A combination of good chemistry within the squad and a mastermind tactician steered Northeast United FC into their highest ever finish last season. They did it without any big names in the team calls for some work to do in the transfer window if they are to maintain that calibre. There is a lot to do for the team, especially in making some solid and durable recruitments in various positions. Still, the major priority will be to retain last season’s emerging player of the season, Lalengmawia.
Impact of Khalid Jamil
Khalid Jamil has given a better performance than any other Indian coaches during their interim stints in the Indian Super League (ISL). Northeast United should retain him as the head, which will help the team become more stable and gelled together; The former India international had brought out the best in the players. Although some of that credit should go to Gerard Nus, who was sacked midway through the season, Khalid was able to turn the individual performances into results.
Having already done a ‘Leicester City’ with Aizawl FC in the 16/17 season, it was time for him to prove his worth in the ISL. Focusing mainly on the work rate and movement of the players, he executed his plans effectively. Being an Indian coach comes with some advantages, like knowing the local players and their styles better than a foreign coach. That was seen in the noteworthy performances of many Indians like VP Suhair, Mashoor Shereef and Apuia.
Building the team around Apuia
Northeast United should build their team around their 20-year old midfielder Apuia who marked his entry into the big stage last season. He has made great strides in the past couple of seasons. He wasn’t a guaranteed starter in the U17 World Cup team but now finds himself in the senior national team. Forming a lynchpin in midfield, he was adept with his passing and positional sense.
In his time with Indian Arrows, he always played second fiddle to Suresh Singh Wangjam and Amarjit Singh Kiyam. Although technically well equipped, he lacked in his tactical sense, which he could rectify when he joined Northeast United in 2019. His emergence came last season, where he outshined most of the Indian midfielders with his maturity and technical ability. After ten starts in his first season in the ISL, he played all 22 games in the next.
Along with Khassa Camara, Apuia made an excellent defensive shift making 93 tackles and 46 interceptions. He also had a decent passing accuracy of 74.47%, made 1024 touches and 811 passes. He played in all the matches for Northeast United last season, which emphasizes that Apuia forms an integral part of the team. Therefore it will be important for the club to build a team around him.
The main job will be to retain him as clubs like ATK Mohun Bagan, Mumbai City FC and Kerala Blasters want him in their teams. Northeast United are demanding a transfer fee of ₹3 crores. Kerala Blasters are unlikely to sign him as the transfer fee won’t suit their budget. This leaves a two-way race between Mumbai and ATKMB.
Players leaving will be a cause for concern as they need to be replaced. Nim Dorjee moving to Hyderabad FC and Ashutosh Mehta to ATKMB calls for some quality players to replace them. It is also unlikely for Benjamin Lambot to come back. So, a revamp in the defence is needed.
Northeast United should retain Australian Dylan Fox as a completely new set of foreign centre backs would take time to settle in. So, they must keep Dylan. He made 94 clearances, 16 tackles and 18 interceptions last season. At 27, the centre back is in his prime and will be the main organizer of the defence as Lambot has moved back to Belgium.
But Northeast United have to plug the holes left at the right-back position and find another centre back. Someone with a decent work rate should be roped in at the right-back, while a solid centre back is needed to partner Dylan Fox.
1. Mohamad Rakip
The 21-year-old can be considered as an option to replace the gap Ashutosh Mehta leaves. Rakip has good experience in the ISL despite his young age. He already has 35 appearances in the ISL and was a regular U17 World Cup developmental squad member. As an 18 year old, he became the first-choice right-back for Kerala Blasters in the 2018/19 season. He made 11 appearances in that season. In the following season, he made 15 appearances for the Blasters. He made 16 interceptions, 55 clearances and 46 tackles throughout the season. The young defender impressed Mumbai City FC as he was signed for the eventual champions on a two-year deal.
He is one player who has the required work rate and technical ability to fit in for the Highlanders. Rakip was the second choice to Amey Ranawade in Mumbai City FC last season, and a loan stint can help the right back to get more minutes on the pitch. The Islanders have also roped in Naocha Singh and Rahul Bheke.
2. Sumit Rathi
The 2019/20 ISL Emerging Player of the Season can be considered an option to play at centre back. It will be a big ask for him to straightaway start in the centre of a four-man defence. Sumit Rathi was a part of the Indian Arrows squad in 2017/18 but didn’t make a single appearance due to competition from the U17 World cup squad members. The next season he played for ATK reserves and when he was promoted to the main team in 2019, he was starting in the three-man defence.
