The final of the 2021-22 season of the Hero Indian Super League (ISL) is upon as and it will pit two extremely well-rounded sides – Hyderabad FC and Kerala Blasters FC against each other in a clash that promises to be etched into Indian footballing folklore.

Talking Tactics: Key battles to watch out for in Hero ISL Final Hyderabad FC vs Kerala Blasters FC

During their respective semi-finals, both sides saw their marquee players rise to the occasion. While the Tuskers rode on Sahal Abdul Samad’s cheeky lob in the first leg, HFC saw Bartholomew Ogbeche and Mohammad Yasir find the net against ATK Mohun Bagan. A week later, Adrian Luna stole the show for Kerala Blasters FC, meaning that the image of the Uruguayan and the Tuskers slaloming their way into the final is still fresh in memory.

On paper, too, this match has all the ingredients to be one for the ages. Both teams have an array of individual talent, with almost each capable of deciding the outcome on his own. Under ordinary circumstances, that would be enough for both sides to rest well, knowing that someone will produce a moment of magic and turn the tide their way. For teams of Hyderabad FC and Kerala Blasters FC’s ilk, though, these bits of brilliance form only a small part of their respective successes.

A few of their players have enjoyed stellar campaigns on an individual level – Luna and Ogbeche being prime examples. Yet, their upturn this season will remain defined by what everyone has done together, and as a unit with a singular goal.  

Throughout this campaign, the Tuskers have been one of the more defensively efficient sides in the Hero ISL. No other team has managed more clean sheets than Kerala Blasters FC. This stat could prompt people to label them an exceptionally-drilled defensive line.

There is plenty of truth in it as well, considering Harmanjot Khabra, Marko Leskovic and Ruivah Hormipam have distinguished themselves, and have produced performances that have single-handedly kept teams at bay. However, their overall defensive work, which comprises of their pressing, has been just as impressive (if not more).

Kerala Blasters FC have mixed things up at different junctures this season. Against teams that have been intent on playing out from the back, they have pressed very high. A perfect example would be the brace of encounters against Mumbai City FC – games where they barely allowed the Islanders a moment’s peace and stifled them into submission.

Against a side like Jamshedpur FC, they were more selective. They pressed them high on occasions but that was largely the aberration. Instead, they were content to let the Men of Steel venture into midfield before setting perfect traps.

In the first leg in particular, they allowed Jamshedpur FC’s full-backs to have ample possession and touches, while accounting for whatever space Greg Stewart was trying to create.

The most telling aspect, though, was each one of their players knew exactly what they wanted to do. While pressing, it is very easy for the footballers to not be on the same page.

A forward could get over eager and compromise on the shape, whereas a tendency to maintain a high line without pressure on the ball can also be detrimental. But this occurrence has been very rare for Kerala Blasters FC and illustrates how well they have defended collectively.

Road to the final: Ivan Vukomanovic engineers Kerala Blasters FC back among the mix

Hyderabad FC, on the other hand, have been irresistible going forward. A look at the stats would tell you that Ogbeche has scored 18 times this season and has contributed to 39.1% of the goals they have scored. What flies under the radar, though, is that 16 different players have bagged an assist in 2021-22. Among those, 10 have been Indians who have also combined to contribute 21 assists – numbers that no Hero ISL club can match.

During the semi-final too, Ogbeche got the ball rolling by scoring a clutch equaliser in first-half stoppage time. However, that wouldn’t have been possible had HFC not kept the ball alive. After the restart, Javier Siverio stretched the defence and opened up space for Ogbeche to maraud forward. Neither could score but their movement teed up Yasir, who caressed the ball into the bottom corner.

Apart from that, there seems to be an innate understanding between their players. Their full-backs have bombarded forward throughout the season. Yet, Hyderabad FC have never been exposed continually on the flanks. Joao Victor has been pivotal in that pursuit with his positioning and proclivity to arrive late in the box adding another dimension to their attack.

Their wingers also seem to know when to wander in-field and when to hold the width. Against the Mariners, they opted to crowd the central areas, whereas on most other instances this season, they stretched the play as much as possible.

Road to the final: Hyderabad FC go hunting for their first Hero ISL silverware

Thus, a case could be made that Hyderabad FC and Kerala Blasters FC, despite the irrepressible individual performances they have conjured, remain more than just a team relying on moments of magic. They are more than capable of that, and they might be aware of it too. There could still be a situation where a player single-handedly morphs into a decisive tilting scale come Sunday because, well, both teams have an embarrassment of riches.

Yet, they have always prioritised the collective – something that hasn’t just set them apart but has ensured that both are just a game away from eternal Hero ISL glory. The sum of their parts would, most probably, be greater than most other Hero ISL outfits. But they have banked on their whole, more often than not. Hence, don’t be surprised if that mindset comes through on Sunday too.

After all, that is what Hyderabad FC and Kerala Blasters FC have done throughout the season. And, it has brought them to the brink of history!