For the third time in five seasons of Indian Super League (ISL), supporters of Kerala Blasters went into the season with high hopes, dreaming of a first ever title or at least a top-four. But in the end, as has become the norm in Kochi recently during matchdays, the lingering emotions have been that of disappointment and frustration.
Blasters had signed foreign players who were relatively unknown, unlike the Rene Meulensteen era that saw the arrival of the Manchester United duo DImitar Berbatov and Wes Brown. But things only went from bad to worse and it included a 14-game winless run on their way to a ninth-placed finish. Just when it seemed their season couldn't get any worse, All India Football Federation's (AIFF) developmental team Indian Arrows, consisting U-19 players, knocked Blasters out of the 2019 Super Cup in the qualifying round.
A toothless attack
Slavisa Stojanovic and Matej Poplatnik simply failed to deliver the goods in the attacking third and scored just four goals each. Stojanovic had a mere nine per cent shots-to-goal conversion rate and his partner did not fare any better at a meekly 10 per cent. The team scored 18 goals in total, a goal per game.
CK Vineeth also struggled to find his feet during a sluggish start to the season and was loaned to Chennaiyin, alongside an equally out-of-sorts Halicharan Narzary.
Goals win games and the top four teams all had a lethal attack in place. Blasters were clueless in front of goal.
A midfield without creativity and stability
It is quite shocking that Kerala Blasters are yet to replace Mehtab Hossain. The veteran midfielder added steel and stability to the Yellows’ midfield, a major characteristic that has gone missing in the last two seasons.
The fans were often left wondering where a goal was going to come from. Nikola Krcmarevic failed to impress, Keziron Kizito looked a shadow of his former self and Zakeer Mundampara was always a card magnet.
The likes of Prashant Karuthadathkuni and Courage Pekuson featured very little. The latter saw a puzzling drop in first-team minutes even after he recovered from fitness issues. Pekuson started only six games after having started every game bar one last season.
The biggest positive of Blasters’ season was the emergence of Sahal Abdul Samad into the limelight. After impressing for the reserve team last season, the 22-year-old made the leap into the first team, started 16 games and was deservedly one of the first names on the teams sheet.
Seiminlen Doungel was aggressive and hungry to make and impact but his final product was often frustrating. Solving the crisis in midfield should be of high priority for the management next season for it has remained unresolved for too long.
A one-man army at the back
Apart from Sahal, Sandesh Jhingan will be the only other player most supporters will have no complaints about. It is not to suggest that the defender was faultless but he was often found covering up for the defensive errors of his partner Anas Edathodika.
The lack of support from the flanks was also a major concern. Lalruatthara, who won the ‘emerging player of the award’ last season, found his first team minutes almost halved in the 2018-19 season. Mohammad Rakip and Pritam Singh struggled throughout and couldn’t cope up with the pressure as the season unwinded.
In goal, Dheeraj Singh had quite a few nervy moments early on the season but he settled in well after a few games. He was tested quite a lot as Blasters let in 28 goals in the league season but the goalkeeper isn’t the only one to blame for the bad record.
Kerala Blasters should either place their trust in the local talents and establish a philosophy that centres around developing youth and integrating them into the first team. Or they should spend a lot of money wisely in areas that require major upgrade.
Like last season’s bemusing deal for Victor Pulga, Blasters brought in Baoringdao Bodo who wasn’t of much use. Once again, the decision-making in the transfer market left a lot to be desired but a change in leadership will give the supporters renewed hope. With attendance figures dwindling and fans being alienated, the board members have some difficult decisions to make.