Sumit Rathi can be a good signing for Northeast United as they could be relying on an Indian centre back due to the four foreigners rule in the next season. Once he adapts to the system, he can become a potential starter. Solid game time and the added versatility of playing at left-back could make for a bright future for the club. The 19-year-old wasn’t used much by ATKMB last season, making just six appearances. He can be an excellent addition to the Northeast squad, which can also influence his development as a player. It will be difficult for the highlanders to get Sumit Rathi directly, but the Highlanders might want him in a swap deal for Apuia if they decide to let him go.
Midfield and Attack
It is crucial to retain Khassa Camara as the Mauritanian was the engine of the team. The main reason behind the team’s coherence, his combination with Apuia added more fluidity in the midfield. He recently hinted that he might not come back for the next season of the ISL. If this occurs, it will take some work to replace him with another foreigner of the same calibre.
Squad depth should be looked into, which will be handy for the team, especially in the middle of the season when the coach decides not to outplay some of the regular starters. Good Indian options in the midfield can be searched apart from Apuia, Imran Khan, Lalarempuia and Gogoi.
Another couple of midfielders, especially in the holding midfield position, can be targeted. Uruguayan Federico Gallego has been a standout performer for the team over the past three seasons. After Apuia, he should be given the top priority to be retained by the team. A technically sound midfielder, Gallego can be relied upon in the attacking side of midfield.
Rochharzela and VP Suhair played crucial roles for the team last season. They should be kept to get consistent quality from the wings. Luis Machado can be retained. His ability to make the right decision in the final third and finishing can be important for Northeast United this time. He was the top scorer of the team last season with seven goals.
VP Suhair showed his versatility and ability to influence the game with his brilliant performances. After a good season winning the I-League in 2019/20 with Kibu Vicuna’s Mohun Bagan, he moved to Northeast United. Suhair fit well into the styles of the coaches. His work rate and positional sense were on point as he scored three goals and assisted throughout the last season. The added advantage of playing anywhere across the frontline will also be crucial for Northeast United.
Deshorn Brown brought a tremendous change in the frontline with his pace and movement. Even though he can make the crucial difference in matches, it is uncertain whether he can maintain the form for a whole season.
Another youngster who has the potential to shine in the ISL is Ricky Shabong. The 18-year-old defensive midfielder has been playing for the Indian Arrows for the past two seasons. He was a part of the U16 Indian squad for the AFC U16 Championship 2018, in which India reached the quarter-finals. The Indian team produced a brilliant set of results before the competition, the most notable one being the win against defending champions Iraq in the 2018 WAFF championship.
He has played 38 matches over the last two seasons, and he is one of the senior players in a very young Indian Arrows squad. He is one of the few players to remain in the Indian Arrows from that squad, while most of them have signed for various I-League and ISL clubs. With this I-League experience as a base, Northeast United should sign him to strengthen their arsenal.
As the next season of the ISL will see the ‘ four foreigner rule ‘ coming into the act, teams can have up to 6 foreigners in their roster ( 1 from Asia ) and field a maximum of four in the pitch. Northeast United can focus on having a foreigner for every end of the pitch from centre back to centre forward. Additional Indian players in specific positions can give them the luxury of playing an extra foreigner in another position.
If Apuia stays, it will give place for a foreign striker to start for the team. The team can go with Dylan Fox at the back. Due to this stability at the back, Apuia can be given a free role in the defensive midfield, rather than using two holding midfielders like last season. He can take the place of Camara while Federico Gallego and Luis Machado can be fielded in the attacking midfield.
The combination of these two attacking midfielders can be useful in creating chances, an area in which Northeast seemed to struggle a bit last time around. They can also field a foreign striker upfront which makes a trio of foreigners in the attack. Such a combination improves the understanding of the team, which was evident in FC Goa’s Champions League campaign where they fielded two overseas centre backs and a defensive midfielder, forming a defensive trio. Such a trio in the attack can work wonders for Northeast United.
If Apuia leaves, it will be essential to have Khassa Camara in the lineup. Dylan Fox in the back and Camara in front of the defence can be used. Again, it would be better to play Camara as the sole defensive midfielder. Gallego and Machado can be fielded on the attacking side of midfield so that the team is compact in the middle. An able Indian striker can be played upfront as there won’t be any lack of chances created by the midfield. Someone like VP Suhair fits well into this system while they also have the option of fielding Mapuia as a more experienced player. Northeast United can have a good season if they can find the right combination of Indian players and retain their foreign players.
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