After the club won their second title under the English coach, the team has struggled to recreate similar fortunes in the 2018-19 season until they managed to make strides in the Super Cup where they finished as runners up against FC Goa. They now top Group E of the AFC (Asian Football Confederation) Cup 2019.
Speaking at a Nippon Paint event in Chennai, Anirudh Thapa has explained the challenges of participating outside the country for the first time while remaining hopeful of deriving something positive from the continental competition.
"Obviously, it was a big challenge not only for me but for the whole team because it's the first time Chennaiyin FC is playing in Asia. So it's a big thing for Chennai and India. This season, we didn't do well in the ISL. So we had the motivation of something that we have to do as it's the biggest tournament we will ever play," said the 21-year-old.
Looking back at their dismal ISL campaign, he reasoned, "Luck was not on our side. Every time we stepped on the pitch, every player gave their best. Everything that we were trying to do was backfiring on us. So it was just bad luck for us. We were hoping that we might turn things in the Super Cup and now things are going good in the AFC Cup and we are happy about that.
"We had to change some tactics and positions of some players. For me also, in the last few matches (Super Cup and AFC Cup), I have been playing as a winger or an attacking midfielder. In the ISL, I was playing as a defensive midfielder for the whole season," he said.
After taking part in three competitions at the club level and his involvement with the India seniors and U-23 teams, the Uttarakhand-based lad admitted to being fatigued.
"Obviously, I am tired because I haven't had any time to chill out with friends and family. I have been playing football for the full year. But, if I see it as a professional, I have to do things. So I just have to stay focussed every time. With the AFC Cup and the national team, it's a big thing. In the club also, we are changing things in terms of tactics. So it's difficult for a player also to adapt and give a good performance in every match.
"Physically also if I'm fit and mentally somewhere I'm tired, I just need to stay focused and keep myself motivated as this is the only time I can grow. I am getting more time to play in matches which many players don't get. So I can try new things in every match," Thapa reflected.
Delving deeper into his role at Chennaiyin, the former AIFF (All India Football Federation) Elite Academy product shared his thoughts, "Coming off the bench, you know the mistakes other teams are making and teams are mentally tired. So you have a chance to show something because you are coming on with fresh legs. Playing from the start, I think you need to be more focused because everyone is focused.
"Nowadays everyone sees videos and everything. So they know how a player is (plays). So you can't take any risk at that time (when you start a game). You need to play smart. One mistake and everything can be over. So you need to stay more focused."
"Last season I didn't start in matches. So I didn't know how to approach the game. I had no idea if I should take full advantage of the chance that I have been getting. Now, I'm getting to know the better - I know when I need to slow the game and when to push forward.
"Now I can read the game better because when you start, you know how the pressure is on the players, how the game is taking you, what the challenges are and how physical the (opponent) players are. So starting a game is obviously a bigger challenge than coming off the bench," he derived.
When asked about his weaknesses, he replied, "My physique is one of the biggest weaknesses that I have, but if I can't grow my physique I need to put something that I can hide it. I am shorter. So I have the gravity level to push more quickly. So I need to work on some things where I am good."
Adding to the expectations on him and on being fouled more often, the midfielder implied that taking calculated risks is what his role demands.
"When someone is expecting something from you, you can't disappoint them," he said. "If the opponent takes me on physically, they will win in every challenge. So for me, I need to obviously find something so that I can hide it and make things better or easier for myself. I can't say what are the things I need to work on in order to hide it. I need to train every day, practice and take risks at the same time so that I know what is best for me. That's the main thing."
Thapa insisted that he is happy with his current outfit but refused to rule out a future departure.
"Offers will be there. Right now I have one more year with them and everything is going well. I was once a supporter of this team and to be signed was a big thing for me. For a football fan turning out to be signed to play for the same club is big. For me, I had a dream that I will play for only one club. Right now I'm happy here but I can't say what will happen in the future," he commented.
About the club's upcoming challenges in the AFC Cup, particularly in the away fixtures against Abahani Dhaka and Manag Marshyangdi, Thapa has thrown emphasis on how his team have to focus on themselves.
"In Dhaka, the ground is not good at all and in Nepal, the pitch is very small. The fans will be yelling at you as there are very good crowds in Nepal. They will be cheering for their team and it will be difficult for us because now we have good grounds in India. So we need to change our tactics and our approach towards the game because we cannot lose points there.
"Now we have a match against Abahani Dhaka. So we have to be careful because if we lose points, they are right behind us. They will take the points and go on top," he stated.
Asked whether Abhani Dhaka is Chennaiyin's toughest rival in the group, he countered, "You can't say, because we drew with Minerva (0-0) and somehow we won the match against Dhaka (1-0). You can say that it was our day. In future when we play against them we can be unlucky and we might lose, but we need to stay focused.
"The main factor in Dhaka will be the pitch because it's very hard, not good, and in Nepal it's plastic (artificial). So we need to approach it (the matches) in a different way," he reiterated.