With John Gregory at the helm, Chennaiyin won the title in 2017-18, but were underwhelming last season – finishing bottom of the table with single digit points in the league. However, the CFC management persisted with Gregory into the 2019-20 season. Six games in, Chennai had a meager five points in the bag and suffered three losses. Here’s why:
John Gregory’s Team
Under John, Chennai used two formations in their first six games, a 4-2-3-1 and later a 4-1-4-1. They pushed their full-backs high and the center-backs sat deep, which gifted acres of space to opposing wingers. Further defensive issues arose due to poor chemistry between the center-backs and keeper.
Despite holding on to possession and creating chances with the 4-2-3-1, Gregory switched to a 4-1-4-1. Here, Masih Saighani served as an anchor-man to provide defensive cover for the full-backs.
With no imposing presence in the heart of midfield, Chennaiyin were overrun and starved of possession. As a result, they won the ball back in unthreatening areas, with attackers too far from the opposition goal to launch a successful counter.
Apart from the struggles on the pitch, gloom hung over the dressing room. Having already been recalled from resignation after an abysmal season, the gaffer had laid down his weapons. After being unable to find then net in 3 games, John Gregory stated the following after the BFC game:
“We can’t continue like this. I carried this club on my shoulders for the last two years. It’s not easy, I have never worked so hard but I think it might be time for someone to take over. I have tried my best but the club comes first. I’m hurting like hell, more than you would ever believe.”
John Gregory was sacked after these words.
With results continuing to disappoint, CFC appointed former Burnley and Bolton Wanderers manager Owen Coyle as the new head coach. And Coyle got to work immediately.
Being mindful of the tactical problems at the start of the season, Coyle switched to a 4-2-3-1 with a high defensive line. The double pivot consisted of Thapa and Germanpreet/Edwin Sydney Vanspaul, while Andre Schembri replaced Thoi Singh on the right wing.
The plan was fairly direct – to win the ball as high up the pitch as possible. Valskis was the focus of long balls from Lucian Goian and Eli Sabia. The ball would either be nodded on to Chhangte, who made runs behind the defense, or knocked down to Rafael Crivellaro right outside the box. If the ball was lost, Valskis, Crivellaro and a player from the double pivot counter-pressed right away.
Not only did the high defensive line complement a high press, but it also allowed the full-backs to effectively support the wingers and create overloads in wide areas. Additionally, opposition teams were further away from Chennai’s goal whenever they won the ball back.
Apart from the technicalities on the pitch, Owen Coyle instilled a positive mindset in camp. The once misfiring Chhangte revived his fearsome form, Valskis went supernova and Crivellaro delivered the pizzazz.
As the graph shows us, the xG has significantly increased after Coyle took over and the xG conceded has plummeted. This is testament to the effectiveness of his system.
Road to the Final
In the race to qualify for the top 4 playoff spots, Chennai put together an astonishing unbeaten run of eight games in which they won six.
An important crutch in their success was Nerijus Valskis – the Lithuanian forward has scored 14 goals in 19 appearances and is in the running for the Golden Boot award. He was ably supported by Rafael Crivellaro who scored seven goals and assisted eight. The midfielder Anirudh Thapa also chipped in with a goal and six assists.
In fact, Chennai have scored 38 goals this season which includes the semi-finals and that’s second only to FC Goa who managed 51 goals – the highest this season.
Although the Gaurs had bested their east coast rivals in both league fixtures, the semi-finals proved to be an acid test for Goa. Chennaiyin FC blanked them 4-1 at home in the first leg and scored two crucial goals in the second leg to prevent the “Miracle at Fatorda” from happening.
Come this Saturday, Chennaiyin’s stunning second wind campaign will culminate in the final against ATK. Both sides have won the ISL championship twice and will come out with their weapons locked and loaded as the opportunity to be the most successful side in the ISL beckons.