They weren't the flashiest team of the tournament, but a well-drilled Chennaiyin FC stuck to their strengths and upset Bengaluru FC 3-2 in the ISL final on Saturday night, clinching their second title in the process. What did they do right?
Chennaiyin's intentions were clear the moment they retained Jeje Lalpekhlua, Karanjit Singh, Raphael Augusto, Jerry Lalrinzuala and Anirudh Thapa ahead of the season. They wanted familiarity within the team rather than big-money signings. Only Mumbai City, with six players, retained more. Jeje and Augusto in particular proved to be key players over the course of the season, chipping in with several important contributions.
The team also roped in Inigo Calderon from Brighton and Hove Albion as a potential first-choice right-back, as well as Gregory Nelson to play on the wing. Their two most important signings, however, were Henrique Sereno and Mailson Alves in central defence, making the team hard to break down.
The brain behind their recruitment strategy was Amoy Ghoshal, Chennaiyin's Chief Technical Officer.
"We put together a team last summer and huge amount of credit goes to Amoy Ghoshal, who was very instrumental in recruiting the domestic players in particular," head coach John Gregory said. "I knew very little of the domestic players and Amoy knew everything about them. Not only good footballers, but also good people."
Indians were picked in the draft to bolster the one department Chennaiyin were short in numbers: Midfield. Bikramjit Singh, Dhanpal Ganesh, Francis Fernandes and Thoi Singh arrived, playing 14, 15 and 17 games respectively. Chennaiyin's plan was to find players who complemented each other. Even before the season began, they had assembled a team whose players had already worked with each other before.
Experience comes in handy
On Saturday, Chennaiyin fielded six former ISL champions in their starting line-up. BFC had none in their XI.
For all of BFC's domination during the league season, the final was won by Chennaiyin thanks to a moment of composure between Jeje and Augusto. Played through on goal, Jeje sprinted past the two BFC center-backs, but didn't rush to take a shot. Instead he waited, cut the ball back, and set up Augusto, who took one touch and then calmly slotted home. Augusto, too, did not rush into the shot, instead taking his time to curl the ball into the net.
It was a goal born out of experience, something that held Chennaiyin in good stead throughout the season, with many players standing up to make a difference. Against ATK, Jeje popped up with a 91st minute winner. Last December against BFC, Dhanapal Ganesh broke BFC hearts with a late goal to clinch victory. Against Pune City, Gregory Nelson emerged as the late match winner. In front of a raucous crowd in Kochi, Karanjit Singh saved a penalty to help Chennaiyin snatch a point.
"The little things are going to matter," Gregory had said ahead of the final. True to his words, every little advantage that his experienced troops brought him eventually made the difference when it counted.
A coach that adapted to the league
After going down 3-0 to Goa in 38 minutes in his first game in charge of Chennaiyin, Gregory was blunt in his assessment of the team.
"In all honesty, I started with the wrong formation and exposed my team a little too much so that's something I take responsibility for," he said.
The Goa defeat prompted Gregory to change his tactics, and play to his team's strengths by shoring things up from behind. Rather than going all-out attack, Chennaiyin kept things tight, relying heavily on set-pieces. The strategy earned them five 1-0 wins in the league stages. Gregory, who joined Chennaiyin from Crawley Town in England, had done his homework. For example, in Chennaiyin's first away game of the season, Gregory quickly noticed that Augusto could also function as a deep-lying midfielder, giving the team an extra body to defend with - a necessity in close games. "I was looking back at his videos from last season, and he has done a lot of great work in his own half of the pitch," he explained.
In stark contrast, teams like Kerala (Rene Meulensteen) and ATK (Teddy Sheringham) had coaches who were stuck in their own footballing philosophies, which did not work in Indian conditions.
Chennaiyin's approach to most games was workman-like and far from pretty, but it suited them to a tee. Gregory deserves plenty of credit for executing those plans to a tee and ultimately creating another team of champions.