From FC Goa to ATK Mohun Bagan, a seismic shift in the challenge for Juan Ferrando

A few weeks ago, Juan Ferrando found himself engulfed in an almighty storm at FC Goa. The Gaurs had gotten off to a poor start in the Hero Indian Super League 2021-22 season and had lost their opening three games.

During that sequence, they scored only twice and shipped eight goals, meaning that problems existed at both ends of the pitch. Ferrando, who was their manager then, didn’t shirk responsibility and pledged to mount a comeback – a comeback that seemed improbable but one that FC Goa were totally capable of.

As the games ticked by, the Gaurs began turning the screw. They scraped past SC East Bengal 4-3, trickled past Bengaluru FC 2-1 and battled to a 1-1 stalemate against Hyderabad FC. All of a sudden, the table started painting a brighter picture – a picture hinting that FC Goa should be written off at one’s own peril.

Then, the unimaginable happened for the Gaurs. Not in terms of any performances on the pitch but because Ferrando opted to trigger his release clause and engineer a move to ATK Mohun Bagan.

This, by the way, wasn’t any ordinary departure. Ferrando had, despite being hamstrung last season, instilled belief in the FC Goa ranks that they could consistently compete for the top four. He had also replaced Sergio Lobera and had handled the burden of expectations really well.

More importantly, though, Ferrando was emblematic of everything the club stood for – a clear identity, an intention to trust the vast reserves of talent existing in Goa and of course, an unerring will to win.

Thus, even before ATK Mohun Bagan had announced Ferrando’s arrival, there was a sense that FC Goa were severely dented and that they would find it very tough to find a manager of the Spaniard’s ilk. That he opted to embrace a newer pasture at a fellow title rival, only added to the heartbreak.  

Speaking of the Mariners, they, much like FC Goa, haven’t been at their all-conquering best in 2021-22. They started off the season brilliantly and battered the likes of Kerala Blasters FC and SC East Bengal. Since then, they’ve only won a solitary encounter – against NorthEast United FC, which incidentally, was Ferrando’s first game in charge.

The similarities between ATK Mohun Bagan and FC Goa, though, don’t go beyond their dwindling fortunes.  

While the Gaurs have often relied on a young and homegrown core, the Mariners haven’t been shy of dipping into the transfer market. FC Goa aren’t usually a club that splashes massive amounts of money on an individual. ATK Mohun Bagan, meanwhile, went on a spending spree and flexed their financial muscles by acquiring Amrinder Singh, Hugo Boumous, Joni Kauko and Liston Colaco in the off-season.

The playing styles, too, are vastly different. FC Goa have, over the past few seasons, developed a reputation as one of the more free-flowing outfits in the Hero ISL.

Under Lobera, they were so far ahead of the pack that it didn’t even warrant a discussion. While Ferrando wasn’t as expansive, he still banked on retaining possession and injected a bit of directness into their play – something FC Goa struggled with at the start of the campaign but an aspect that has shone through since.

ATK Mohun Bagan, at least under Antonio Habas, prioritized calculation over creativity. They weren’t averse to stacking their line-up with defensive-minded players, hoping that the likes of David Williams and Roy Krishna would produce a moment of magic at the other end.

This season, there were fleeting glimpses that they wanted to dominate the ball a lot more. But once Mumbai City FC obliterated them, they were quick to revert to their 2019-2021 model.

Having said that, there is no intention here to term one brand of football as being superior to the other. FC Goa, while keeping possession, hauled themselves into the AFC Champions League, whereas the Mariners, built on defensive solidity, reached the final of the Hero ISL in 2020-21.

The intriguing bit is that Ferrando, who was heralded as one of the few coaches capable of taking forward Lobera’s work at FC Goa, now has to start all over again.

Not just because he has a completely new set of players at his disposal but also because he has to implement his philosophy at a club where there is minimal margin for error. And, in a team that had, in Habas’ words, “lost its identity”.

From an outsider’s perspective, Ferrando, when he strides into the ATK Mohun Bagan dugout on Wednesday, will see a lot of familiar faces. This time, though, things will feel a lot different.

Not because he will have to plot against Alberto Noguera, Edu Bedia and Ivan Gonzalez, as opposed to siding with them, but because ATK Mohun Bagan and FC Goa couldn’t have been more diametrically opposite in how they function.

That, in a nutshell, also encapsulates the beauty of the Hero ISL. There may be challenges that seem similar to ones gone by. Yet, each is different and has a contrasting narrative waiting to be seized.    

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