ISL 2021-22 | Why would ATK-Mohun Bagan struggle this season?

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ATK-Mohun Bagan lost to Mumbai FC in the final of the ISL last season, narrowly missing out on their fourth title

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ISL 2021-22 | Why would ATK-Mohun Bagan struggle this season?

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sounak mullick

10/23/2021

ATK-Mohun Bagan might be one of the most consistent teams in the history of the ISL, but they’ve got some serious problems to address at Coming into the tournament. With stalwart Sandesh Jhinghan opting to move out and the new foreigners rule in play, it’s double-trouble for the club.

For a team managed by Antonio Lopez Habas, defence should be the least of concern, going by the track record of the Spaniard, who has earned a name for his tactical brilliance in the particular area. However, for the first time since his arrival in India, Habas would lose sleep over how to keep his back four as tight as possible in the upcoming season.

Headlining the whole issue, Sandesh Jhinghan, arguably India’s best centre-back in the past few years, will be absent from the setup, with the footballers flocking to greener pastures in Europe. The void created cannot be fulfilled, but the leak can be taped at the most. But, with other possible Indian replacements penning down contracts elsewhere, ATK- Mohun Bagan are in a real fix! Even money can’t bail them out of the situation.

Inevitably, the first thought which pops up – field two foreigners in the centre-back position. What a pity, that road is also blocked for the time being. The four-foreigner rule couldn’t have surfaced at a worse time for the century-old club. Hypothetically, even if the think tank wishes to implement such a policy, they’ll have to compensate with a player from the crucial playmaking zone and field Carl McHugh, a defensive midfielder, deep down, which might not be the ideal case, would it?

Well, that’s not going to solve the problem either. The last two matches Carl McHugh played in the centre-back position, ATK-Mohun Bagan failed to keep a clean sheet. However, Tiri was absent from the above-mentioned fixtures. Keeping both of them in the mix might be a wise decision, but either Hugo Boumous or Joni Kauko needs to be axed from the playmaking zone. While resting Boumous would be suicidal for any team, given the quality he possesses, spending huge bucks on Euro 2020 star Joni Kauko, just to make him warm the bench would also be harrowing.

Habas’ stop-gap solution, which backfired during the AFC Cup, in the absence of Tiri, was no way justifiable, more so in a continental clash against Nasaf FC in the inter-zonal semi-finals. With no specialist centre-backs at disposal, the manager employed side-backs in a three-back defence to guard the castle. The part-timers were dazzled by the occasion, eventually gobbling up six goals in what was a traumatic loss for the Mariners. As learned from the above case, swapping normal positions won’t work.

That leaves them with no options but one – deploying a young Indian centre-back, most likely Sumit Rathi, to complement Tiri at the heart of the defence. Not an ideal combination to have throughout the season without no real back-ups, that’s the best deal they can afford. However, they have numerous players filling up the side-back position – Prabir Das, Ashutosh Mehta, Pritam Kotal, and Subhashish Bose, which does come as a sigh of relief.

Undoubtedly, Fijian goal machine Roy Krishna, French game-maker Hugo Boumous, and Tiri are the three ATK-Mohun Bagan likely to remain constant in the starting XI. Alternatively, the fourth foreigner can be David Williams or Joni Kauko/Carl McHugh, leaving a large void in the back-four. Self-explanatory, the back-two is the weak-link in the ATK-Mohun Bagan line-up, and even the team management cannot deny that. 

On the contrary, ATK-Mohun Bagan’s front-line looks pretty balanced, with the likes of Manvir Singh and Liston Colaco set to provide perfect back-ups for their high-profile overseas strikers. Michael Soosairaj, Lenny Rodriguez are experienced Indian players, who provide solidity in the midfield area. The lack of a quality Indian centre-back will hurt ATK-Mohun Bagan throughout the season. The 2021 AFC Cup is a prime example, where the Indian club conceded 8 goals in four matches, having shipped in at least one in three of those matches.

As far as the teams in the ISL are concerned, the big guns like Bengaluru FC, Mumbai City FC and FC Goa would not hesitate to exploit the loophole in the ATK-Mohun Bagan unit. Even if attacks down the wings are negated by the acclaimed full-backs, the area encompassing the eight-yard box remains their biggest concern. It’s not that the team can’t work on it, but it won’t be an overnight process, which is why ATK-Mohun Bagan might struggle to win the ISL this season!

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