East Bengal FC’s performances in the Hero Indian Super League (ISL) 2022-23 season have been characterised by a mishmash of ten losses and four wins out of 14 games so far. Despite their four victories this season - the club’s best-ever win tally in a single Hero ISL season - the team has struggled to maintain the same efficiency across both ends of the pitch. 

The club signed Brazilian striker Cleiton Silva from Bengaluru FC ahead of the ongoing season, amongst several other foreign players, and gained an exemplary boost in goalscoring. A proven goalscorer for Bengaluru FC in the Hero ISL previously, the Brazilian has provided a huge impetus and has constantly delivered in front of the goal for his new club.

The 35-year-old, who scored nine goals for the Blues last season, has already matched his goal tally in 14 games, establishing himself as the linchpin of East Bengal FC’s attack. This season, the striker is the league’s joint-top goalscorer and leading the Golden Boot race alongside Jorge Pereyra Diaz of Mumbai City FC.

Despite the poaching instincts of Silva, East Bengal FC haven’t been able to break through into the upper half of the league standings. Stephen Constantine’s men have struggled to play out as a unit that could ease the pressure on Silva, who has already contributed heavily and is still bringing more.

Hero ISL expert and former FC Pune City & Hyderabad FC head coach Phil Brown believes the team isn’t aligned on the same tangent as the Brazilian.

“The way Silva leads the line and he's fairly mobile as a striker, I think we're seeing a lot of number 9s that can play as a number 7, 10 or 11. They can alternate in terms of positions, but I'm not too sure that the rest of the team has that understanding with Silva. He is very inventive, plays in a Brazilian manner and approaches the game in a Brazilian manner. It's all about flair. It's all about style. It's all about class in the final third,” says Brown.

Out of East Bengal FC’s 15 goals this season, nine have come through Silva, while the other six have come through six different goalscorers who scored a goal each. While Silva’s efforts are impressive and commendable, goals have been hard to come by from his teammates, with the responsibility of goals falling majorly on Silva's shoulders.

Lacking support

Positioned ninth in the league standings with 12 points, the Kolkata-based side have not been clinical. The Red and Gold Brigade have lost nine points from winning positions, the most out of any team. Furthermore, Silva has scored in two of those three games where the team has lost from winning positions. 

The side has failed to sustain their lead and offer Silva support in attack, thereby displaying their over-dependence on the veteran striker besides their pre-existing defensive issues. Hero ISL commentator Darren Caldeira feels Silva has been carrying the weight of scoring goals for the team all by himself.

“Apart from him, they haven’t had players contributing to the goals, and that’s been the major problem for East Bengal FC. An over-reliance on Cleiton Silva is what’s costing them at the moment. You look at Silva’s nine goals, and then the next top scorer (for the team) are six players who’ve got one goal each,” says Caldeira.

Constantine’s men are ranked the lowest in creating chances. They have created 89 chances in 14 games this season, with Silva involved in 12 of those, four shy of the top chance creator Naorem Mahesh Singh who has 16.

"They haven’t had a second player. It could be a striker, a winger, or a midfielder chipping in with the goals. They’ve got (Naorem) Mahesh and (VP) Suhair, and you’d expect a lot more from Suhair this season, but he hasn’t really come to the party. Mahesh has been contributing with the assists, and you’ve got Alex Lima not scoring goals. They’ve had Eliandro (dos Santos) for a while, and he didn’t find the back of the net,” adds Caldeira. 

Pressure of playing for a big club

Given the rich history and legacy of East Bengal FC and the pressure that comes from playing for one of the biggest clubs in India, East Bengal FC players have found it hard to deliver, especially in front of home fans. Constantine’s side have registered just a solitary victory out of their seven games at home. 

“The pressures of playing for a big football club are quite debilitating if you can't handle it. On the field of play, you have to look at the return apart from the one player, and it's not really a team effort in terms of the way they go forward or play forward,” he concludes.

While Constantine has managed to put forth a system that suits his side’s attacking needs and in return, has benefitted Silva, it also directly impacts the team’s attacking output. With the onus falling on Silva, the players have lacked the courage to put extra effort into the team’s goalscoring abilities.

“Constantine likes to stick with a certain style of play, and 4-4-2 works for him and what he requires is for players to start chipping in with goals, and that’s been the problem for them. If they can get midfielders scoring goals, with defenders chipping in as well during set-pieces because that’s when they have a chance, that’s when they tend to concede goals. They need to start outscoring their opponents,” explains Caldeira.

Despite the efforts of Silva, East Bengal FC’s hopes of making it to the playoffs are hanging by a thread, and Constantine needs to iron out these issues soon if they want to make it to the top 6.