The 2022-23 season of Indian Football has long kick-started with the 131st edition of the Durand Cup. A total of 20 teams over four groups are fighting to qualify for the next round and ultimately lift the oldest team honour in Asian Football. Unlike last season, all the ISL participants have sent a team this time. Of them, seven (including Emami East Bengal) sent their first team. One such was the rather new-looking side of Chennaiyin FC.
After yet another disappointing season, the Chennaiyin management once again decided to go for a chop-and-change and appointed Thomas Brdaric as their new head coach. However, they managed to retain the most of their domestic contingent. Rafael Crivellaro is the only foreigner to retain his spot in the new roster.
The Marina Machans started their Durand Cup campaign with a 2-2 draw with Army Red. All four goals in that game came off the corners. The following match resulted in a 3-1 loss against Hyderabad FC who fielded their strongest team at the Khuman Lampak. The first encounter was a late drama while the second one was a second-half collapse.
From the strongest XI point of view, the encounter against Hyderabad gives a better idea. Debjit is now seemingly the undisputed #1. A back four of Ajith, Fallou, Gurmukh and Narayan Das was fielded. The midfield three consisted of the young Sajal Bag, German Julius Düker and captain Aniruddh Thapa. While the front three had Rahim Ali, Sliskovic and Ninthoi, where Rahim would start at the left.
Das started as the centre-back alongside Fallou in the first game, where Aakash Sangwan took the LB spot. However, it looked scrappy and as a result of that, the opponents once came really close to scoring. The equations looked much better against Marquez’s side where Das took his most favourable position and combined seemingly well in possession with Thapa and Rahim down the left flank.
This puts down an important element of Thomas’ side’s setup so far. In the midfield three, Thapa was the left outlet more often than not. This means the team used the triangles of Rahim, Thapa and Narayan Das on the left flank – one of the reasons why Chennaiyin looked more dominant down the left.
Gurmukh at times joined the trio to outnumber the Nizams on the flank. Subsequently, Düker and Bag would cover up the space. The wingers, more often Rahim Ali, are seen in the half spaces and more creative zones. For the left flank, as Narayan Das provides the width, Rahim Ali gets into the creative zones and combines with Thapa and Sliskovic to sneak the ball in. It comes quite naturally too as the forward is predominantly a right-footed player. Rahim was often seen deep, be it for supporting the defence or taking the ball from there. In the first half against Hyderabad, he was basically the advanced midfielder alongside Anirudh Thapa.
Things are and supposed to be a bit different at the right flank. Ajith is not the most reputed full-back going forward. And Ninthoi is a right-footed winger who likes to dribble and push defenders.
Operation of Midfield
It’s for sure that captain Thapa and Julius Düker are going to be the most influential players in the team, not only the midfield. Especially Düker, who has shown his variety by playing different roles in two games of the Cup so far. However, it didn’t seem like there is a fixed role for everybody in the midfield. Going forward, there will be. But for now, it looks like both Düker and Thapa have synchronised roles in the team, while Sajal or Edwin, based on who is there, play the second fiddle.
The way the three operate, of course, has the major say on what the layout looks like for the Marina Machans.
In the Hyderabad FC game, Düker, Thapa and Sajal Bag made the midfield three for Chennaiyin. However, the flat rotating three wasn’t the only way they operated. At times, Thapa was the #10 and Düker was the orchestrar. In his previous stint, Brdaric trusted 4-2-3-1 the most. His next favourite was 4-4-2. But as per the available data, the formations kept changing throughout the game; both on and off the ball.
Other than 4-2-3-1, the 4-2-4 setup was the off-the-ball setup for Thomas Brdaric’s men. Thapa would join Sliskovic to make flat front-4. The front-4 would rather shrink to block the progression through the middle lane, making the opposition go through the wings. One of the midfield duo looks to cover off an open passing option, while the other takes care that the gap between the centre-backs doesn’t get exposed. Düker, being a better presser, often steps up to get the ball from the opposition pivot, resulting in a break.
Talking about changing formations, 4-1-4-1 wasn’t left out at all as Julius Düker at times occupied the space between the defensive and midfield line as the sole man.
Possession based team
It is often one of the most obvious statements to make about a team. Until when Chennaiyin had all eleven men, they dominated the possession graph with 54%. Then Fallou got sent off for a rather unnecessary handball and the team collapsed. However, till then, the side had more ball. In Thomas’ last stint in the Albanian League, his team had some of the best attacking metrics. His team KF Vllaznia registered the highest number of entries in the opposition half, and the second highest in the final third and penalty box. These give the idea of that team being quite offensive. They also accumulated the highest amount of xG p90. But what follows this metric is often disappointing for the Chennaiyin disciples, as was for the Vllaznia fans. Despite doing that much, they weren’t the best of the scorers in the league. They had the third worst coversion rate of all (22%).
The team also recorded the highest number of crosses throughout the season. The manager indeed designs the tactics to produce those numbers, but it’s up to the players to make it work and fruitful. The question will arise: Has he been provided with the right set? It’s a question that keeps arising throughout the season for Chennaiyin. These are the early days for this team. But to be critical, they have at least one major question in each department. But that’s what pre-seasons are for. But also, the questions seem to be pretty big ones. Anyone related to the club would want that they enter the new season of ISL with the questions solved.