IT'S ALWAYS PAINFUL for the ISL team that finishes fifth.
Although finishing 5th out of 8th is a mid-table result at best, the way ISL works is that finishing 4th means franchises get to call themselves "semi-finalists" and therefore successful. Which turns the fifth place into a world of hurt and what-ifs.
NorthEast United finished fifth in ISL this year, for the second time in a row.
Both in ISL 2015 and 2016 they fell short by 2 points from the team finishing 4th. And this one was especially hard to swallow for the Highlanders because they were in contention for a playoff berth till the very last minute. And the road to getting there was filled with a variety of hardships.
The troubles for NEUFC started long before the season began. They had originally signed Sergio Farias as their head coach and even signed a few important players on his say-so, but weeks before pre-season started Farias just up and left and joined his old club Suphanburi FC in Thailand as head coach. The NEUFC management took some time to recover from this and did a commendable job of coming out of this crisis by bringing in Nelo Vingada, an equally accomplished coach known for his strategic abilities.
The team they had assembled looked good enough for a playoff challenge. It was slightly different from the previous two seasons in the sense that it accomodated more players from 'mainland India' like Subrata Paul, Rowlin Borges, Shouvik Ghosh and Sumit Passi. But it had some of the old guards guarding its ranks as well, like Seityasen Singh, Robin Gurung, Holicharan Narzary and Rehenesh TP.
In terms of foreign recruitment they had done amassed a well-balanced bunch. They took Mailson Alves from Chennaiyin FC, Didier Zokora from Pune City, Katsumi Yusa from Mohun Bagan, retained Nicolas Velez and got hold of the likes of Alfaro and Romaric. With 7 Latin American players in their ranks, it was obvious that the team was weaved with a particular style of play in mind.
It was a calculative, restrained approach that Nelo "the Professor" Vingada brought to the table. And at the beginning, it worked. In the first 5 games, they had ascended to the top of the points table by beating Kerala Blasters, FC Goa and Pune City and holding Delhi Dynamos away from home. But then came the downfall.
In the game against Chennaiyin FC at home, Nicolas Velez had to leave the pitch with an injury. This plunged the Highlanders' forward line into quite a disarray. Vingada did not have an effective replacement for Velez at his disposal, and despite trying hard to make up for the Argentinian's absence by using sometimes Alfaro, sometimes Passi and sometimes Reagan Singh up front, it didn't work.
The effect of Nicolas Velez in the NEUFC attack can be summed up by this fact: the Highlanders never lost on his watch. Their first loss came when Velez left the pitch injured, and the other 4 losses came when he wasn't available for selection due to injury. In one final stroke of bad fortune, the Velez picked up an injury in the game Delhi Dynamos, and was unavailable for selection in the do-or-die match against Kerala Blasters.
Other injuries also frustrated NEUFC. Subrata Paul missed the last few games with an injury. Katsumi Yusa, Nirmal Chhetri, Mailson Alves all struggled with injury for a while. The situation was such that Vingada was always shifting things around, playing players out of position, just to string together a cohesive unit on the pitch. This crisis period did ease off mid-November, but the damage was done. NEUFC had suffered 4 defeats on a row, 3 of them during their back-to-back home games; a time that should have seen them do their best.
But still the Highlanders fought their heart out. In every game. Bearing testimony to that fact is that NEUFC only ever lost by 1 goal. Their ability to control the pace of the game and getting their opponents on the counter made the best teams suffer.
Still, their fight didn't register on the points table. Close losses were still losses. And although the Guwahati-based franchise can be proud of the show they put on despite facing a hundred hurdles in the lead up to their season, they need to take heed of the fact that they finished 5th out of 8 teams, rather than ruing that they lost out of playoff glory by 2 points, again.
Their undoing lay in their lack of squad depth and it was clear the moment a couple of injuries completely undid their lethality. Foreign recruits like Robert Cullen and Sasha Aneff didn't play much, perhaps because they did not impress Vingada. It's hard to blame the Professor for not having faith in certain players, because by the time he joined the franchise team-building was almost done. But this blameless flaw sunk them.
What should sting the NEUFC management is that despite not having as many mega-star names in the squad, they had a unit this time that was good enough to be in the top three. And there are signs that they are already taking the hard lessons this season has taught them. Coach Vingada is already talking about starting preparations for the next season right away; a very positive indication considering it's coming some 11 months before the next season of ISL starts.
The Highlanders must remember that this time, they had it right. So all they have to do is to hold onto the core of this squad, keep their coach and dedicate the next few months preparing well ahead for the summer transfer window, seeking players that would bring proper depth to every single department. They can follow this up with an epic pre-season during September and October. And when they start off in November - possibly in a renewed, longer league season that fits the footballing wits of the Professor even better - they can combine their well-known fighting spirit with a diverse, in-sync squad that can last the distance and go for the top of the table - the true place of glory in a league that they briefly tasted in ISL 2016 - rather than scrapping for a top four finish.