Igor Angulo, Nerijus Valskis, Roy Krishna, Adam le Fondre – teams in the Indian Super League have taken a punt on some proven striking talent, but at the end of the fifth round, the surprise of this tournament has come in the form of the NorthEast United team and its egalitarian attack.
In the opening game of the season, NEUFC had the unenviable task of facing a Mumbai City team that was and is still considered the favourite. But the underdogs came away with a 1-0 victory. Since that win, they have scored seven more goals, the joint-most in the league, and are currently third in the league table after a late goal by Luis Machado helped them clinch a draw against Bengaluru FC.
Yet to lose a game and having already equalled their miserly two wins in total from last season, the unusual start for NorthEast is down to the manner in which the youngest manager in the ISL has set his team up. Mostly opting for a 4-4-2 or a 4-3-3, Gerard Nus has shown the kind of pragmatism a team like NorthEast has to rely on. His offensive strategy has allowed both his strikers – Kwesi Appiah and Idrissa Sylla – to snag a couple of goals each. Attacking midfielder Luis Machado has also chipped in with three strikes.
But the young Spanish manager has never started his three goal scorers together and usually benches one of them. With matches flying in thick and fast and teams with a threadbare pre-season expected to play themselves to the ground, NorthEast’s manager has juggled around his best to keep his players fresh.
The only puzzle left to solve for Gus is the defence. A league-high eight goals have come at the cost of having conceded five. As the team is set up to play on the counter, NorthEast rely heavily on niggling fouls to stop possession-based teams from gaining any rhythm and have made 162 tackles in five games, only behind ATK Mohun Bagan in that regard.
Death, taxes and refereeing complaints
It was only a matter of time before yet another saga of clubs complaining about refereeing unfolded. The league has been facing this problem for the past couple of years. This year, new entrants SC East Bengal were the first to make a formal complaint to the AIFF over the quality of the refereeing.
“As a club, we have shared our feedback with AIFF. Hopefully, it will be taken into consideration to enhance the quality of refereeing to maintain the spirit of the game during the remainder of the tournament,” an SCEB official said, according to PTI.
In their loss to NorthEast, East Bengal were denied two clear-as-daylight penalties that could have changed the complexion of the match as well as their abysmal start to the campaign. As if that wasn’t enough, their next game saw Eugenson Lyngdoh getting his second yellow card in the 25th minute of the game against Jamshedpur FC despite replays clearly showing that Lyngdoh got the ball first.
After the game, East Bengal coach Robbie Fowler exclaimed that it felt like his team were going against 12 men. “I don’t think any decision was going our way. Everyone does seem to be against us. We just had to go out there and defend like the way we can and don’t concede and it was important for us to get the point. On the back of three losses, it was a huge point for us,” said Fowler.