Hyderabad FC had made a near-perfect start to their Hero Indian Super League (ISL) title defence after winning five out of their first six matches of the 2022-23 campaign, keeping five clean sheets in the process and enjoying a perfect record at the GMC Balayogi Athletic stadium in Hyderabad. 

When Kerala Blasters FC paid the visit to the defending champions’ fortress on Saturday, with a mixed record of three wins and as many losses in six games, the threat to Hyderabad FC’s unbeaten start to the season wasn’t very apparent. 

Ivan Vukomanovic’s team had pushed Manolo Marquez’s men all the way in last season’s final losing the title only on penalties. Still, it was the home side who were firm favourites against the visitors who had blown hot and cold this season and had come into the game with one of the worst defensive records in the Hero ISL in the 2022-23 season. 

The defensive statistics told a story about Kerala Blasters FC's rearguard and the feelings of possible revenge for last year’s defeat in the final had to make way for humility. Ivan Vukomanovic sensed that and tweaked his approach towards the game even if the formation remained the same. He recognised that his team probably needed to respect his opponents a bit more to make them more effective. There were signs of it in Kerala Blasters FC’s previous matches, especially against FC Goa, where they won 3-1, but they executed it to the fullest against Hyderabad FC. 

“They have a new approach right now where they sit back and allow the other team possession and soak all the pressure and wait for their opportunity to attack. They did that against FC Goa as well,” Hero ISL commentator and expert Darren Caldeira observed. 

Adopting this approach is easier said than done and the Kerala Blasters FC players exhibited a great deal of discipline and tactical flexibility to execute it against an in-form team like Hyderabad FC on their own patch as they beat the defending champions 1-0 in a tightly-fought contest to end their unbeaten start to the season and also their perfect home record. 

Vukomanovic’s conservative yet pragmatic shape

Vukomanovic changed his full-backs with Nishu Kumar and Sandeep Singh taking over the roles from Harmanjot Khabra and Jessel Carneiro, two players who had established themselves in their positions. The Serbian used them conservatively, not asking them to bomb forward a lot but instead remaining deeper to keep their defensive shape and deny Hyderabad FC any space in the wide areas. 

“Hyderabad FC are a team that likes to keep the ball and get in behind with their wingers. I think Kerala Blasters FC denied that space really well by keeping their shape very tight. In midfield, they didn't allow Ogbeche to come and receive the ball and even when he did it was at the halfway line which is not going to hurt them Leskovic and Hormipam did a great job on him,” Hero ISL commentator and expert Erik Paartalu commented.

Kerala Blasters FC denied the main Hyderabad FC attackers any room inside the penalty area. Bartholomew Ogbeche had just four touches inside the box, while Mohammad Yasir and Joao Victor who have been the other chief threats for the champions had just one touch each inside the penalty area. For Victor, that touch came in the 95th minute of the match in what was perhaps the best chance of the game for Hyderabad FC who had just one shot on target in the entire match.

The key to neutralising the Hyderabad FC attack was the great tactical discipline shown by the Kerala Blasters FC players who stuck to Vukomanovic’s conservative yet pragmatic game plan very well.

“If you see the distances between each KBFC player, it was very less. They still kept that 4-4-2 formation which is very rigid and does allow a lot of their players to go behind the defensive and midfield lines of the opponent but with their distances between one another being very less. This is down to a lot of work on the training ground to keep everybody close together and allow no gaps where anybody can play through,” Paartalu explained. 

“Even when they got the chance to defend, they cleared their lines and didn't make any decisions to try and dribble or play out from the back, so it was a no-risk approach,” he added. 

Opportunistic Blasters

However, despite the safety-first ploy, Kerala Blasters FC had ways to hurt their opponents and their offensive transitions during the match against Hyderabad FC were often in sync. It reflected in the four shots on target that the visitors managed to get on the opponent’s goal despite having just 40% of the ball. 

“Kerala Blasters FC waited for that right moment to press where there was a trigger from one of the players. When they pressed and nicked the ball in the midfield, they had quick players who could do damage. Diamantakos played a key role early on, working really hard for the team, making those unselfish runs, and then you had Adrian Luna who is great on the ball with Sahal Abdul Samad and Rahul KP making runs for him to spot,” Caldeira noted. 

Rahul KP had two shots during the game and got both on target. Even though he didn’t score, his presence kept Hyderabad FC on their toes and always concerned about the counterpunch. 

The great balancing act in this rather defensive approach by Vukomanovic was provided by a player who has perhaps been their best this season – Ivan Kaliuzhnyi. The Ukrainian has scored four times this season, but against Hyderabad FC he showed that he has a lot more in his locker than being a threat in the opposition box. 

Kaliuzhnyi did extremely well to break up play and also provide defensive cover during the match. He made five successful tackles and three successful interceptions which were more than any other player for the yellow army on the night while also making three clearances which were the most by any KBFC player that didn’t play in the back four. 

The Ukrainian also made telling contributions in the attack which the match statistics couldn’t quantify but he was key in helping Kerala Blasters FC turn the defence into attack under extreme pressure. 

“Ivan Kaliuzhnyi is primarily a sitting midfielder but that formation requires somebody to break forward and join the attack. So when he gets the ball, he steps in and dribbles and he breaks the line there are more chances of scoring as you get in a position to unlock the defence,” Paartalu who also played a similar box-to-box role in midfield during his playing days with Bengaluru FC analysed.

“Vukomanovic usually liked passes from the likes of Jeakson into the strikers' feet but Kaliuzhnyi has added a different dimension with the ability to step in winning the ball and dribble. So he has got a big part to play apart from scoring goals,” he added. 


Kaliuzhnyi had a big part to play in Kerala Blasters FC’s winning goal as it was he who managed to get the team forward breaking the Hyderabad FC press and structure, then allowing the likes of Adrian Luna to open up the defence with a pass and eventually Dimitri Diamantakos to apply the finishing touches. 

The Ukrainian is slowly becoming the X-factor for the Serbian head coach by contributing in more ways than one in every match. 

Brave and bold Vukomanovic

Vukomanovic also deserves a lot of credit for making bold calls in terms of tweaking his approach for big games and emerging as the winner of the tactical battle against an astute coach like Marquez. The Blasters have hugely benefited from this proactive management style of his since the start of last season and continue to do so. 

“It's always good to see Vukomanovic make these tactical changes. He is not afraid to drop players as well like Jessel Carneiro, and Harmanjot Khabra to get Nishu Kumar and Sandeep Singh in,” Caldeira said. 

“It just looks like he has found his best team of 14-15 players and it's always difficult for the opposition players when a team coming up against you has a different approach in each and every game,” he added. 

The win against Hyderabad FC will give a huge confidence boost to the Kerala Blasters FC players and also to Vukomanovic as he prepares them for the challenges ahead. With Kerala Blasters FC getting all their players in form at the same time, the Serbian has got the licence to keep tweaking his tactics and keep his opponents guessing. 

After an indifferent start to the season, Kerala Blasters FC are alive and kicking again. Watch out!