On the 21st of February, 2020, Mumbai City FC clashed swords with Chennaiyin FC, with a spot in the semi-finals hanging in the balance. Prior to that, the Islanders, despite seemingly having the odds stacked against them, had stitched together a decent run of form, meaning that they kept themselves in the hunt heading into the final week of the ISL group phase.
Yet, when the occasion demanded, Mumbai City FC failed to muster the requisite composure or the quality, thereby handing the Marina Machans the initiative and leaving the back door open for the latter to advance.
Unsurprisingly, the onus shifted onto the then manager, Jorge Costa, as several waited to decipher what lay in store for the Portuguese. He expressed gratitude and pride at being at the helm post the encounter. However, that carpet was swept from under him when the club decided to not renew his contract.
Subsequently, the Islanders have been in the market for another coach capable of ending their ISL hoodoo and one equipped to handle the expectations the City Football Group (65% shareowners) might have.
And, rather remarkably, to that end, Mumbai City FC have recently been linked with Sergio Lobera, a Spaniard who had acrimoniously been given the boot at the start of February, despite steering FC Goa to the perch of the standings.
Inevitably, one is drawn into the debate of whether the Islanders would be justified in hiring Lobera or if they would be better served looking elsewhere, although there seems to be a dearth of top-drawer foreign coaches across the land.
The Spaniard carved an unparalleled niche for himself at FC Goa, wherein he preached a brand of football that wasn’t only refreshing on the eye but was also delivering consistent results. To put things into perspective, the Gaurs made the playoffs in each of his two full seasons in charge, whereas he left them on the cusp of winning the league stages in 2019-20.
Thus, Lobera’s record in the ISL suggests that he knows the way around the competition and could add the requisite pedigree to a side that has often been accused of lacking it, especially when things have gotten pear-shaped.
Having said that though, there are plenty of caveats the Islanders would want to contemplate, thereby making them fiddle with the idea of pulling the plug on any potential deal.
Over the years, Mumbai City FC have represented an outfit that has got the job done on the pitch, even when it might not have provided a truckload of exhilarating footballing moments. At times, they’ve ground out victories and have been stoic in their resistance, meaning that they’ve been one of the tougher nuts to crack across the tournament.
Yet, while those characteristics worked a charm for a personality such as Costa, those facets might not appeal too much to a character like Lobera, who likes to win and intends to do so with incredible panache. And, therein lies the Spaniard’s biggest challenge.
At the moment, the Islanders boast several decent performers, although they might not fit into the former FC Goa manager’s philosophy. Amine Chermiti, Diego Carlos and Modou Sougou, despite their stellar displays, might not be cut out of the cloth Lobera desires.
Each of the aforementioned footballers isn’t technically as good, meaning that they might not be able to play as well with their backs to goal, a prospect that would be commonplace if the Spaniard takes over the reins. Though the troika possesses other enviable attributes, they might have to tweak their style to meet the probable new coach’s demands.
Additionally, the current midfielders at the Islanders’ disposal aren’t too similar to the players Lobera had at his previous club. Fortunately, though, in Raynier Fernandes and Rowllin Borges, the Spaniard would have an impressive core to work with and a pair of footballers who aren’t afraid to showcase confidence and courage on the ball.
On the defensive front, the prospective incoming coach might have to iron out several chinks, considering the radical change in playing style. Throughout much of the 2019-20 campaign, Mumbai City FC defended with a relatively deep line and abandoned their press on most occasions.
Subsequently, when the midfield gravitated towards the ball, large spaces were created in between the lines, thereby allowing the opposition’s chief creators the adequate time and space to carve open opportunities.
Furthermore, none of the Islanders’ current defenders have shown a proclivity to keep passing out from the back even when incessant pressure is being applied.
Thus, on this evidence, it seems that Lobera would have his work cut out trying to implement his brand of football at the club, considering the polarity of the style deployed by his predecessor.
Yet, an event that took place in November 2019 could make the Spaniard’s job a tad tenable, provided the club, its fans and the man himself portray immense patience.
With the City Football Group (CFG) now owning majority stakes at Mumbai City FC, funds might not be as much of a quandary as they previously were. In fact, during the 2019-20 term, Costa repeatedly cribbed about how his side weren’t on the same pedestal financially as some of the other elite clubs in the ISL. And, rather fittingly, he delivered a gem at his last press conference as the Islanders’ manager, quipping:
It’s true that we went into this war with some stones and shotguns and nothing special. The others had drones and airplanes. But we never give up.
Thus, over the course of his tenure, Costa had adopted a siege mentality akin to what another Portuguese (aka Jose Mourinho) has deployed countless times. However, hearteningly for the club, the resources at his disposal meant that those tactics enabled the Islanders to punch above their weight constantly.
Yet, the arrival of CFG has tweaked the dynamics significantly and it was highlighted by the ruthlessness they demonstrated when dispensing with the Portuguese’s services.
Predictably, come the 2020-21 season, the upper ceiling of the club would be elevated substantially, meaning that giving just a good account of itself would no longer be enough. In fact, nothing but the elusive ISL crown would suffice, especially for owners who are now trying to establish a foothold in another footballing hub.
Hence, it seems fitting that the CFG is looking at Lobera to catapult them into the higher echelons and ensure that Mumbai City FC remain in those trenches.
More tellingly though, in the Spaniard, they would be getting a manager that would prioritize creativity over calculation and allow the club to become the attractive proposition it aspires to be, not just off the pitch but also on it.
However, for anything of that sort to materialize, Mumbai City FC would have to stump up extraordinary amounts of money and ensure that the Spaniard gets the players he requires to ingrain his philosophy.
So far, Lobera has shown that if given the right ingredients, he boasts the potential to blend those together and serve up a delectable style of football. And, now, it is up to the Islanders to decide if they are willing to leave no stone unturned in their pursuit of footballing excellence.
After all, akin to many a club previously, Mumbai City FC find themselves bearing down on the two edges of the footballing sword and their place in footballing folklore could well be defined by which side they get pierced by.Published 23 Mar 2020, 20:07 IST