Too late? Kerala’s woes in Hero ISL 2019-20 and top four chances
Heading into Hero Indian Super League (Hero ISL) 2019-20, Kerala Blasters were being considered one of the frontrunners to stake their claim on the trophy, or at least the top four, and for good reason. On paper, the Kochi-based club seemed to have done some smart business in the summer transfer window, roping in some of the best players from the last season in Bartholomew Ogbeche, Gianni Zuiverloon, Mario Arques and Sergio Cidoncha. Eelco Schattorie, too, was roped in to lead the team from the dugout following some exceptional work with NorthEast United FC in Hero ISL 2018-19 and the club's fandom was convinced the Dutchman was the right choice to lead the club back to its former glory days after back-to-back underwhelming seasons.
With Kerala coming from a goal down to beat rivals ATK in the season opener, the pre-season positivity surrounding the revamped Kerala squad seemed to have been vindicated and the path in front of them looked bright. However, that's where the aura of progress slowly started to fade into a feeling of despair. Almost as an uncanny repeat of last season, Kerala couldn't build on their winning start. Now winless in nine following their opening day triumph, the men in yellow are stuttering at second from bottom in the table with just eight points from 10 matches. Only Hyderabad with five from 10 outings have managed less. So, where did it all go wrong for the two-time finalists? The short answer, almost everywhere.
Kerala, so far, have scored just ten goals this campaign, with only NorthEast having scored lesser with nine. The Highlanders, however, have played a match lesser and have been far more solid defensively. In terms of chances created, Kerala's tally of 71 is the third-worst in the league so far, not particularly helping their cause. A major reason behind the dearth in scoring chances and goals has been the failure of wingers to stretch games or putting in quality service from out wide - an aspect which is expected of the team with target men like Ogbeche and Messi Bouli playing upfront. "I think we are having a huge problem on the wings. All the wingers are underperforming," Schattorie had himself admitted in a recent press conference. With the wide men failing to
While the offence is firing below efficiency, the defence, too, has disappointed. While 14 goals conceded doesn't seem quite like season-ending numbers, particularly with the league leaders FC Goa having conceded 12 so far, the team has managed just a single clean sheet so far this season - joint-least alongside Chennaiyin, with the latter having played a match less. What's more concerning, is the timings of these goals, which have been detrimental to the side in the larger scheme of things
To illustrate the preceding statement, Kerala, this season, have dropped a whopping nine points from winning positions, more than any other team in the league. Schattorie, to his credit, has shown some pragmatic edge to get the team into winning positions despite crippling injury concerns but the side, overall, has lacked the grit and tenacity to see these results through. In an ideal scenario, had the defence been steadfast enough to avoid these, Kerala would have been on 17 points and in the top four.
Further diving into Kerala's defensive data, a worrying trend emerges, particularly while defending set-pieces. Seven of the 14 goals Kerala conceded this season, came about from set-pieces, including three penalties - the worst defensive record from dead ball situations in the league this term. Sandesh Jhingan being ruled out for the season, Zuiverloon's prolonged absence due to a knock, trying to incorporate Raju Gaikwad and Vlatko Drobarov, who joined the squad really late, as the centre back pairing and some bad luck have certainly not helped Schattorie's cause either. Coupled with the offensive shortcomings, Kerala’s position in the table hardly comes off as a big surprise, at least on the data front.
Top four chances
Having discussed the issues plaguing the Blasters, the question arises, 'Is it already too late for Kerala to gun for a place in the top four?' Well, not theoretically. Taking a look back at the 10-team Hero ISL qualifying cut-offs from the last two seasons, the lower threshold comes to be around 30 points (FC Pune City qualified for the semis after finishing fourth with 30 points in Hero ISL 2017-18 while NorthEast finished the Hero ISL 2018-19 league stage at fourth with 29 points). Considering the trend continues and taking the lower threshold as 29, Kerala need to secure 21 points from the remaining eight fixtures - a Herculean task to say the least. The feat requires them to register seven wins from the final eight, hardly giving them any headroom to fail. Another factor adding to the difficulty level will be the fact that only three of the remaining eight of Kerala's fixtures will be at home and the already-uphill task will undoubtedly be a lot tougher with the team's famed 12th man in Kochi being taken out of the equation in the majority of their remaining fixtures.
Need of the hour
Quality-wise, Schattorie does have the tools at his disposal to pull off the improbable and also has the option to strengthen in the January transfer window. But a big part of the toil will be more mental than tactical or personnel changes. Attaining a flawless level of consistency and mental strength is the need of the hour, something which can't be achieved by moments of individual brilliance or even strokes of tactical masterclasses. The only way forward for Kerala to give themselves a fighting chance of reaching the top four requires every single player in the team to step up and fight for it, together.