Ivan Vukomanovic, the Pied Piper who brought back the happy times at Kerala Blasters FC

Kerala Blasters FC may have failed to clinch their first-ever Hero Indian Super League (ISL) trophy but they can be proud of what was a solid campaign under Ivan Vukomanovic in the top flight of Indian football.

After struggling in their last Hero ISL campaign that saw them finish second from the bottom of the standings, Kerala Blaster FC surprised quite a few this season as they finished runners-up in the tournament.

A lot of credit for Kerala Blaster FC’s performance in Hero ISL 2021-22 must go to head coach Ivan Vukomanovic. The Serbian head coach was roped in as a replacement for Kibu Vicuna and Vukomanovic certainly had a galvanizing effect on the squad.

The 44-year-old Kerala Blasters manager was clear about what he wanted in the pre-season. He wished his team to be fitter, faster, and most importantly, to play competitive games right from the beginning. And so, the Blasters competed in the Durand Cup along with four other Hero ISL clubs.

Kerala Blasters FC failed to qualify for the semi-finals of the tournament, after winning just one game in the group stage. But, it didn’t take long for their head coach to find out their underlying issues and fix them. And once he did that, the results started coming their way. The Blasters won all but two of their remaining pre-season games.

However, what was most important was that the long pre-season prepared the team for what would be the hectic Hero ISL campaign.

Kerala Blasters FC were the team with one of the best defensive records for most of the season. But, it was not an overnight fix for issues that had their roots in the previous season. The Blasters had the second-worst defensive numbers in the 2020-21 season. So, from second-worst to suddenly becoming one of the best, Vukomanovic had to pull a rabbit out of the hat.

The 44-year-old tactician had four center-backs – Marko Leskovic, Enes Sipovic, Ruivah Hormipam, and Bijoy Varghese. Leskovic of these was the only definite starter. Vukomanovic played five different combinations of these center-backs throughout the season, owing to injuries and performances.

Vukomanovic saw Ruivah Hormipam as the ideal partner for Leskovic. Hormipam started nine games in the league stage for the Blasters and conceded just four goals. He also helped his team keep five clean sheets. Kerala Blasters lost just a single game when Hormipam started for them.

The Serbian took the best out of his players, one such example was Sahal Abdul Samad. The Indian international may be only 24-years-old, but Sahal has stuck with the Yellow Army since 2017.

However, it hasn’t been easy for Kerala’s No. 18. Sahal has struggled with consistency in previous seasons while playing as an inner midfielder.

Vukomanovic saw Sahal as someone he could take away from the half-spaces and be close to the touchline. The Serbian decided to use Sahal’s work ethic and the exceptional close-control he possesses slightly out wide instead of asking him to try and break the opposition blocks from central positions.

Just a little tweak in his game and Sahal turned into a completely different player. He scored six goals for Kerala Blasters this season. His game has not just been about goals, though. Sahal presses more effectively than he did before. Some of his pressing triggers have resulted in output that is difficult to attribute to him through any number.

The trust he had in Indian youngsters was impeccable. Vukomanovic kept reiterating how much potential he sees in some of the youngsters he has with him and how he wants to help them fulfill their potential. The development of these talented youngsters was one of the many objectives of the head coach and the club.

The Serbian manager never missed an opportunity to take pride in how good a job he has done with these youngsters this season. The likes of Lalthathanga Khawlhring, Jeakson Singh, Ayush Adhikari, Hormipam, Bijoy, and many more have played huge roles in the Blasters’ run to the finals.

Vukomanovic and his coaching staff have made the youngsters better versions of themselves. The 44-year-old tactician has handed the likes of Bijoy, Ayush, and Hormipam their senior debuts. Hormipam’s impressing outings have earned the youngster his national team debut. And the young defender wouldn’t have been there if the tactician hadn’t trusted him.

The Kochi-based side have not been dependent on a single source for goals this season. Instead of feeding one forward with all the opportunities, Ivan Vukomanovic has developed a system that would work regardless of who he has to play.

Kerala’s system focuses on the front two and their wide midfielders (Sahal and Adrian Luna) pressing deep in the attacking third. The pressing patterns have kept varying and are active only after certain situations trigger them.

The result of that system has seen the quartet of Luna, Alvaro Vazquez, Jorge Pereyra Diaz, and Sahal emerge as some of the most effective pressers in the league. These four players represent Kerala Blasters in the list of the top 20 scorers in the league stage of the Hero ISL this season.

Vukomanovic has made a big impact in his first year in the Hero ISL and didn’t just make Kerala Blasters FC a successful side but did so while playing attractive football and by using a lot of Indian youngsters in the team.

A fan favorite already, the Kerala Blasters FC faithful would be hoping to see Vukomanovic in the dugout next season.

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