Hyderabad FC have picked up from where they left off in the Hero Indian Super League (ISL) 2021-22 season; they ended as champions after the penalty shootout victory over Kerala Blasters FC in the final.

In the Hero ISL 2022-23 season, Hyderabad FC have won five out of their opening six matches while drawing the other, making it the joint best-ever start to a Hero ISL season by a team.

Attacking firepower was at the heart of Hyderabad FC’s success last season, as Manolo Marquez’s men finished as the top goalscorers. But this season, while the team has retained most of its attacking arsenal, Hyderabad FC are displaying exemplary defensive solidity that has seen them become even stronger. 

The defending champions have kept five clean sheets already this season, surpassing their tally of three clean sheets last campaign. They are yet to concede a goal since the first match of the 2022-23 season against Mumbai City FC that ended in a 3-3 draw. 

With five clean sheets in a row, Hyderabad FC have equalled the record of most shutouts in a row in Hero ISL history with Mumbai City FC (2014) and FC Goa (2018-19) being the only previous team to achieve this feat.

A clean sheet against Kerala Blasters FC when the Kochi outfit come calling on Saturday will see Marquez’s men set a new record.

Shrewd signings and smart coaching

It has been an exceptional transformation defensively for a team that has seen very few changes in terms of personnel. This lack of tinkering though has helped more than it has caused harm.

“The one big thing that has helped Hyderabad FC has been continuity. They know and understand the system. It's a squad that has been kept together,” Hero ISL commentator and expert Paul Masefield noted. 

“It's basically Asish Rai that's gone out of that backline but Nikhil Poojary has slotted in there and has been absolutely magnificent. Odei Onaindia coming back into the side has been a big plus because he knows and understands how to play that position, he also knows Chinglensana Singh well having played with him before and as a combo they are absolutely rock solid. Those two are absolutely solid and then there is Akash Mishra who bombs down that left flank and causes all sorts of problems,” he added. 

The incredible thing about Hyderabad FC’s defensive transformation has been that it has been achieved without adding too many signings unlike some of their rivals who have used the transfer market well to get stronger. 

Marquez has been very clever in picking the right players from the transfer market but also in getting the best out of those at his disposal. 

“When Asish Rai left for ATK Mohun Bagan, you wondered how Hyderabad FC was going to fill that gap in the defence. They got Odei Onaindia back and there is Nikhil Poojary who is a right winger but is playing as a right back and to me, he is one of the best right backs in the league right now,” former midfielder and Hero ISL expert Darren Caldeira observed. 

“Manolo Marquez has done wonders with Nikhil Poojary. He is someone who likes to bomb forward and put in a lot of crosses but defensively he has become so sound. He also has got that pace so it's difficult to beat him. You could go past him but he always manages to track back and get back into position.,” he added.

The re-signing of Odei Onaindia who spent the 2020-21 season with Hyderabad FC when they kept eight clean sheets has also been a shrewd move for multiple reasons.

“Odei signing has been key for Hyderabad FC. They have replaced Juanan by getting him back. He is not the biggest centre-backs you have in the league but his positional awareness is amazing. He doesn't have the pace but he is always a step ahead of the opposition players. He alongside Chinglensana Singh have formed such a formidable partnership and it's great to watch this entire defence with Akash Mishra as well,” Caldeira stated. 

A well-oiled unit

However, Hyderabad FC’s defensive improvements this season isn’t just down to the back line and they have done extremely well as a unit. Key tactical tweaks by Marquez has allowed them to be very compact as the Spaniard has made excellent use of the pace and work rate of his players. 

“The key for me is just in front of the defence. If you look at Joao Victor and his positional play. Then you have Hitesh Sharma who has been absolutely magnificent and is an unsung hero,” Masefield said. 

“So what that has done is they have got a real block in that backline. It's a six-man defence initially that can hold and keep everything together and then when you have got the work rate of Halicharan Narzary and Yasir Mohammad, they can make themselves very compact and very defensive very quickly,” he added. 

The defensive solidity has allowed Marquez to try a few things upfront as he has used his key forwards in different roles and kept them fresh for the longer season ahead. 

It may just be the start of the new season but Hyderabad FC who are yet to see the likes of Bartholomew Ogbeche, Borja Herrera and Joao Victor fire on all cylinders, are looking like a menacing prospect already. 

Their added experience of winning the league last season will come in handy this campaign as well with a calm and calculative head in Marquez in their dugout, stopping Hyderabad FC will take some doing.