ISL 2021-22 has been an entertaining watch so far, and we saw more of the same over the past week. With a dash of apprehension thrown into the mix. Here's what we learned:
Kerala on top, deservedly so
When Kerala Blasters lost their first game 4-2 and then stumbled their way through two insipid draws, you feared for the worst. Combine this with their uninspiring pre-season and...
Boy, were those fears were unfounded. At the halfway point of the league stage they sit pretty atop the standings, their only loss in ten being that opening day setback. It's the first time they've been this high up since the inaugural season and they are great value for it. They score goals, and don't concede many (only 6 in 9 after that Bagan match). They dominate teams -- it's not often Manolo Marquez's Hyderabad get played off the park, but that's what happened against the Blasters on Sunday.
It helps that individual talent is shining through. Adrian Luna is everywhere and does everything. Sahal Abdul Samad has embraced consistency. Jorge Pereyra Diaz sets the tone for the pressing machine up top. Jeakson Singh has been a rock, as has Puitea. Any time the ball drops near volley-able height for Alvaro Vazquez, time seems to slow down.
But what helps even more is that they seem to be pulling together for the same cause. Ivan Vukomanovic has got his tactics and his man-management spot on and now he has Kerala dreaming.
What can Hyderabad do without their Ba(r)tman?
A draw and a loss in the last week has seen Hyderabad's momentum stall a touch and Manolo Marquez will be keen to get three points in their next match against Chennaiyin. His task, though, will be made that much harder after Bartholomew Ogbeche picked up his fourth yellow of the season against the Blasters, meaning he will have to sit out the next one.
These pages have highlighted how Hyderabad have consistently over-performed their xG and Ogbeche's brilliance is a large contributor to that. Javi Siverio has come on and impressed but can he do it over a full ninety?
Marquez has shown that he's one of the most astute managers in the league, and Ogbeche is missing for just one game, but Thursday night will make for intriguing viewing.
Bengaluru bring the gegenpress, finally
From the day Marco Pezzaiouli was appointed manager of Bengaluru FC, the message has been consistent - intensity, intensity, intensity. From the AFC Cup (his first tournament) onward they have shown glimpses of this, but it wasn't until Monday that we saw a complete performance.
And what a performance it was. Their relentless intensity blew Mumbai City away. Sloppy mistakes were cut out and you could see the 'whole of the team is greater than the sum of its parts' philosophy that forms the bedrock of gegenpressing shine through.
The parts were very good too. The attacking trio of Udanta Singh, Cleiton Silva and Prince Ibara seems to have hit the right mix of pace, guile and power. Danish Farooq's late runs were a constant menace. Suresh Singh was the Energizer bunny made human. Bruno Silva mopped up neatly behind them. Ashique Kuruniyan ran all night, and with purpose. Naorem Roshan Singh controlled the tempo of the game from right full back.
Now, there's still work to do. Just a week ago they were decidedly less impressive in their 1-1 draw against SC East Bengal and drawing consistent intensity from his team remains Pezzaiouli's biggest challenge. It helps foster trust in the process, though, when you put in performances as emphatic as the one on Monday night.
SC East Bengal show spine (finally)
It shouldn't have taken this long, but it is what it is. Renedy Singh's short stint as caretaker manager has seen a proud club finally show some defensive discipline and grit. It's come at the expense of anything meaningful going forward, but this was the most important fire that Renedy had to put out. Keeping out Bengaluru and Mumbai in successive matches should instill in them a measure of confidence.
It's the bare minimum, though, and the returning Mario Rivera has his work cut out for him in the second half of the league stage.
The Mumbai problem worsens
Last week, these pages pondered on how you could solve a problem like Mumbai. The defensive woes highlighted then flared up once again against a rejuvenated Bengaluru side - Mumbai were rather fortunate that they conceded 'only' three. But it was the offense that raised a new point of concern.
This week, they looked toothless against SC East Bengal - this season's SCEB, Renedy's newly installed spine or not, shouldn't make anyone look toothless - and were the same for large swathes against Bengaluru.
It's just about alright to be gung-ho and concede three if you can score four back. Two points out of a possible fifteen suggest that's not the case anymore. In a league format that's as short as this, it's a major slide. That they are still comfortably high up in the table is a testament to their rampant start but Des Buckingham has a job and a half on his hands to try and rediscover that mojo.
Sunday night against the Blasters should make for a fun watch.
Jamshedpur remain the most fun side to watch
Speaking of fun watches, can Jamshedpur FC play every day? Against NorthEast United, a match full of chances at either end, they conceded an equaliser in the 91st minute and scored the winner in the 93rd. Even when leading 2-1, they kept attacking, looking to kill the game off, leaving space in behind for NorthEast to counterattack. This may not necessarily bode well for their title challenge aspirations, but at any given point in a match involving Jamshedpur, anything can happen. At either end. They pay for it sometimes, but Owen Coyle wouldn't have it any other way.
Coyle has long maintained that he sets his teams up to entertain, to 'get bums off seats'. This season is showing, once again, that he's a man of his word.
COVID cloud hangs heavy
Last week saw the first postponement in the ISL bio-bubble after an ATK Mohun Bagan player tested positive for COVID-19 and the whole team had to go into hard isolation. With the January transfer window seeing new players and staff come in and teams having to cancel training sessions after scares, this week has seen increased testing and harder measures put in place.
The league has also reportedly informed clubs that if 15 players are available, their match would go ahead. If not, and the match can't be rescheduled, a 3-0 win will be awarded to the other team. If neither team can field 15, it'll be considered a goalless draw.
In a season that has been remarkably hard to predict, this adds an even greater element of uncertainty.