Beyond their free-flowing football, Mumbai City FC are set-piece kings too

A few days ago, Mumbai City FC clashed swords with Chennaiyin FC in the Hero Indian Super League (ISL). Prior to that encounter, the Marina Machans boasted an unbeaten streak in Hero ISL 2021-22 and had held their own whenever they took the field.

Thus, when Chennaiyin FC began turning the screw in the first half and caused the defending champions all sorts of problems, plenty felt that the Islanders, who had stitched together a three-game winning streak, had met their match.

As the game progressed, though, Mumbai City FC began establishing a foothold in the game. Not in the sort of free-flowing manner they usually do, but in a style that was just as important to their success, last campaign.

They grafted, rolled up their sleeves and fought for every loose ball. In the 86th minute, the Islanders – partly due to an infringement but largely because of their perseverance, were rewarded with a free kick in the inside right channel.

At first, the set-piece didn’t ring many alarm bells in the Chennaiyin FC ranks. It seemed too far away for a direct shot on goal and seemed to lack the adequate angle for a cross. Yet, Mumbai City FC’s Moroccan magician Ahmed Jahouh found a way to drift the cross towards the back post – a cross that allowed Rahul Bheke to seal all three points for the Islanders with a headed goal.

Unsurprisingly, the Mumbai City FC players wheeled away in celebration. Mourtada Fall, who had been as solid as Bheke in that fixture, was equally jubilant. Not because his defensive partner had scored his first goal for the club but because he, being the captain, knew that such victories, which come about when they aren’t playing well, are priceless in a potential title-winning season.

Since the 2020-21 edition of the Hero ISL, Mumbai City FC have developed a reputation of playing free-flowing football. The installations of Des Buckingham and Sergio Lobera at the helm, coupled with the presence of players such as Apuia, Bartholomew Ogbeche (now at Hyderabad FC), Hernan Santana (now at NorthEast United FC), Hugo Boumous (now at ATK Mohun Bagan), Jahouh and Igor Angulo have been indicative of it.  

They’ve lived up to that particular billing too. This season, the Islanders have made the net bulge more than any other side (they have 17 goals; the next best tally is 13). A season ago, they mustered 35 goals in 20 games – roughly equating to 1.5 goals per game. That, by the way, was also the highest tally any Hero ISL outfit put together.  

The set-piece weapon

In between, though, there have also been spells where opponents have been able to contain the Islanders’ expansive game. At times, teams have defended deep, whereas on other occasions, they’ve tried to hustle and harry the Islanders.

Under ordinary circumstances, these could’ve proven major impediments, considering how possession-based outfits find it tough to quickly resort to a Plan B. Mumbai City FC, though, have thrived even when they’ve not been able to impose their philosophy – something illustrated by how prolific they are at set-pieces. 

Since the start of the 2020-21 term, no other Hero ISL club has scored more than 20 goals from set-pieces. Bengaluru FC and Jamshedpur have also been decent with their set-piece routines, having amassed 19 goals apiece. Similarly, ATK Mohun Bagan and SC East Bengal have notched up 17 and 18 goals, respectively.

The Islanders have made the net ripple 29 times from set-pieces during that period – a tally that also includes the winner Bheke got against Chennaiyin FC. Mumbai City FC have played 31 games in this phase, meaning that they’ve scored 0.93 set-piece goals each time they’ve participated in a Hero ISL fixture.

Team Goals from set-pieces since start of Hero ISL 2020-21
Mumbai City FC 29
Bengaluru FC 19
Jamshedpur FC 19
SC East Bengal 18
ATK Mohun Bagan 17

Not only does that indicate their excellence at optimising set-pieces when they are sailing smoothly, it also portrays that they’ve been able to eke out victories (courtesy of these set-pieces) when the going has gotten tough. It is a trait that has allowed them to nudge ahead of the rest of the Hero ISL pack. And, of course, pull clear.  

For anyone watching Mumbai City FC, it is quite easy to get blown away by the pretty patterns they weave in different areas of the pitch. The way they reduce spaces between their midfield and defensive lines and the manner in which they counter-press is a sight to behold too.

Yet, the most important attribute of them all could be their ability to win games when they aren’t playing well – an ability that comes about because they know how to best utilize set-pieces and reduce the game to as much a battle of individuals as possible.

The remarkable 5-1 triumph against ATK Mohun Bagan has rightly been looked upon as a watershed moment this season for the Islanders. However, the gritty 1-0 victory against Chennaiyin FC could be just as crucial. Not because it snapped the Marina Machans’ unbeaten streak, but because it proved that the free-flowing Mumbai City FC are set-piece kings too.

They will, because of the competitive nature of the Hero ISL, meet their match through the course of their campaign. But as long as they can bend these set-pieces to their liking, you feel that they will be pretty well-placed to defend their title.    

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