In 2016-17, Aizawl FC showed that sometimes it is the best-prepared team, and not necessarily the strongest ones on paper, that wins leagues.
On Wednesday, Minerva Punjab traveled to Aizawl for only their second away match of the season, and looked like they might come away with a valuable point, before Aizawl showed their tactical flexibility to swing the match decisively in their favour. Kareem Omoloja (72nd minute) and Andrei Ionescu (85th) took Aizawl two-up before Girik Khosla got a consolation goal with the last kick of the match.
The spine is the heartbeat
Aizawl last season had quality foreign players running up from defence to attack that gave them an added thrust to complement their Indian talent. Mahmoud Al Amnah was one of the best central midfielders and had Alfred Jaryan for company. Kingsley Obunneme and Kamo Bayi made up the heart of the defence and attack for coach Khalid Jamil last season.
Minerva have tried to replicate that this season, with Guy Dano a big presence in defence. Senegalese Kassim Aidara has been Jaryan-like in his work in the centre of the pitch, while Chencho Gyeltshen and William Opoku have added the required edge in attack.
Also see: Aizawl lack Jaryan's spark in midfield
How Aizawl approached Wednesday
Aizawl have had a stop-start campaign thus far, with their only win sandwiched between an impressive come-from-behind draw away to East Bengal, and then a surprise defeat at home to Shillong Lajong. In response, coach Paulo Meneses set up for the Minerva match with a slight tweak in personnel and their formation.
Rather than their preferred 4-1-2-3 or 4-3-3, Meneses fielded both David Lalrinmuana and Jaryan in central midfield, and gave William Lalnunfela a free role up front. Leonce Dodoz, who had operated as a centre-forward in past matches, dropped wide to support Lalmuankima and the Romanian Ionescu.
Defenders pushing up
Aizawl have long been known for using the width of the Rajiv Gandhi Stadium with their wing-backs, but on Wednesday, they quickly sussed out that Minerva were going to depend largely on counter-attacks and would not give much space behind their own full-backs for the home side to work with.
This allowed an unusual gambit of pushing centre-backs Omoloja and Masih Saighani into attacking positions. It was fitting that Omoloja got his team the first goal late in the second half.
The goal that killed the contest
Minerva had squeezed Aizawl with their resolute defending and understandably threw more players forward once they had conceded. Aizawl had already responded by adding an extra player in attack with Japanese Yugo Kobayashi entering the game as a substitute.
The second Aizawl goal came from a miscalculation from the Minerva defence, as they failed to drop back in time to cover for three players from the home team, allowing an unmarked Ionescu the simplest of finishes.
Minerva would get a goal in stoppage time, but it was no more than a blot on an otherwise professional Aizawl performance, and one that the champions will take heart from.
The season has just begun
Aizawl now have two wins from four matches, and have scored in all but one of those games. They have also found four different scorers for the five goals scored, and that ability to get goals from multiple sources was one of the keys to success for Jamil's team last season.
This Aizawl win has also kept Minerva within reach of the chasing pack, while asking some relevant questions about the league leaders' durability on the road - their only other away match was a win in Goa against Indian Arrows. That can only be good news for a league that looks wide open at present - Mohun Bagan are yet to lose a game but still are stuck in a mid-table logjam, while Churchill Brothers are the only team yet to win a point in five matches.