The ISL was the first major event to take place in India since the nation went to lockdown in March, and it has been an impressive start. Here are our first thoughts on what has been a pretty exciting first week to ISL 2020-21:
In a land of pragmatists, Habas is King
There was no pre-season of note. With wildly varied quarantine procedures and travel schedules, some coaches got just 3-4 days with their full squads before their first match. This was a season that started with no warm-up, and it was only understandable that most managers started with a cautious, let's-try-not-to-lose approach.
When the going gets that pragmatic, nobody in the ISL can stop Antonio Habas.
The two-time winner of the competition decided not to have friendlies -- "For me, the friendly matches did not have the conditions necessary for playing"-- and his team, ATK Mohun Bagan looked a little rustier than most. They made the least passes and have the worst pass completion rate (60.3%) of any team in the tournament. In both their matches, they had just 32% of the possession. None of it mattered. In those two matches, Roy Krishna got four chances, scored two goals, and they won both games comfortably.
The league table doesn't care about your style of play, and that's why they are on top with the only 100% record this season. They will take some dislodging this year.
As long as the ball's in the air, Bengaluru FC are fine. They have strong headers of the ball, are defensively well-organised and create half-chances out of every set-piece. The moment the ball starts rolling around on the ground, though, they just... stop. There's no incisive movement, no coherent build-up and no open-play chance creation. They are boring, ineffective, and something needs to give. With the players and the coaching talent they have, this just won't do. Watching arguably the best team India has seen in the last decade should not be such a chore.
Will Mumbai and Kerala show patience?
Sergio Lobera and Kibu Vicuna share an ideology. They want the ball, and they want to keep it. Forever. Despite all the limitations of the truncated pre-season, their teams started the season with that 'non-negotiable' style of play drilled into them. Pass, pass, pass -- at all costs. With Mumbai City FC on four points after two underwhelming performances (three of them won thanks to a penalty against 10 men) and Kerala Blasters on just two in three (one of those won thanks to a penalty save by Albino Gomes), it hasn't been the best of starts.
Both Lobera and Vicuna, though, have shown that sticking with them bears dividends -- just ask FC Goa, or the old Mohun Bagan. Whether the clubs -- one driven by the all-consuming desire to conquer (hello, City Football Group) and the other just plain temperamental (hello, trigger-happy Kerala board) -- show the patience that will be required to see this through is another matter.
NorthEast United and Hyderabad FC started the season with paper-thin squads and a recent record that did not make for pretty reading. They were all set to be the whipping boys of the competition, but then the season started.
NorthEast beat the galacticos of Mumbai City (comfortably, even) in their opener. And then drew against Kerala Blasters in a match which, had it gone on for fifteen more minutes, they would have won. Hyderabad, having kept a sum total of zero clean sheets last season, have kept two in two this time around. They outplayed both Odisha FC and Bengaluru, and few players have excited quite as much as Liston Colaco has (in two cameo appearances).
Both teams are on four points in two, and are second and fourth on the fledgling table. All credit to the new coach Gerard Nus Casanova, and the experienced Manuel Marquez Roca for the remarkable turnarounds and here's hoping they stay true on that patch.
There's a derby!
ATK Mohun Bagan may be more ATK than MB on the field (way more) and SC East Bengal may bear little resemblance to the Quess East Bengal of last season, but those clubs are what they are. History, heritage, nonsensical banter, ego, belief that everything revolves around them -- they bring with them everything that you can ask from a century-old derby. An actual intra-city, across-the-street, divide-the-house derby. Can we stop with the Deccan, Konkan and Southern ones now, please?
[The first ISL derby, the game itself, was quite fun, both teams played well, but the importance of fans was never made more clear.]
Ferrando took over a Lobera-built team that had conquered all in front of them and were, by far, the most fun team in the land. On first evidence, he hasn't taken much of the fun out of the side, but he has added a bit of bite, a touch of steel. He has rebuilt the spine of the XI and although they have just a point in two games, the early signs are encouraging.
No one has scored more goals in the short history of the ISL than Coro, but early signs from his replacement seem to validate the decision to not retain him. With clinical finishing and an Inzaghi-esque penchant for hanging on the shoulders of the last defender, Angulo promises to maintain Coro's scoring-goals-for-fun tradition.
A solid start for the refs
There have been some great calls (the two red cards, for instance), there have been some rubbish calls (the two penalties in the Kerala - NorthEast game, for instance), there have been some borderline calls (was Angulo offside for his second against Bengaluru?), but for the most part, the men in the middle have had a solid opening week.
In an environment that is as new and as taxing to them as it is the players, it was important they started off on the right note, and they have.