ISL 2018-19: ATK push for top 4 spot with transfer market activity
"Attack wins you games, defence wins you titles,"- Sir Alex Ferguson
The flawed ISL league system favours the defensively minded teams as even finishing in the top 4 can make them the champions. ATK took advantage of this system and won the tournament in 2016 by finishing fourth, losing twice and drawing eight times in 14 matches.
However, this season, they failed to take inspiration from the legendary Manchester United manager's mantra and find themselves in the sixth spot with an equal number of wins, draws, and losses from 12 matches.
They are four points behind the fourth-placed Northeast United FC, who are level on terms with FC Goa, who in turn have played one match less.
Even the fifth-placed Jamshedpur FC are three points ahead of them. With the league nearing its business end, ATK cannot afford to lose any more points. To ensure they finish in the top four, breaking Jamshedpur FC, Northeast United FC, or FC Goa hearts in the process, they have flexed their financial muscle to the fullest in the winter transfer market.
ATK were smart enough to sign Eli Babalj for only three weeks as a temporary replacement for Kalu Uche. The Aussie played only 61 minutes and couldn't fire a single shot or cross. The management released Noussair El Moumani and, Cavin Lobo is rumoured to sign with Churchill Brothers on loan.
The Englishman prefers two players in front of the centre-backs, creating a strong block in the centre of the park. The 27-year-old Moroccan is a defensive midfielder by trade and this should have helped his cause. However, since their 1-2 narrow loss to Bengaluru FC, Steve Coppell deployed center-back Gerson Vieira in the vital position along with Pronay Halder.
The duo helped ATK maintain a clean sheet, even against the formidable FC Goa, in the next three matches before the Indian international missed the ensuing three matches owing to injuries and suspensions.
Steve Coppell likes to deploy two wingers and a striker in the hole, rendering no space for an attacking midfielder whatsoever. Cavin Lobo is unlucky as he can't play in any other position other than that, thus justifying his loan move to Churchill Brothers.
Releasing El Maimouni and loaning Lobo out has given ATK enough balance in their bank account to sign new players. They have already brought in Pritam Kotal and Edu Garcia with talks of them signing Sandesh Jhingan and Miguel Palanca also doing the rounds.
The only weak link in the ATK back four was the right back position. The 22-year-old Ankit Mukherjee conceded 7 fouls in the last 6 matches. Aiborlang Khongjee, who started in the right-back in the start of the season, could only muster 8 tackles, 4 interceptions, and 7 blocks in the seven matches he played. Despite not having the best of seasons with Delhi Dynamos, Pritam Kotal is the ideal candidate to fill the void as he proved his worth in the national colors in the 2019 AFC Asian Cup.
Jayesh Rane, Hitesh Sharma, Balwant Singh, and Komal Thatal are playing in the wing but have been rendered ineffective by the oppositions every time. Edu Garcia, who can play in either of the wings, gave five assists and scored two goals for Bengaluru FC in the 2017-18 season.
The Spaniard, having played in the La Liga second division before, is one of the deadliest wingers to ever step foot in India. His addition will bolster ATK's attacking threat from the wings immensely.
Kalu Uche's injury forced Steve Coppell to play Balwant Singh or Everton Santos up front. Both couldn't trouble the oppositions as a result of which the Kolkata-based side could only score eight goals in the next nine matches. Now that the Nigerian, having played 117 matches in La Liga, is fit an raring to go, the tables have turned in ATK's favor.
Coming to the rumoured signings, Sandesh Jhingan will add an Indian flavour to the centre-back role and allow an extra foreigner in the midfield. If they don't get the deal done, only two of Kalu Uche, Edu Garcia, and Manuel Lanzarote would be in the field at a time, with Gerson Vieira, John Johnson, and Andre Bikey completing the quota of five foreigners.
Miguel Palanca's ability to score goals by coming off from the bench can be handy as ATK have found the back of the net only thrice in the second half, one of them coming from the penalty spot and the other coming from the released Noussair El Moumani. The former Real Madrid player has already racked up three goals in 162 minutes as a substitute for FC Goa this season. Moreover, his ability to play as an inverted winger can be used devilishly by Steve Coppell.
Everton Santos might be released to ensure ATK don't exceed their quota of foreign players. The Brazilian's versatility to play as a defensive midfielder, right winger, and a central striker will be missed. However, given the fact that ATK have natural players playing in the above-mentioned positions in their ranks, letting him go would be the best possible option.
ATK was the most active team in the transfer market, splurging money left, right, and centre to ensure they finish inside the top four and qualify for the playoffs. If Steve Coppell can mould solid chemistry between the incoming players and the already settled ones, no one can stop ATK from lifting the trophy.