From The Stands (Kozhikode): Gokulam’s cheat code to I-League success
Three reasons why Gokulam Kerala FC look favourites to win the I-League title.
For most parts of the game, Gokulam Kerala looked like a side playing in another league. They were dominant in all departments, had NEROCA FC cornered, and resembled an apex predator toying with its prey before the kill.
But then again, Gokulam just won it 2-1. And had to scramble in the final stages to ensure a win. Welcome to the I-League, folks!
The unpredictability has been the key to I-League’s sustenance in the times of the Indian Super League. The latter has glamour, money, better footballers and richer broadcast but the I-League comes with its fair share of history, stories, and bigger rivalries. The past three seasons has seen new winners emerge (Aizawl FC, Minerva Punjab and Chennai City respectively) while those last-day title deciders have made the league extra special for the audience. Not to forget stories like that of Real Kashmir – a club that is 'hope' to millions going through a political turmoil in the Northern state – that adds another dimension of charm to the league.
Gokulam, on Saturday, looked like a team set on a quest to become the fourth new team to win the I-League in consecutive years. They were dominant against NEROCA, managed by former Gokulam manager Gift Raikhan, and surely announced themselves as early-season contenders for the coveted title.
The Durand Cup success in the pre-season period meant there was genuine hype before Gokulam’s inaugural match of the 2019-20 season. The EMS Corporation Stadium, placed right at the heart of the sea-town, was buzzing with the energy even before the kick-off.
The ground, in some ways, defined the region’s love for football and have been home to some of the country’s best football before the turn of the century. Even post 2000, the ground was home for SBT and VIVA Kerala during their first-division stints.
The crowd was exactly what you would expect in Kerala. There was no organized chants or synchronized claps. It was just a lot of football lovers humming to the sound of football. Some might struggle to categorise it as ‘fan culture’ but the energy is almost palpable, and it certainly resonates and affects even the non-football folks.
Gokulam will know crowds will drop if they can’t match it with good football. Thankfully, they got off to a positive start in the summer with the Durand Cup success and some sensible recruiting. But the key to Santiago Valera’s Gokulam will be three factors – in defence, midfield and attack – that go in sync with the demands of the I-League.
From the stands, Gokulam gave an impression of a physically dominant side. They were clearly taller than most NEROCA players and were not afraid to challenge for the ball or roughen up the opposition. Under Valera, the side plays a 3-5-2 formation with the two big strikers up front.
It is an established fact that big strikers tend to do well in Indian leagues against Indian defenders who aren’t the best in aerial duels (partly why Sandesh Jhingan is rated amongst the best in India despite his error-making tendencies). For Gokulam, it’s a two headed attack with Henry Kisseka and Marcus Joseph. Kisseka is an established player in the Indian Leagues now, having played an important role for East Bengal, while Marcus’ pre-season exploits have made him a fan favourite. Both are 6 feet plus, physically dominating, and lethal in the box. Even last season, Willis Plaza scored 21 goals for a lackluster Churchill Brothers side, suggesting that route 1 football – hitting it long to the striker – is still an effective strategy in Indian leagues. Both Marcus and Kisseka can play the Willis Plaza role which means double trouble for the defenders facing Gokulam.
Midfield vertical pivots
The wing-backs in the 3-5-2 formation offers a lot of width, and therefore more crosses for the big forwards in the Gokulam side. But what really catches the eye in this Kerala side is how the midfield three are vertically aligned in their tasks. At times, the 3-5-2 is a 3-1-3-1-2 formation with Islam Amiri shielding the defence, Nathaniel Garcia orchestrating the attack and Muhammad Rashid bridging the gap in between.
Viking claps illandu endhu agosham pic.twitter.com/cJBOI21sxd— Kalpanthu (@KalPanthu) November 30, 2019
The confidence with which the two foreigners dictated the midfield is what would have pleased Valera the most in Gokulam’s first match of the season. The two knew exactly what roles they had in the team. There was a moment in the first half where one could see Amiri shouting at his centre-back Andre Ettienne for not giving him the right instructions to a long ball showed how well the team. In Garcia and Amiri, they have two midfield marshals, and in Rashid a perfect box-to-box midfielder to supplement the foreigners. Their presence in the midfield means opponents will struggle to outnumber them in the centre.
The same move which saw Amiri shouting at Andre also exposed another aspect of Gokulam’s game – the use of Andre as a libero in defence. The central midfield trio lacks height and hence the big centre-back has been given a free role to go chasing high balls coming from opponents in the midfield. The first balls around the box are often challenged by the Trinidadian and his floating role will give the flexibility the side requires against tougher opponents. His presence also gives some space for the India duo playing as defenders on either sides. Mohammad Irshad and Naocha had a fairly comfortable outing and goes to show that a 3-man back could be the solution for teams looking to field sides with Indian defenders.
What Gokulam showed on the night was a ruthless understanding of Indian football. They aren’t here to change how football is played, bring in a new ideology or reform the sport. They are in the I-League to win. Nothing else matters. There will be tougher tests for the Kerala side who don't play another home match till January. But by the virtue of what was on display against NEROCA, they seem to have set up a team capable of clinching the all-important trophy in the summer.