Can East Bengal FC’s growing chemistry in attack guide them to the Hero ISL playoffs?
East Bengal FC have so far found the going tough in the Hero Indian Super League (ISL). They finished bottom of the table in the 2021-22 campaign before a ninth-place finish a season before.
The Red and Golds recorded just four wins in their first two seasons in the league but have made a much better start to the 2022-23 season. Under new head coach Stephen Constantine they have already secured three wins in their eight matches.
While East Bengal FC remain some way away from the top end of the table, there is evidence that the Kolkata giants are on their way up. And they could be in real contention for a place in the expanded knockout stage of the competition that will see the top six teams qualify for the playoffs.
The Red and Golds are currently in the eighth position, three points behind FC Goa who occupy the last playoff place, and are looking to win back-to-back games for the first time in the Hero ISL. They have come close on a few occasions to doing that this season but have not quite managed to get over the line.
The optimism among the East Bengal FC faithful that their team could achieve something noteworthy this campaign stems from the flourishing chemistry among the team’s attacking players that has seen them score five goals in their last two games.
The Kolkata side are averaging 1.38 goals per game this season which is an improvement on their goal averages of 0.9 (2021-22) and 1.1 (2020-21) of the last two terms.
One of the key factors behind this rise in the team’s potency has been the signing of Cleiton Silva who has scored five goals this season, making him the second-highest goalscorer in the league so far. But his support cast and the system that Constantine has used also deserve credit for the Brazilian’s output.
Naorem Mahesh Singh provided three assists in the match against Jamshedpur FC, making him the first Indian player to achieve that feat in Hero ISL history, and he has racked up five assists all season. Suhair VP, who joined from NorthEast United FC at the start of the season, also has three assists to his name.
“It's not rocket science to know how Stephen Constantine sets a team out and how he wants to play. He likes to play attacking football to get the ball forward, get it wide and get good quality crosses into the box, and if your players understand that and have quality which the likes of Mahesh have, then they can deliver,” Hero ISL expert and commentator Paul Masefield notes.
“A lot of credit must also go to Semboi Haokip. I don't think he gets enough credit because he holds the ball up so well, and that gets the likes of Suhair and Mahesh to go and get involved with him,” he adds.
The clarity in their respective roles has helped the East Bengal FC forward line grow in each other’s presence. They are slowly starting to complement one another, and the results are there to see.
Last season, the Red and Golds failed to score in nine of the 20 matches they played. However, they have found the back of the net in six of the eight games this term. They have scored one or more goals in three games already compared to four matches in the whole of last season.
While Silva has done the bulk of the scoring, Constantine’s side has found other sources of goals too, with the team already having seven different goalscorers.The Englishman has been very shrewd in getting the players that he wanted in the summer and has so far got them to work as a unit.
“East Bengal have assembled their best squad ever in Hero ISL. They have recruited cleverly with the likes of Cleiton, Suhair, Alex Lima and Jordan O'Doherty. Even when they were beaten in the Kolkata derby, you could sense the potential. Cleiton, in particular, has an enviable goalscoring record throughout his career wherever he has played,” says John Helm, Hero ISL commentator and expert.
Constantine has also got it right regarding the profile of characters he has on the team. In the last few seasons, East Bengal FC seemed resigned to their fate a bit too often but this season’s East Bengal FC side have been competing much better and staying in games thanks to their fighting spirit.
“I think the key aspect is that Constantine signed players with a point to prove. The likes of Suhair want to do well at this level after being at NorthEast United FC last season. The squad has a point to prove and look like they are working as a team this year with less focus on individuals,” observes Erik Paartalu.
“Players like Cleiton have the winners’ mentality and know how the league works. Creating a culture at a club is so important, and I think Constantine has provided that environment of positivity but also competitiveness, and you only get that from coaching for a number of years,” adds Paartalu.
East Bengal FC will need to deliver consistently as a team and not rely solely on their attack to get them through games. Still, there are signs that their forward line is starting to develop an understanding that could rub off on the rest of the team and make them a really tough team to play against.
The Kolkata giants, unlike the last few campaigns, have managed to keep themselves in the reckoning for a playoff spot, and the growing bond among their attackers might take them over the line come the end of the season.