ISL 2019 | Is Stephen Coppell the right man for the ATK job after all

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ISL 2019 | Is Stephen Coppell the right man for the ATK job after all

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Subhayan Dutta


Steve Coppell mightn’t have won a single trophy in the ISL despite three years of management, but franchises’ repeated faith in him goes onto prove that the 63-year-old has all the ingredients to achieve it. ATK could be Coppell’s best chance and the Delhi win has given us a lot to think about.

ATK’s meekly ninth position finish last season, where they could only finish above NorthEast United, was a huge setback for the management. The Kolkata-based franchise had only parted ways with Atletico Madrid for financial reasons after the third season and moving away from the Spanish business model, which had fetched them two titles in three seasons, to become an independent identity was a thought that concerned many who were proven right.

ATK seemed to lack that edge under the management of Teddy Sheringham. The defending champions and the most successful club until then were smothered by the new playing style of FC Goa, FC Pune City, and Bengaluru FC, while against the more rigid structure of Chennaiyin FC, Mumbai City FC, and Kerala Blasters, ATK were losing by lower-margins. While the sudden change in administration and management from the Spanish likes of Antonio Habas and Jose Molina to England’s Ashley Westwood and Sheringham was bound to take its time to fall into place, ATK couldn’t afford that. 

Despite football being Kolkata’s first love, ATK’s stature in the city has never been any better than its cricketing counterpart Kolkata Knight Riders, who have to prove their worth almost every IPL season. Sustaining in a city whose fan base is broadly divided into three parts – East Bengal, Mohun Bagan and then ATK, there is only one way to retain fans, titles.

ATK’s response to the crisis, however, was an impressive one, albeit not very exemplary. In a way, it is similar to how Chelsea FC operates in the English Premier League under the Russian Oligarch, Roman Abramovich. The club is hardly bothered about lack of funds to get their transfer targets with the title almost always being the first priority every season. On the other hand, their biggest concern every two seasons is getting the right man at the helm.

When it was ATK’s turn to choose, they found the league going through the Spanish wave with every other club suddenly smitten by the tiki-taka football. However, the management heads decided to go for Stephen Coppell instead, which was out of vogue and was worrisome for some yet again. Coppell has been in the ISL for three years now and although he had shown structure, shrewd tactics, ability, and consistency in his management, the Englishman didn’t have a title to show for that ATK were primarily looking for.

But, the experienced 63-year-old had one thing going for him, his mentality to seize opportunities. Despite being the man whose Manchester United career ended with 373 appearances and 70 goals and England career with 42 caps and seven goals, Coppell is widely remembered as a talent whose recurring knee injuries forced him to retire at the ripe age of 28. While his tactical genius is unquestionable, he is also someone who knows what it feels to miss out on things – something ATK was looking for.

Though Coppell had previously managed Kerala Blasters and Jamshedpur FC, one cannot deny the fact that they haven’t had the best of sides in ISL ever. Hence, ATK’s decision of handing him over the side that arguably has the most proven players in every position was not brainless after all. ATK’s winless starts in the first phase of the league had given way to numerous criticisms and it was more to do Coppell’s unanimated response than the team faring poorly. No fan would want to watch their manager standing with a clueless countenance leaning on one pillar of the dugout when the players look running for a lost cause on the pitch. 

While ATK’s first loss to Kerala Blasters looked more like a cause of an experimental lineup, their second loss to NorthEast United was more to do with the side trying to defend three quarters with one man less. After a 10-day break of the league, when Coppell was asked about the way forward, he had said that it was down to sheer hard work.

“Obviously now, I could reflect and say it’s just a question of everyone gelling together. But the solution to these problems invariably is just hard work and commitment,” he had stated.

No team in ISL can boast of an attacking line-up akin to that ATK that has Balwant Singh, Everton Santos, Kalu Uche, Manuel Lanzarote, and Cavin Lobo. Not only does Coppell have options but he has enough depth to play at least three varied attacking set-ups with the right kind of players in each position. With choices come distractions and ATK had foreseen it months before. While most others would have persisted with experimenting the forwards in each matches Coppell didn’t lose sight of his target – the win.

Going with young Komal Thatal on the wings at the cost pushing of Everton Santos to the midfield where he was almost non-existent, was a move no one saw and it made much of the difference. ATK had bought in El Noussair to bring in the perfect box-to-box play in the centre, and playing without him and Eugeneson Lyngdoh wasn’t expected to help the side much. However, the idea to mix up the positions with Balwant Singh coming down in the midfield at times and Manuel Lanzarote playing as the two strikers alongside Uche got Delhi confused. In a way, Coppell had spelled his team ahead of the game in the press conference, but while other teams could have limited the damage, a Marco Tebar-less Delhi hardly had options.

That tweak was, however, not enough to guarantee ATK a win. Delhi Dynamos equalized soon in the second half and it is then when Coppell’s vision actually came into light. The underfire manager decided to bring in the hugely criticized El Noussair at a juncture when Delhi were hurling attacks like pebbles at ATK’s defence. The midfielder came on for ATK forward Uche raising many eyebrows but the seemingly mindless move got the job done. The Moroccan did exactly what he has been bought for. He won the ball near his defensive box and finished the move at the other end with the winner.

While Balwant Singh’s opening goal was a brilliant effort, to say the least, it was the winner in the 84th minute that reflected the full foresight of ATK that they had seen during the tedious recruitments. Although a lot of flaws are still waiting to be ironed out, the one thing Coppell assures you is that he won’t let the team get carried away by anything. ATK have a man at their helm who thinks only of tomorrow – how else would you explain someone announcing his retirement from Manchester United at 28 and becoming the manager of Crystal Palace eight months later.

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