The only ISL 2023-24 preview you need to read
The ISL is back! And with this 2023-24 edition, it’s turning ten years old!
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Wow, it’s been ten years, eh?
And so much has changed. First off, this is no longer a couple of months’ long IPL-style entertainment machine; the structure resembles a ‘proper’ football league and there will be more games played this year than ever before.
But it’s not just the structural overhaul — Gone are the days of Alessandro Del Piero breaking into a mild jog when he felt like it at the Ambedkar Stadium, we now see foreign talent of lesser stature but much higher levels of performance strutting their stuff in the league.
The visions of the clubs, the league, and even the players seemed to have sharpened into one collective dream: get India to play better football.
Professionalism is a minimum requirement, the tactical approaches of teams are almost unrecognizable from 2014 and there’s quality on and off the pitch. There are no footballers being taken to police stations at the end of an ISL final, is what I’m saying.
Oh, so no more controversies?
Something happened last season, didn’t it?
Not agreeing with a refereeing decision in their playoff tie against Bengaluru FC, Ivan Vukomanovic led his Kerala Blasters off the pitch at the start of extra-time. Just straight off the pitch and out of the game. Refereeing has ranged from quite terrible to pretty okay over the past decade and there have been plenty of managerial rants about it, but this reaction was quite something else. What makes it even worse is that there was nothing wrong with that particular call.
Wow, ok. Moving on, any good news?
Promotion! Punjab FC, champions of I-League last season, will be playing in the ISL this time. That makes it 12 teams, and the league’s all the better for it.
And if the roadmap is followed to the T, in a couple of year’s there’ll be relegation: which means no team can simply afford to coast to the end once they’ve given up the ghost mid-season. The more the jeopardy, the better for fans, footballers, and everyone involved.
Go, traditional football pyramid!
The quality of coaches. *Chef’s kiss*
Sergio Lobera, that connoisseur of controlled chaos is back. As is Owen Coyle – whose coaching philosophy is basically ‘we must entertain the fans, mustn’t we?’ Oh, and so is serial winner Carles Cuadrat who can grind out results in this league like almost no one else. Add this to a mix that already has Des Buckingham, Juan Ferrando, Simon Grayson, Manolo Marquez, and Vukomanovic and that increase of playoff spots to six doesn’t seem to be too bad now.
The players are better than ever before, the coaches appear to be too — this season really ought to be a cracker. Ought to.
There appears to be some doubt… what happened?
Well, the AIFF happened.
TL;DR clubs will be missing some players at the start of the season (some key, like a certain Sunil Chhetri for Bengaluru FC) as the Asian Games starts a couple of days before the league does. It could have been worse for the clubs, as the original plan had a much different squad [of the 22-men picked 17 were (near) guaranteed starters for their ISL teams].
But there’s a positive aspect that all this does highlight.
You see, the Asian Games are an age group competition, so only three of the 22 can be over 24 years old. The fact that there were 14 other young players who are so pivotal to clubs shows just how much more coaches are leaning on Indian talent within their squads. The introduction of the 3+1 foreigner rule has helped (three non-Asian and one Asian foreigner allowed) speed up the process of making young Indian players integral to the functioning of every Indian Super League team.
With the AFC Asian Cup coming up in late January, this will be a very stop-start season. There are multiple FIFA World Cup qualification matches (international window, the league will stop) and there’s a long pre-tournament camp planned before the Asian Cup. That India needs to have their best on hand to be competitive goes without question: but it will remain a big challenge for managers and clubs.
Onto the actual football you’ve spoken briefly of… how are the teams looking?
We have a full SWOT analysis of all 12 teams right here, but here are the cliff notes:
Mohun Bagan have healed the massive, widening rift between fans and owners thanks to a simple announcement made right after they lifted the ISL trophy last season: the club will no longer have ATK as its prefix… it’ll be Mohun Bagan Super Giant. (Singular. Don’t ask why). Their squad is massively stacked with attacking talent but with a defense-minded coach and an even more defense-minded technical director (welcome back, ISL legend Antonio Habas), they are a study in contrasts.
East Bengal, meanwhile, don’t care that they have a coach who specializes in the 1-0 off a set-piece win. Cuadrat’s appointment promises to make them a challenge to play against – like the run to the Durand Cup final showed — and that in itself makes it promising if you’re on the red and gold side of the Maidan. Oh, and Mahesh Singh looks like he’ll light up the league on his own.
Bengaluru FC will look to take forward the momentum that carried them into an improbable ISL final last season, while Kerala Blasters will look to do the exact opposite of what they did to end theirs. The JLN stadium in Kaloor will miss Sahal Abdul Samad but if anyone can continue to propel them on it’s Vukomanovic. It’ll be interesting to see how the ‘us vs them’ mentality he’s fostered around the club plays out.
Mumbai City remain Mumbai City and they will take some stopping.
Manolo Marquez’s move to FC Goa should be a perfect match. It may not be as wild as the days of Zico, but expect Goa to be entertaining and strong title contenders. Manolo’s departure (and those of a majority of the starters) leaves Hyderabad in a bit of a lurch but the CV of new ‘first-team’ coach Conor Nestor is promising as is ‘head-coach’ Thangboi Singto’s track-record with youngsters.
The two returning coaches in Lobera and Coyle will have Odisha and Chennaiyin purring, although Lobera’s job might be made a little easier by the sheer strength of proven attacking talent he has at his disposal. At club boardroom level Odisha will want to shed this tag of ‘dark horses’ who inevitably tail off at the end of seasons, while Chennaiyin will want to steady a very turbulent ship.
Jamshedpur FC and NorthEast United will both want to put very forgettable seasons far behind them and they’ve gone about trying to do that in interesting ways. Scott Cooper and his swashbuckling style could surprise teams while technical director Mandar Tamhane’s team-building nous will be crucial in holding NorthEast together when the going gets tough. Newly promoted side Punjab FC are a bit of an unknown element considering the raft of changes from their I-League promotion winning side; but that makes it exciting. Where’s the fun if you know everything about everybody?
Anything else to look forward to?
Oh yes, three clubs will be in participation in AFC Champions League and AFC Cup action as the ISL is going on – Mumbai City in the ACL and Mohun Bagan and Odisha in the other. Watching clubs juggle between continental and domestic commitments and play week-in, week-out? Now, that’s what a proper league ought to look like.
Oh and the league has just recently launched a fantasy league that’s accessible from their site – and from the looks of it, it appears to work much in the same manner as the widely-loved Fantasy Premier League. P.S. If you thought managing FPL gameweeks was tough; wait until you try this. Also, back Roy Krishna to score. Always back Roy Krishna to score.