It took seven matches for defending Indian Super League (ISL) champions Chennaiyin FC to register their first win of the season and it came in a manner which was in stark contrast to the one they displayed in their title-winning campaign.
John Gregory’s men scored four goals inside 18 minutes in the second-half against Pune City FC to overturn a 0-1 deficit before ultimately registering a 4-2 win.
When the side had triumphed for the second time in the ISL last season, they had displayed a brand of football which industry at the core of its philosophy. Gregory’s men worked on a mantra of collective strength rather than individual brilliance to outlast the nine other teams in the competition.
Filled with players willing to run their socks off for their manager, Chennaiyin were a highly organized unit who were capable of absorbing the pressure and then killing teams on the counter.
Gritty and lethal on the break would be one way to describe the Marina Machans’ title-winning run with a variation of 4-2-3-1 being Gregory’s preferred formation. Constantly harrying the opposition in every area of the pitch, the side were hard to break down. With industrious midfielders like Dhanpal Ganesh and Bikramjit Singh along with equally hard-working attackers in Gregory Nelson, Francis Fernandes and Raphael Augusto, Chennaiyin were always at the throat of their opponents and could turn on the attacking factor at decisive moments.
In their dreadful run in the first six matches of the season, there has been a slight shift with how Chennaiyin have approached their football. While much of the philosophy from last season has been retained with the side employing a similar formation on the pitch, there has been a noticeable change in other aspects.
In contrast to their approach of hitting teams on the break, Gregory and his men have instead chosen to take the attack in most of the matches this season. In their campaign opener against last season’s runners-up Bengaluru, it was Chennaiyin who had hogged the majority of possession.
The visitors were on top in most statistics ranging from total shots on targets, big chances and attempts but ultimately ended up on the losing side. In the final last season, the picture had been completely different.
In fact, dominating the ball possession has been a common theme in the majority of Chennaiyin’s campaign this season with their loss to FC Goa and draw with Delhi Dynamos being the only occasions where the opponent has seen more of the ball. While Delhi just shaded the ball possession statistics in the clash, it was Chennaiyin who led in other areas and squandered some gilt-edged chances.
It is no wonder that the team is only behind the high-flying Goans in the passes-completed chart this season with 3,473 of them in seven matches.
They seem to have embraced a passing approach and evolved from last season but has that caused the side to be defensively less resolute at the back? In their whole league-stage campaign last season, Chennaiyin had only conceded 19 goals from their 18 matches. This time, they have already conceded 13 of them in less than half as many games.
In this regard, their efficiency in front of goal also needs to be questioned as the forwards have wasted chances galore. It never is easy for a manager to plan for missed chances.
Gregory’s men industry had been highly noticeable in the title-winning campaign and it is one of the reasons they topped the statistics for most tackles made (534). This season, they have been languishing only in the fifth spot in the same aspect so far.
In this regard, the loss of Dhanpal Ganesh to a long-term injury has been crucial while Bikramjit’s departure to Delhi hasn’t helped matters either. The likes of Anirudh Thapa and Germanpreet Singh have been found wanting in the defensive aspect whenever they have played this season.
At the back, much of the personnel remains the same but Henrique Sereno’s absence has been dearly felt with Mailson Alves having a shaky start to his campaign.
All in all, although much has remained the same for Chennaiyin, plenty has changed. It will now be interesting to see whether Gregory continues to take the same approach in the coming matches or eventually reverts to the philosophy that served him so well in 2017-18.