If there has been one team that is deemed to have performed beyond expectations this I-League season, it would perhaps be Aizawl FC.
Midway through the 18-round season, Aizawl are in third position, trailing East Bengal by four points and Mohun Bagan by one. They are five points ahead of title-holders Bengaluru FC, a side they had beaten over two legs of the Federation Cup last summer as well, and could have beaten them again in Aizawl on Wednesday - they drew 1-1 - but for several wasted chances.
Their performances this season should not come as a complete surprise, considering how they fared on debut last year. They were initially tipped for relegation and finished eighth out of nine teams; they retained their spot in the top division following the withdrawal of the three Goa clubs. Their four wins included a double against bottom-placed DSK Shivajians and wins against holders Mohun Bagan and Mumbai FC.
There were signs of something working, though what undid them was inconsistency; they led East Bengal 2-0 in Aizawl past the hour-mark before being blitzed by a Ranti Martins hat-trick to lose 3-2, and finished runners-up behind Mohun Bagan in the Federation Cup. They have built on that this season, winning five matches of their opening nine and losing two. So, what has worked for them?
It's a Khalid Jamil thing
Kuwait-born Khalid Jamil was a street-smart footballer, a midfielder who played with Mahindra United and then Mumbai FC around the time of their formation in 2007. He was their captain and then, when Englishman David Booth quit in 2009, took over as coach. He was 32 then.
His experience with Mumbai in working with a young team and on a tight budget, has come in handy for Aizawl. Much like with Mumbai, Jamil depends a lot on youngsters from the region the team comes from, guided by the experience of some senior players and some talented foreigners. The template for Mumbai is being replicated, and quite successfully so, in the diametrically opposite region of the country.
Home is where the heart is
One of the differences between Aizawl of last year and this is their performances at their home ground, the Rajiv Gandhi Stadium. It is a difficult venue for the away team, with the altitude, the artificial turf and the partisan support. Midway through the season, they are unbeaten at home, winning four and drawing one of their five matches. They begin the back end of the league with three consecutive home games, against East Bengal, Chennai City and Mumbai. If they can win all three, they could be well on their way to the top of the table going into the home stretch of the league.
Last season was a bit chaotic, with Spanish coach Manuel Retamero losing his job very early owing to a poor start. Jahar Das was promoted from his position as youth coach and brought the experience of coaching the junior and senior teams of Mohun Bagan in the past.
Neither Retamero nor Das had the personnel at Khalid Jamil's disposal, but typically would line up with five at the back. That may have had to do with the lack of experience of most players, but Jamil has been more positive and imaginative since his first game in charge.
Jamil began with a 4-4-1-1, where Ivory Coast striker Kamo Bayi operated just ahead of Jayesh Rane - one of a few key players that Jamil has brought along from Mumbai - and linked up with Alfred Jaryan quite often. With more options opening up for Jamil in subsequent games, he has opted for 4-2-3-1, and even sported a 4-3-1-2 in the match against Bengaluru, a ploy that allowed Aizawl to exert great pressure in the centre of the field for most part. This flexibility is only possible due to the players Jamil has, who have stepped up to his strategy well.
No square pegs in round holes
Aizawl's players are performing their roles to perfection, and the young Indian players have worked hard in all the matches. One of the insightful stats is that though Aizawl have scored 12 goals, none of their players feature among the top ten scorers for the year, with only two players scoring two goals apiece.
Lalruatthara has been exceptional at left-back, though his moment of madness on Wednesday led to Bengaluru earning a penalty that Albino Gomes saved from Sunil Chhetri. Midfielders Lalmuankima, Brandon Vanlalremdika and Albert Zohmingmawia have impressed with their reading of match situations and adapted their plans accordingly.
Liberian Alfred Jaryan has been a consistent performer in the midfield for Jamil, a coach under whom he used to play as a striker at Mumbai FC a couple of seasons ago. Two of Jamil's other proteges from Mumbai FC days, Jayesh Rane and Ashutosh Mehta, have also come in with useful contributions.
Mehta, who typically plays as wing-back, has been employed effectively as a wide midfielder. The standout player, though, has been Syrian international Mahmoud Al Amna, formerly with Sporting Clube de Goa. He's a versatile player, capable of playing in a holding role in midfield, along either flank, or as a false 9. His contribution to attack has been vital behind Aizawl not allowing opposition teams to settle in most matches, as the threat of a swift counter-attack initiated by an Al Amna pass always persists.
What next...is all that counts...
Aizawl are in rarefied territory for teams from the north-east region, ever since Shillong Lajong made their I-League debut in 2009. The only other team to have caught the imagination of Indian football fans to this extent in an I-League were Royal Wahingdoh of Meghalaya, who impressed two seasons ago with a fearless style of attacking football that had some parallels with Aizawl's rise this year.
Royal Wahingdoh were sometimes all or nothing, thanks to their philosophy of persistent offence, and that would prove their downfall as they finished a respectable third, but nine points adrift of eventual champions Mohun Bagan in 2014-15.
Aizawl, in contrast, are clever and methodical. They know how to tide over phases where things are not going in their favour a touch better than most.
That virtue will be needed most as the business end of the league approaches, and teams start buckling under the pressures of seeing the finish line in sight.