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ISL 2022: How Kerala Blasters turned it around to reach playoffs after five years


It wasn’t long ago that Kerala Blasters appeared to be heading in one direction. In the last three seasons, they finished 9th, 7th and 10th. And when ATK Mohun Bagan put four past Kerala in the opening game of Indian Super League (ISL) this season, or when pundit Pradhyum Reddy put his mane on the line (predicting no goalless draws for Kerala in the season), only to tragically lose it after the very next game Blasters played. It was easy to assume that it would be a familiar script for Kerala yet again. 

Instead, Blasters have played their best football in the ISL and made it to the playoffs for the first time in five years. A remarkable feat after a season where it finished last but bottom.

Ivan Vukomanovic, the club’s 10th head coach in eight years, has rightly been credited for the turnaround. Behind the scenes, too, the management has played its part.

Remember the days of ‘chip the ball to the striker’s chest and we take it from there’ under David James?

Vukomanovic’s Blasters have accumulated the best points tally and best goals record in its short history in the ISL. Photo: ISL Media

 

Karolis Skinkys, who was appointed sporting director in 2020, has been instrumental in signing young domestic talent — Prabhsukhan Singh Gill, Nishu Kumar, Sandeep Singh, Lalthathanga Khawlhring, Sanjeev Stalin, Ruivah Hormipam and Vincy Barretto – over the last two seasons. They have all stepped up to the plate, donning key roles in the transformation. And with Sahal Abdul Samad, Ayush Adhikari, Jeakson Singh, Prasanth K, Rahul KP and Bijoy Varghese already in the books, Blasters have a core Indian group with an average of just 22 to build on for the future.

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However, the biggest stumbling block over the years has been in getting the foreign component right. In an interview with Sportstar last August, Vukomanovic said he wouldn’t be drawn to the big names in the transfer market. 

“We want players who will bring something extra, make a difference, and will be capable of playing under pressure. I like seeing my players giving everything and making the jersey wet,” said the Serbian.

 

The likes of Adrian Luna, Alvaro Vazquez, Jorge Pereyra Diaz and Marko Leskovic, in particular, have elevated Blasters with their aggression and quality across the pitch.

Although the table reflected a poor season under former coach Kibu Vicuna, the seeds were sown for Vukomanovic to come in and refine the playing style. Both Vibuna and Vukomanovic employ high-pressing, attacking football, where the attacking line forms the first line of defence. Vukomanovic’s Blasters have cut out rash decision-making and errors at the back, which plagued their campaign last year.

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Under Vicuna, Blasters were one of the most hard-working sides in the league, registering the second-best pressing sequence (377) in the league.

Sahal, who burst onto the scene as a raw attacking midfielder, became a more tactically disciplined player, earning praise for his work- rate. This year, he has been moulded further, his natural flair for scoring goals and his play-making abilities unlocked.

To cite an example, in the last game of the league stage against FC Goa, Sahal won the ball high up the right side of the pitch before dashing into the box to find Diaz’s run with the pass for the opening goal. With five goals and an assist, he is having his best productive season.

Sahal celebrates scoring the opening goal against Mumbai City FC in a crucial league game. Photo: ISL Media

 

“I want to play attack, attack, attack… I think that is a great way of playing football,” was how Vukomanovic described his philosophy. The team has adopted a front-foot approach in both attack and defence. This year, Blasters have scored the most goals in a season (34), while conceding an average of 1.2 goals per game – their best record.

Vasquez, Luna, Sahal and Diaz’s work-rate, in tandem with that of holding midfielders Khawlhring and Jeakson Singh, have made Blasters a tougher proposition for their opponents.

Last season, Blasters were ranked seventh in overall tackles, while they have topped the charts this year. Luna is the top Blasters player in this category, followed by Khawlhring, Jeakson and Sahal, who all feature in the top-20. No other team has more front-six starters on the list. 

In defence, Blasters have conceded just 15 big chances this season as opposed to 27 in ISL-7. This has paved the way for seven cleansheets – joint-highest in the league.

Last season, Blasters affected the third-highest possession turnover (133) within 40 yards of the opposition goal;  however, it resulted in no goals from the sequences which led to shots. This year, Blasters have the seventh-best possession turnover (132), which have led to four goals.

Uruguayan Adrian Luna has been a revelation for Kerala this season with his creativity and his work-rate off the ball. Photo: ISL Media

Though Blasters created 28 big chanes last season, they were guilty of poor finishing and scored just 23 goals. While the expected goals (xG) metric shows Blasters should have 25 goals, they have over-performed by adding nine more, thanks largely to the audacity and brilliance of Luna and Vazquez. 

Strikes have flown in from ridiculous angles and distances. The quartet of Luna, Vazquez, Diaz and Sahal has scored 26 of the 34 goals.

While Blasters and Vukomanovic would be delighted to have crossed the bridge with their qualification for the playoffs, they will be smarting over not lifting the ISL League Winners Shield – they were table-toppers for much of January — if not for the COVID-19 outbreak inside the bio-bubble. 

Starting Friday, Blasters have the chance to erase the pain and agony of the fans by going all the way and getting their hands on the ISL trophy. That would also power them into the league of the top clubs. Not too bad for a team to go from last but bottom to the very top.

(All statistics compiled from Opta)





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