NorthEast United FC had a forgetful season in Hero Indian Super League (ISL) 2022-23. The concurrent modifications at the club – that included two managerial changes, man management issues amongst other things – had a far-reaching impact on the players who lacked confidence on the pitch and had a major dip in their morale.

After a bottom-placed finish in the league with just one win, the Highlanders weren’t considered favourites for the Hero Super Cup. They were drawn in Group D alongside Hero ISL Shield winners Mumbai City FC, two-time Hero ISL champions Chennaiyin FC, and Hero I-League side Churchill Brothers FC.

However, the Guwahati-based side embarked on a new journey and witnessed a new dawn under interim head coach Floyd Pinto. Taking over the reins from Italian head coach Vincenzo Annese, Pinto instilled his own blueprint in the team’s playing style, which had a completely different, and a distinct look as compared to the former two head coaches.

An amateur in his new role as a head coach, Pinto is a seasoned campaigner in managing youth teams, having served as the head coach for India U-17s, U-18s, U-19s, and now defunct Indian Arrows club. With more than 15 years of coaching experience behind him, Pinto revealed his coaching experience at NorthEast United FC in an exclusive interview with Sportskeeda.

“It was just a month’s training. I learned a lot from my previous experiences with Kenkre FC, AIFF, and RoundGlass Punjab FC. One thing I was sure of is what I wanted to do as a coach in terms of the preparations, how I wanted to train, how we wanted to approach games, and the standards we wanted to set as far as fitness and tactical levels were concerned,” Pinto stated on handling the pressure at the club and setting new standards.

“But the more important thing with this group was the mental aspect. After the players went through such a topsy-turvy season, it’s easy to switch off. So I gathered the staff around and we set the standards. Right from the training session to the recovery session, we tried to control things that were under our control. Fortunately, the players responded. It was a clean slate for all the players,” he said.

“What we got in the month was a squad that was mentally refreshed, which was the biggest positive reaction. They looked like they were ready to compete and, more importantly, the team spirit in the camp was at an all-time high,” he added.

The side started out with a 4-2 loss to Chennaiyin FC in Pinto’s first game in-charge in the Hero Super Cup. The team couldn’t put in their best shift and shades of an unchanged NorthEast United FC seem to have appeared on the pitch.

The 36-year-old, however, was determined to right the wrongs and steer the ship onto better things. The defeat against Chennaiyin FC served as a touchstone in order to improve the standards at the club.

“The Chennaiyin FC game was a by-product of the team not playing competitive games for a while. Chennaiyin FC also played a couple of friendlies, so that affects your mentality when you go into competitive matches. I felt that was lacking in the first game. But it’s the basics. If you need to score goals and restrict chances, you need to be good in both boxes,” the head coach elaborated.

“It’s not an individual effort, it’s a collective effort. We have been working throughout the camp on how to defend and attack as a unit. Unfortunately, it did not come to fruition in the first game, although it was well-balanced when we got a goal back,” he added.

Pinto’s efforts didn’t go in vain as his team clawed back with two significant victories - 2-1 over the Hero ISL League Shield winners, Mumbai City FC and a whopping 6-3 over Churchill Brothers FC. These two wins ensured the side a top of the group finish, setting up a semi-final clash with Odisha FC.

These two wins showed Pinto’s capability of reigniting the passion and mentality within the team. His side effectively managed to restrict an attack-dominant Mumbai City FC and played as a cohesive unit against Churchill Brothers FC to register a massive victory.

“I had a lot of ideas in my mind with respect to how I wanted to build-up, progress through the thirds, transitions, etc. But it was such a short period of preparation that we couldn’t expect too much out of the players. Every team we faced were physically strong. If you can't compete with them on a physical level, you’ve already lost the game. So, part of the preparations were trying to get the fitness levels up,” he said.

“One thing we were happy about was that we could sustain the intensity. Then it comes down to shape and tactical aspects where there was a minor change from the game against Chennaiyin FC and Mumbai City FC. Chennaiyin FC like to play vertically, while Mumbai City FC like to keep the ball. We raised the intensity in the first game, and when it came to Mumbai City, we found that we had extra time to defend. But the shape was very simple. We tried to stay together and be compact because our game plan was to defend with respect to where the ball was and not where the man was,” he added.

“The shape also helped us in counter-attacking situations. When we won the ball, we had players around to pass and move. You have a set of players and it’s also important to understand what their strengths and limitations were. We tried to put that into perspective and the game was simple. We tried to cut out goals from counter-attacks and set pieces,” he concluded.

While Floyd Pinto's men had one of their best Hero Super Cup campaign, they couldn't attain what they set out to achieve as they bowed out in the semi-final after a 3-1 defeat to Odisha FC. Nonetheless, the head coach will still be remembered for steading the Highlanders' ship and get them sailing after hitting rock bottom in their Hero ISL 2022-23 campaign.