End of the blues, dawn of the bloom: What Bengaluru FC require to make the play-offs?

The arrival of Simon Grayson as the new Bengaluru FC head coach was marked with a triumphant pre-season as the Blues won their first-ever Durand Cup. Bengaluru FC were touted as one of the most feared teams and top contenders to win the league before the start of the ongoing season, but they have had a shocking turnabout.

After 14 games in the league this season, Grayson’s men are placed eighth in the standings with 16 points from five wins, one draw, and eight losses.

A busy transfer window saw the side acquire top players like Roy Krishna, Sandesh Jhingan, Prabir Das, and Javi Hernandez in a squad that already boasts the likes of veterans Sunil Chhetri, Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, and Udanta Singh. However, Bengaluru FC could not strike a connection that would see them as a dominating force in the league.

Their 1-0 win over NorthEast United FC in the season opener was followed by a 1-1 draw against Chennaiyin FC. After that, the Blues went on a four-game losing streak where they failed to score in each of the games, suffering a four-game goal drought for the first time in the club’s Hero ISL history.

In the remaining matches of 2022, the club endured a miserable run of results that saw them languish in the bottom part of the table, with defeats coming against ATK Mohun Bagan, Kerala Blasters FC, Hyderabad FC, and East Bengal FC, doing the double. To make matters worse, Grayson faced a troubling time in fielding his best playing XI, as several of his key personnel were injured. This made the Englishman look to the transfer window as a solution, with the club signing Spanish midfielder Pablo Perez to add depth to the squad.

Despite such shortcomings, the 53-year-old head coach overcame this tumultuous time after scrutinising the team over several weeks, bearing fruit in the new year. A 2-1 win over NorthEast United FC and a 3-1 win over Odisha FC signified two small yet significant achievements for the Blues.

One, the side registered their first back-to-back wins of the season. Second, under-fire striker Roy Krishna reappeared on the scoresheet as the side put past three goals for the first time this season. Hero ISL expert Paul Masefield mentions how the squad has now been effectively moulded despite a bad start.

“Simon Grayson has tweaked the formation. He’s had to try and use different numbers of players in different positions. I think he’s now starting to get a settled side. Everybody has bought into his philosophy and all the players are enjoying training. But sometimes, it doesn’t click, you’re better off clicking as the season goes on and getting better, so you can have a good run at the end,” says Masefield.

Although having two of the most clinical strikers in Sunil Chhetri and Roy Krishna, the goals dried up for Bengaluru FC as the two contributed to just three goals in a team total of 13 goals - the joint-lowest in the league. With questions being raised on the attacking front, Grayson looked at their protege in Sivasakthi Narayanan - the Durand Cup star who was their top scorer with five goals. Although Sivasakthi made several appearances this season, most were off the bench.

“I think that bringing Siva (Narayanan) upfront to partner up with Roy Krishna gives them the legs to run in behind and cause all sorts of problems. In the middle of the park, Suresh (Wangjam) is absolutely rock solid as usual, just sitting in there and digging away as he does,” Masefield adds.

The presence of Javi Hernandez in the midfield sets the outset of creativity amongst the team with his dribbling ability, clever sense of turnovers, and line-breaking passes from the middle of the park. Masefield highlights how Hernandez’s involvement might prove to be a gamechanger in their build-up play, which will help them progress in the race for the play-offs.

“Javi (Hernandez) has been brilliant for them as well. He’s probably the key player for me. If BFC are going to turn around and get into the play-offs, they need to keep him fit, and he needs to be the one pulling all the strings. It’s just the formational changes that they have made. I think that’s the most important thing that has turned their season around,” he concludes.

While the season might have started poorly for the former Hero ISL champions, it is taking shape in the right direction. With the berth for the play-offs still wide open, all is not lost for Grayson’s men. Hero ISL commentator Mark Tompkins believes the presence of Roy Krishna and Sivasakthi Narayanan is a microcosm of an explosive squad under Grayson waiting to be unleashed.

“He’s had one or two injuries to deal with, but players are finally starting to reach their potential. We know Roshan (Naorem) and his ability when it comes to crossing the ball, and we’re getting Roy Krishna on the scoresheet, they will hope that triggers off a run of goals. Sivasakthi coming back into the starting lineup has been a breath of fresh air for them because he adds a different dimension. He works hard, creates chances, and he got a goal as well the other week,” says Tompkins

“So, I think it’s all coming together at the right time for Simon Grayson. They didn’t start the season well, and goalscoring has been a problem. (Well), they put three past Odisha FC and scored five in their last two matches. So I feel the coach will now think they’ve turned the corner. A couple more wins could easily see them inside the top six, which was probably unthinkable a few weeks ago, but they are certainly dark horses for the play-offs,” concludes Tompkins.

Be it a marginal push or a snowball effect, things have fallen into place at the right time for Simon Grayson’s men. It all boils down to the remaining six games for Bengaluru FC that can and will determine their outcome come the end of the league stage.

Bengaluru FC can draw inspiration from several teams who bloomed late and still made their way into play-offs, with Chennaiyin FC’s 2019-20 season being a notable example. The Blues face a daunting yet achievable task of pushing themselves to their limits and making a late entry into the top six.

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