Sen: Poor home form, defensive woes cost East Bengal the title

Which team has scored the maximum number of goals in the 2016-17 I-League? Which team has won the most matches on the road? Which team put together the longest winning streak in the ten-team league?

The answer to all of those questions is East Bengal, and barring the first -- 26 goals, one better than joint-leaders Mohun Bagan and four more than second-placed Aizawl FC -- none of the other records will get broken as the I-League winds to an exciting finish in the last two rounds of matches.

Yet, the three-time former national champions, who held the lead over all teams for a significant part of the league, will have only academic interest in what transpires in those rounds. With a 1-0 loss at the hands of DSK Shivajians, a stunning fourth straight defeat, East Bengal can only aim to get themselves up to 33 points now. It will leave them close, but not good enough for taking the title.

The hitch was in the pitch

One of the biggest contributors to East Bengal's poor form, particularly at home, this season was their choice of going for the artificial surface at the Barasat Stadium. ESPN understands the club officials had the option of hosting matches on the natural grass at the Rabindra Sarobar Stadium in Kolkata, but chose to stick to Barasat, possibly because of a natural fan base in the town located about an hour's drive outside of the state capital.

The decision backfired on many fronts -- the Barasat turf is one of the poorer artificial surfaces in India, and chunks of the rubberised silicon used to even the surface out would regularly splotch out when the ball fell. It made playing a passing game difficult, and also led to some key players getting injured for long periods in the course of a demanding season.

Only three of East Bengal's eight wins came in Barasat, and the defeat to Shivajians bookended a four-match losing streak, that also began at the same venue against Churchill Brothers. For visiting teams, the key to stopping East Bengal was simple -- stay compact in defence, and make sure you use speed on the wings when looking to counter.

Wedson's absence made a difference

East Bengal had a new set of foreigners this year, and Ivan Bukenya made an instant impact in the first match, scoring a dramatic late equaliser against Aizawl FC at home. Trinidad and Tobago international Willis Plaza played his part, scoring seven goals, and did his bit for the team until a needless altercation with Anas Edathodika saw him get a straight red against Bagan on April 9.

Yet, the biggest impact came from the versatile Wedson Anselme, who was inspirational in a lot of things he did for the East Bengal team, especially when it came to controlling their midfield. With Anselme in the team, coach Trevor Morgan could play around with combinations, using the full depth of attacking options at his disposal, as the Haitian Anselme went about splitting open defences, working good combinations with other players and even helping himself to a hat-trick against Minerva Punjab in their 5-0 win, also the biggest away win recorded by a team this season.

His role was also crucial in the 3-1 win away to champions Bengaluru FC, perhaps one of East Bengal's best performances all season, but he would pick up a groin injury during that match on February 26. He came back for the second derby of the season against Bagan, but never looked in perfect shape, eventually dropping out of the starting lineup against Shivajians on Sunday.

Tellingly, East Bengal won just three points in five matches once Anselme picked up the injury in Bengaluru.

Another important player whose injury affected them was Under-22 player Nikhil Poojary, whose performance must count as one of the gains for East Bengal and Indian football this season. A wide player, 21-year-old Poojary showed poise, confidence and terrific ability in the opposition's half. His absence following the international break also affected the team's balance, with Abhinas Ruidas filling in once as a winger and then operating as a makeshift left-back.

Defensive woes

For a team to challenge for the title, it is imperative to be solid at the back. East Bengal showed the right discipline in the first half of the season, but it all came downhill at the backend, and the team alone can explain how the fall in consistency came to be.

Sample this -- East Bengal conceded three goals, remarkably just one away from home, in the first eight matches of the season. That figure rose to 11 over the next eight. There were defensive errors that contributed to some, but the fragility in defence never allowed them to dictate terms in matches they did in the first two months of the league.

Part of the problem in defence was the chopping and changing. At various points of time, centre-backs Gurwinder Singh and Bukenya had to work with different full-backs and that affected the defence's ability to play in a cohesive manner. Their best back four had Rahul Bheke and Narayan Das in it, but the latter's unavailability through injury after the international break definitely affected Morgan's plans for shoring up a leaky back four.