manvir Singh’s winning goal in the second leg against Habas’ Mohun Bagan.

NEUFC players celebrate their 2-0 win over East Bengal at the Tilak Maidan Stadium in Vasco in 20/21 season (Courtesy: ISL Media)

In a repeat of the 19/20 season, their 21/22 was yet again plagued with failure to replace crucial departures and having their attackers injured. Fede Gallego got out for the entire season, while Brown struggled with his hamstring. Apuia, Neenthoi and Nim Dorjee made big money moves to Mumbai, Chennai and Hyderabad respectively, but the bets on the new set of youngsters didn’t pay off. This strategy is pretty high risk high reward, depending on whether things click for the youngster and what support they get through the foreigners and more experienced Indians at the club, somethings which the team lacked at the time.

It all spiralled to an all time low after everything which could possibly go wrong, went wrong. A sub par manager with confusing tactics, letting go the crucial players and late haphazard unplanned signings led to a solitary win on Christmas eve against eventual ISL Champions Mohun Bagan and two draws against East Bengal and Goa were the only results which added an embarrassing all time ISL low tally of 5 points. Later in the season, Vincenzo Alberto Annesse, who was brought after sacking Balbul, improved the performances significantly but by then it was a team with a shattered team morale who just wanted to get through, rather get out of that embarrassment.

III. A NEU Spark

“Mandar comes with a wealth of information, with a wealth of experience managing the Indian football team for five years, working with Bengaluru FC before that for ten years. He brings in a lot of experience into my head when he came here. So I am more relieved and happy to have Mandar on board,” John Abraham, Owner, NEUFC to NEUFC Media.

After the lowest ever points tally by any team ever in the ISL, North East had to do something to recover from that embarrassment, and took multiple positive steps in the build up to the new season, with the hopes of making their 22/23 season performance as the inflexion point towards a trend of better performances. On May 16, Mandar Tamhane was appointed as the new CEO of the club. He “built Bengaluru FC from scratch, and even though he wasn’t alone in turning the club into a trophy-winning machine his role as the chief technical officer and later chief executive officer cannot be understated,” writes Marcus Mergulhao for the Times of India.

Within six days of his appointment, NorthEast signed their new head coach, Juan Pedro Benali. He had made Moroccan football his area of expertise as he served the roles of head coach, chief executive and sporting director of multiple Moroccan clubs and achieved commendable performances with them. He also looked over the Spanish Sports Academy in UAE from 2010 to 2014, thus he would fit perfectly with the vision of NEUFC of bringing forward the best talents from that part of the country, while also having the experience to guide the first team players.

Juan Pedro Benali on ISL Media Day (Courtesy: ISL Media)

Thus began a complete overhaul of the team at every possible position. Most of the fringe and under performing Indian players and foreigners of last season were let go, while they successfully preserved their important assets such as Romain Philippoteaux, Parthib Gogoi, Jithin M.S, Manvir Singh, Gani Nigam, Mirshad Michu, Tondonba Singh, meanwhile welcoming the likes of Dinesh Singh, Asheer Akhtar and Phalguni Singh from Sreenidhi, Moroccan international Md. Ali Bemammer, Brazilian Ibson Melo, Spanish-Palestinian Yaser Hamed, and Michel Zabaco and Nestor Albaich from the lower Spanish divisions. 

So began season 2023/24 and after 9 games, they have already totalled double the number of points from yester season and are only 4 points behind levelling their tally the season prior. After beginning the season with a 1-2 loss at home against defending Premiers Mumbai City FC, they won 3-0 over Chennaiyin FC, followed by two 1-1s against Punjab and Kerala Blasters, a 2-1 win over Jamshedpur, then defeats from Odisha 0-1 and East Bengal 5-0 and 1-1 draws against Bengaluru and Hyderabad. There was a brilliant momentum in the team in the first few games but lately they have not won for 4 matches due to a multitude of reasons such as decision making in front of the goal, suspension of Bemammer against EB, Parthib’s injury against Hyderabad, and also a plethora of errors by hot and cold goalie Michu. 

NEUFC after experimenting across multiple permutations and combinations but preserving the 4-3-3 approach have settled on the organisation of Asheer, Zabaco as CB pair, Tondonba and Dinesh as full backs, Bemammer pairing with Gani Nigam in the lower part of the midfield while Romain and Nestor combing in the forward zones with the support of wingers Parthib (now Phalguni after his injury) and Jithin M.S. At the beginning of the season, the put Manvir up top but his poor finishing skills has made him lose his spot as a starter. Phalguni still is being experimented across a multitude of positions and roles across the midfield and wings. 

NEUFC Pass Map during their 1-1 draw with HFC (Courtesy: @totalf0otball via X)

The team’s best attacking card in the first few games has been Assamese Parthib Gogoi, whose ankle breaking cut ins from the left wing followed by world class dipping curlers has led to three goals to his name (from a combined xG of 0.09 from those three shots which led to goal!), after which surprisingly he was shifted to the right wing, from where he was unable to replicate his signature move. It has been Jithin M.S in his position now, who has got the pace and stamina to run around and win balls but lacks in front of the goal. With the defensive reassurance of Bemammer, it is the combination of Romain Philippoteaux and Nestor Albiach that creates the highest threat. Romain prefers to operate slightly from the left while Nestor from the right but it is not a fixed approach and multiple interchanges can be spotted. 

This ensures that the two attacking outlets are complimenting and supporting each other. Their combination with Jithin, Parthib, Phalguni, Gani among others have led to many goalscoring chances. Now, when it comes to converting them, the absence of a proper finisher is what plagues them. Nestor although is exceptional as a deeper forward, but is not complete when it comes to having a threatening shot power and accuracy, and has only a goal to his name from an xG of 2.9, while Philippoteaux seems to overcomplicate things in efforts to clear out every obstruction before taking a shot and ends up messing a clear goalscoring opportunity.

Action distribution show leftward positional trend of Romain Philippoteaux (Viz: @statpeekers on X)

Higher number of touches towards in the right flank, although significant numbers in other regions too. Shot locations biased towards right too for Nestor. (Viz: @statpeekers on X)

When it comes to defense, it has been a topsy turvy affair. Firstly, to address the elephant in the room, goalie Mirshad Michu alone has been at the fault of several school boy errors which have directly led to concessions of goals. Otherwise he has pulled off some incredible saves, he leads all other goalies when it comes to saving shots from inside the box and runs out, thus proper decision making will help him become a better version of himself. Now a big factor when it comes to analysing the Highlanders’ defense, the 5-0 loss to East Bengal needs to be highlighted in which the absence of Bemammer was very apparent. With an 83% tackling accuracy and 65 ball recoveries from the most important zones of the field, the Moroccan is arguably the most important player of the season cause the team in a single match had to concede 38% of goals against across 9 games. 

Michael Zabaco has been impressive overall as he ranks in the 73rd percentile (among all other ISL players in his position in that particular stat) in tackles won, and the 81st percentile in recoveries, while his partner Asheer has made 6 more recoveries than him. Both of them are excellent in air and have a single goal to their name each. Left back Tondonba Singh wins over the CB pair when in comes to recoveries, while also intercepting the ball 10 times, while right back Dinesh Singh is in the 80th percentile when it comes to successful long balls and also a respectable 44.4% cross accuracy, putting him in the 92nd percentile. Although this defense has conceded a lot, it is no doubt impressive and proper support from the midfield and the goalie keeping his focus has the potential to make this one of the best ones in the league.

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