Can FC Goa’s Carlos Pena take inspiration from Josep Gombau’s success at Odisha FC?

The Hero Indian Super League (ISL) points table would tell you that there is not much between FC Goa and Odisha FC, as the two sides are about to meet at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Goa on Saturday.

The Gaurs are in sixth place, two places below Odisha FC, sitting six points adrift. Both teams have conceded 11 goals this season, with Saturday’s hosts scoring 12 compared to the visitors’ 15.

Both teams are led by Spanish head coaches who are very similar in the style of football they play, and both clubs put a lot of emphasis on youth.

However, if you take a closer look at the performances of the two teams throughout this season, you will find a big difference.

FC Goa have shuttled between being outstanding on one day and being very ordinary on the other. An emphatic 3-0 win over ATK Mohun Bagan was followed by tame losses against Bengaluru FC (0-2) and Mumbai City FC (1-4).

Odisha FC, however, have been consistent, losing just twice, with the defeats coming away to the top two teams—Mumbai City FC and Hyderabad FC. The Juggernauts were firmly in those matches and were perhaps unfortunate not to have eked out a better result. In the other games, they have found different ways to win, with their ability to bounce back from deficits being noteworthy.

“The big difference between Odisha FC and FC Goa at this moment is that the Indian players are delivering for Odisha FC, and that's not the case with FC Goa,” says Hero ISL commentator and expert Darren Caldeira.

“I think FC Goa have the quality in Brandon Fernandes, they have got Dheeraj Singh in goal, they have got Redeem Tlang, who has shown his potential. So, it's just about delivering on a matchday. If Carlos Pena can get the Indian players to deliver, then we could see them perform more consistently,” he adds.

Another key difference is that Josep Gombau is a much more experienced head coach and has previously coached Odisha FC. He was responsible for the club identifying and grooming the young players, who are consistently delivering for him this season.

Gombau signed Nandhakumar Sekar and Jerry Mawihminthanga with the future in mind. The club did a great job of sticking with them even when the Spaniard wasn’t their head coach in Hero ISL 2020-21 and 2021-22 and continuing to work with the philosophy instilled by Gombau.

So when he returned ahead of the 2022-23 season, the former FC Barcelona youth coach could seamlessly slot back into the scheme of things and make progress.

As for Pena, the situation is similar but also different. He was FC Goa’s captain when they won the League Winners’ Shield in 2018-19 and has now returned as their head coach. However, Pena is still young as a coach and needs to learn the trade.

“Carlos Pena is under a lot of pressure, I imagine. He would have learned as I did that the Indian players are very emotionally attached to everything,” Phil Brown, who coached FC Pune City and Hyderabad FC in the Hero ISL, states.

“They play a game at a tempo, but are very high up on the emotional scale, and when it comes to young Indian players, you have to learn to control this. When young talent comes along, they need time to develop, time to blossom, and that applies more so in India than ever,” he adds.

But Pena can take inspiration from the man in the opposite dugout as he battles the first real difficult period in his coaching career. In Gombau’s first season in the Hero ISL, when he was in charge of Delhi Dynamos FC, he managed just four wins and finished eighth. There were signs of the kind of progressive football he was trying to implement at the club. As he continued with the same squad at Odisha FC the following season, he managed to get them to the fifth spot as his team managed seven wins.

However, Odisha FC were eventually let down by inconsistent performances, which was very similar to what we are seeing from FC Goa this season.

But as Gombau gained more knowledge about his players and the league, he addressed these issues in his third season with the club. Odisha FC are a transformed team after bringing Gombau back, who has turned them into title contenders.

“He has found the right balance in the team, which is most important when you have a Hero ISL side. Finding that balance between the Indian and foreign players, I think he has got that spot on right now,” Caldeira says.

Pena, who is still in his first season as head coach of FC Goa, would need similar patience and support to deliver the results that the Gaurs are looking for. FC Goa are a club known for providing that kind of environment, and watching Gombau’s Odisha FC play on Saturday will only reinforce their need to have patience with their head coach.

“The return of Josep Gombau is why Odisha FC are doing so well. I firmly believe coaches deserve time, and I know in the modern-day game, they don't get time. But there are lessons to be learned from India and the Hero ISL regarding the length of coaches' tenure. Manolo Marquez is a great example of that, and the return of Gombau to work with young players is also another such example,” expresses Brown, who now works as an expert and commentator with the league.

For Pena, the urgent need would be to beat Gombau on Saturday, but he could do well to take a leaf out of his opposite number’s book and use it to shape his FC Goa project.

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