ISL 2019/20 team focus: Can NorthEast United cope with Eelco Schattorie's departure?
Indian football's carnival returns as the Indian Super League (ISL) kick starts its sixth edition on October 20 at Kochi. NorthEast United will return to action on October 21 against the current champions Bengaluru FC, without a notable figure in their house.
NorthEast United management was under immense pressure before the 2018/19 season. The club had the misfortune of being the only side that was part of the league from inception but failed to qualify for the playoffs even once. Highlander Brigade - the loyal fan group was let-down by the team's performances. The average home attendance fell from 26,000 in 2016 to 8,000 in 2017.
However, NEUFC's fortunes changed when the management made a Dutch import in the form of Eelco Schattorie as the head coach. He signed Bartholomew Ogbeche, who turned out to be the club's all-time top-scorer in a single season. The Nigerian forward had a perfect partner in attack - Federico Gallego. The defence under Mislav Komorski and Mato Grgic was one of the best in the league, conceding only 18 goals. The team worked as a unit to reach the playoffs and ended with a second-leg defeat to Bengaluru FC.
But, things are different in the camp at Guwahati in this pre-season. Eelco Schattorie has shifted base to Kerala Blasters. Robert Jarni has been appointed the new head coach.
Morning shows the day
It is too early to judge Schattorie's replacement. However, the first four to six weeks would be crucial for the Croatian manager taking over a club that tasted success very late.
Coming to the new season, NorthEast have lost some of their key players. Bartholomew Ogbeche has followed his manager to join Kerala Blasters. Mato Grgic and Rowllin Borges were signed by Mumbai City. The biggest absence would be Federico Gallego, recovering from an injury he suffered in the playoffs last season. The midfielder would not be returning to action before December. The names that have moved out of NEUFC had played a vital role in their memorable run last season. Missing all of them alongside Schattorie and Gallego wouldn't do the team any good.
The efforts of making up for the losses were evident in the transfer market. The club made some valuable purchases like Ghanaian legend Asamoah Gyan, Argentine forward Maximiliano Barreiro and young gun Martin Chaves.
Despite this, troubles are not far from Jarni's side. They lack quality Indian players with international experience. Having three of their foreigners in the attack, NEUFC also has shortcomings in their midfield. Milan Singh, who is likely to replace Rowllin Borges at the centre, will have huge responsibilities on his shoulders. The defence will lose shape if one among their two foreign centre-backs - Mislav Komorski or Kai Heerings is forced out.
However, NorthEast United would be a strong force on the offensive side this season. When Gyan's experience is backed by Barreiro's aggression, the opposition will have a hectic day at work. Martin Chaves will be a readily available choice of fresh legs.
What makes things interesting on the foreign quota is Gallego's return. According to ISL rules, a team can register only seven foreign players. NorthEast has signed eight players from abroad including Gallego. One of the foreign players currently registered will have to be deregistered after the Uruguayan's return. This competition might help the manager get the best out of his attackers.
Schattorie preferred a 4-2-3-1 formation at NorthEast United. The holding midfielders had a crucial role in his system. Jarni too is known to favour the same formation. With adequate options in attack, the Croatian manager would easily meet his objectives on the offensive half. If Jarni opts for the use of flanks, Nikhil Kadam and Redeem Tlang, operating on the wings, might not take time to adapt to the new tactics.
Jarni and Antonio Iriondo (Jamshedpur FC) are the only two ISL managers without prior experience in Indian football. NorthEast United will have to be aware of this situation and offer the head coach time to adapt to the competition. Jarni would be prepared for the test and have enough tricks up his sleeve.
But still, it all comes down to the trio of Gyan-Barreiro-Chaves. If they don't disappoint and Gallego joins the party soon, NorthEast United may have a formidable plan of action to cope with Schattorie's departure.