In a country where more debates revolve around Manchester United and Barcelona rather than the domestic league, 2017 has brought in a refreshing change. This year, an underdog story from the north-eastern outpost of Mizoram has captured the collective imagination of Indian football. Aizawl FC, relegated in 2016, and then reinstated following the withdrawal of other clubs before the 2017 season, have pulled off a Leicester-like title win in the I-League, becoming the first club from the north-east to do so.
So what changed in one year? How did Aizawl, a team only in its second year in the top division, pull off the miracle?
Khalid Jamil: The no-nonsense manager
More than a decade as a player and seven years with Mumbai FC as coach, Khalid Jamil knows Indian football inside out and has packed his bag full of tricks from Mumbai to Aizawl. He has bought in the right mix of players, tweaked the formation, made the team compact at the back and used the most important trick in his bag -- his experience.
"When we make mistakes, they tell us 'It's okay'," Laldanmawia Ralte tells ESPN about the coaching staff and the players around him. "They keep encouraging us and keep telling us to always give your best in everything, and this is the best new thing that I've learnt."
In 2016, Spanish coach Manuel Retamaro tried to get Aizawl to play a bit of tiki-taka, but faced four defeats in the first six games. His replacement, former Mohun Bagan coach Jahar Das, had them playing attractive football, but the results -- five wins, five draws and five losses -- couldn't save their season. They finished second from last in the league but had a fairytale run finishing runners-up in the Federation Cup, dethroning champions Bengaluru FC in the first round.
Jamil, the man who kept Mumbai FC afloat in the seven seasons he was in-charge, was exactly what Aizawl needed. "At the beginning of the season, we planned to be in the top five," says manager Hmingthan Sanga, but Jamil has given that plan a business class treatment. Jamil's Mumbai FC was always compact, and that's what he's brought to Aizawl - organisation. By organizing the team's defence better, he has freed up the forwards to express themselves. He also bought two Mumbai FC players with him to Aizawl, a team that had relied entirely on local talent during the 2016 season.
The new faces
The new faces brought in this season -- Jayesh Rane, Ashutosh Mehta from Mumbai FC, goalkeeper Albino Gomes of Salgoacar, Mahmoud Al-Amna from Sporting Clube de Goa, Kamo Bayi from the Goan Professional League, Zohmingliana 'Zotea' Ralte from DSK Shivajians, Kingsley Eze and Laldanmawia Ralte from the Mizoram Premier League have all had massive impacts.
These players have scored 16 of Aizawl's 24 goals this season, exactly two-thirds. The most important of them came in the 1-0 win over Mohun Bagan, a header by Zotea Ralte. Albino, Zotea and Rane have played in every game; Kingsley and Bayi have missed one each; Al-Amna and Mehta have missed two and Laldanmawia has missed three games.
In 2016, Aizawl had one foreigner in defence and three foreign strikers. Among the latter was Alfred Jaryan, top scorer last season and club captain this season, who found little support from players alongside him.
In comparison, Kamo Bayi has scored seven this season - their top scorer - and his awareness of players around him in the box has helped wingers Brandon Vanlalremdika and Laldanmawia share six goals between them. Al Amna has been their enforcer -- winning battles in midfield and always looking for a forward pass.
"Amna has a strong leadership quality," Laldanmawia says. "When Amna and Kamo tell us to do something their way, we quickly adapt to it and that's also another reason for winning games."
Change in formation
The problem of having too many wingers in the team was solved by converting a few to deep-lying midfielders. The most important change of all was converting striker Jaryan into a central midfielder. Jayesh Rane, who played for Mumbai and Chennaiyin FC as a winger or a striker, also played deep alongside Jaryan, stringing passes together, which in turn gave Al-Amna the freedom to move further up the pitch.
We came to Aizawl and the rest is history CHAMPIONS OF INDIA!�� . The people of Mizoram you all deserve this. INDIA IS RED! pic.twitter.com/qj0dA5mDMk
- Ashutosh_mehta1 (@Ashutosh_mehta1) 30 April 2017
All of this led to two major changes -- more scoring avenues for the frontmen and a better organised team in a 4-2-1-3 formation. In 2016, it would usually be a 4-4-2 with Joel Sunday and Jaryan as the strikers. In search for goals, they were often left flat-footed when hit on the counter-attack.
Gomes, Aizawl's man behind the goal, has also had a breakthrough season. With eight clean sheets in the league, Aizawl have conceded only 14 goals this season, a record bettered only by Mohun Bagan.
The experience has come in handy
David Lalrinmuana, the 2016 captain, left for East Bengal, and in Jaryan, Aizawl found a better leader. Jaryan's experience of playing seven seasons in India, and Al Amna , with his 78 caps for Syria, have provided the leadership the young unit needed. Jaryan sums up the difference between the two seasons adequately.
"Last season, because some of our players were from the lower division, and playing their first season in the I-League, it was difficult for them to adapt. This season, with the local boys staying in the team, they are much more composed. We finished second to bottom last season, but regained momentum in the Federation Cup [played in May after the league] against teams like Bagan. From there we thought from next season we can do better because we have already played against most of the big guns. We decided to focus on the future of the club and the coming season."