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Is pragmatism a necessary condition to win the ISL title?

04:06 GMT 24/03/2020
ATK vs Odisha FC
Pragmatism has won over aesthetic football on most occasions in the ISL so far....

In 2009, Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona created history by becoming the first Spanish side to win a European treble. The very next year, Jose Mourinho repeated the feat with Inter. However, the style of plays of both the sides were highly contrasting. The Spaniard focused on the aesthetic aspects of the game and wanted to win while playing beautiful football. Mourinho adopted a more pragmatic approach and did what was needed to get over the line.

Which approach gets you the title in the Indian Super League (ISL)? We take a look.

The pragmatic approach has won the trophy on five of the six occasions so far. The league plus knockout format of the competition could be a factor behind this. A certain degree of pragmatism is also required in a final, as has been evidenced in the ISL apart from one instance.

The 2015 Chennaiyin side braved it all to make a spectacular comeback that saw them rise from the last position to finish third and eventually win the title. They played expansive football and despite an impressive defensive record of conceding just 15 goals in 14 games, they have the attacking duo of Stevin Mendoza and Elano to credit for the turnaround.

In the final, Chennaiyin were trailing 2-1 but capitalised on two mistakes from Goa custodian Laximant Kattimani to score twice in the dying moments of the game and make it 2-3 in their favour.

Three-time champions ATK have the safety-first approach to thank for their first two titles. Antonio Habas’s first stint at the club and Jose Francisco Molina saw the Kolkata-based side play to win and garner as many points as possible through a pragmatic approach.

They conceded a combined 27 goals in 28 games in the league phase during the two seasons and edged Kerala Blasters on the tiniest of margins on both occasions. There was no flamboyance or display of superior attacking football, it was only a matter of getting the job done.

The Chennaiyin side that won the title in 2017-18 also assumed the same approach. They relied on a tight defence, goals through set-pieces and their ability to protect a lead to win their second title.

Yet again, goals from set-pieces helped them down league leaders and tournament favourites Bengaluru FC in the final. The Blues, hence, failed to win the title in the season, in which they exhibited the best football with very little room for pragmatism.

When Carles Cuadrat took over from Albert Roca at the southern club, there were hints that he would adopt an approach that was more similar to the past winners of the ISL than it was to Roca’s brand of football.

Although Bengaluru maintained a lion’s share of possession in most games, it was a tight defence, prolificacy from set-pieces and a cautious approach in the final that helped them win the title. In fact, they maintained to stifle Goa and scored the winner in extra-time through a set-piece, fittingly, given that Cuadrat is an expert in set-pieces.

Goa were arguably the team to watch that season, given their attacking brand of football. But that alone could not help them cross the line against a pragmatic Bengaluru side that became the first team to top the table and win the trophy.

The ATK side that won the title this season was pleasing to the eye, especially with Roy Krishna and David Williams running riot on the counter. However, they needed that element of pragmatism throughout the season, more so in the final.

The Marina Machans were at rock bottom when Owen Coyle took over and had had the liberty of playing nothing to lose. They did not give up this approach and the attacking brand of football even in crunch fixtures towards the end and this helped them get the better of favourites FC Goa in the playoffs.

However, ATK’s safety-first approach and their ability to absorb the pressure helped them claim their third with a 3-1 win in the final.

In the six-year history of FC Goa, they are probably the team that has played the most pleasing brand of football. However the fact remains that they are yet to win the ISL. It might help them in topping the league stages but in a knockout stage, you need that bit of pragmatism.

Clearly, as much as attacking and aesthetic football is appreciated, the evidence so far suggests that pragmatism is vital for a team to win the ISL.