Amidst the Spaniards and Englishmen, there stands an Indian that breaks the mould. He cuts a sober and austere figure – no controversial remarks about the referees, no show of arrogance and always talking up his players.
While some think his interviews are dry and repetitive, they shine upon a principle he carries straight to the locker room – last to take the credit, first to take the blame. And as much as he may deny, his efforts behind Northeast United’s success are there for all to see. With a spotless record all the way up to the second leg of the semis, he created history for his club, and Indian coaches.
But what is it that he did so well? How did he take such a scrappy, defensive side and turn them into one that scored 18 goals in 9 league games? Let’s take a deep dive and understand Khalid Jamil’s methods on and off the pitch.
OFF THE PITCH
His approach towards the media already gives a glimpse of how much he values his players, but the respect goes both ways here. In a chat with Scroll.in, Paresh Shivalkar claims that Jamil’s player management skills are “second to none.” He goes on to praise Jamil’s assessment of Indian players and his ability to unlock their potential.
But all this is only possible through intense training and analysing. Darren Caldeira (a player from Jamil’s Mumbai FC) mentions that he prefers having more personal meetings with his players. “He’ll show clips, charts and whatnot but he’ll make sure he has got his points across. At times, these meetings can go on for hours,” he explains in an interview with Scroll.in .
On top of his attention to detail, Jamil is great at nurturing talent as well. He balances his squad through timely rotations and keeps the spirits high.
Four of his players have been called up for the India camp (Apuia, Ashutosh Mehta, Subhasish Roy and Mashoor Shereef) and others such as Imran Khan, Provat Lakra and VP Suhair have done commendably.
ON THE PITCH
Being one of the most reactionary managers in the country, he is adept at changing his system based on the opponents. The ability to switch tactics not just between matches, but during matches is extremely useful. Especially in Indian football, as there is very little time to prepare against a team which can play in different ways.
His line-up changes almost every game, but there have been consistent starters. Subhasish Roy Chowdhury was reinstated, Apuia made the midfield his own, Suhair took over in place of Ninthoi and Mashoor started seeing a lot more minutes than earlier.
To give an idea about NEUFC’s performances, here is an xG vs xG Against graph over the course of the season. Gerard Nus started strong but their form started to taper off after the Chennaiyin game.
As we can see, the red line (xG Against) overtakes the black line (xG), which indicates that his side created lesser quality chances as compared to the ones they conceded. Though the lines returned to a more acceptable state against Hyderabad FC, it still showed that teams were starting to create better chances against them as time passed.
Following the draw against BFC, Jamil was brought back and appointed head coach. As we can see, the xG line has a decent resurgence and the red line goes down as well – meaning they were defending better and attacking better. As time passed, the distance between the two lines increases as well, which goes to show that overall Northeast started winning games in well deserved fashion.
Since xG data wasn’t available, we couldn’t include their final game against Kerala Blasters, but the eye test supports that it was a convincing victory.
Now that we know how the player selections and results changed, let us take a look at what exactly Jamil’s system offered. We split his line-ups in two – with Gallego and without. The team performed in different manners in both cases.
Northeast United tend to construct play with 3 players at the back. Unlike other clubs that drop a pivot to make a 3-back, Northeast use their full-back as a 3rd defender. The pivot (Camara or Apuia) stays in front of the defense. They have freedom to carry the ball and pass where they see space. The second pivot would maintain a fair distance and present themselves as a passing option along with other players. This build-up foundation is used irrespective of Gallego’s presence on the pitch.
Once the ball is in midfield, the Highlanders have multiple ways of progressing. If Gallego is present, the motive would be to find him directly or through a wall-pass. This could also be done through long balls from behind which Brown or Sylla would try to lay-off to the Uruguayan genius. Then, in all his finesse and mastery, the number 10 would release a player in running into space (in this case, Machado)
An alternate way of progressing would be wing-play. Assuming Gallego is marked at the moment, the ball would be distributed to the wings. The full-back (Ashutosh here) would bomb ahead and support the winger. Gallego would drift towards the ball to create a triangle (as shown).
To prevent counters on the wing, Apuia would position himself in the full-back’s spot (or Camara, depending on the flank). By creating an overload on the wings, they can also counter-press if they lose the ball. This way, they have a higher chance of winning it because the opponents are restricted by the touchline. Also, losing the ball out wide is less dangerous than losing it centrally. This benefits Northeast.
In the unfortunate event that Gallego could not be on the pitch, it was Machado (#20) who wore the magician’s hat. He came deep and central with Lakra or Gurjinder providing the width. Imran Khan could play beside Machado to support, or he could occupy the wings.
Here too, we see Machado coming between the lines and central. This time Imran Khan is close to him for a lay-off.
Once the ball was in the final 3rd, Northeast used some interesting movements while attacking crosses. The winger of the opposite flank would be near the penalty spot, meanwhile the striker would go to the far post. As you can see here, Machado has come in the middle and Deshorn Brown is at the far post (out of frame).
This has worked very well for the Highlanders. The play from which this photo was taken resulted in a goal, and Deshorn’s first goal against Mumbai was also a result of going at the deep end.
Apart from them, Gallego would hover around the edge of the box, and an onrushing midfielder (Camara above) made a late run into the box, or tried to win the second ball in a dangerous zone.
This visual suggests that most of their passes that lead to shots come from the right wing, or from right outside the box. The deep orange hues in midfield and defense also suggest that they can create from the center of the park (which they do when they are countering).
Note: This visual only includes xA data after Khalid Jamil joined, therefore it has no indication of how Northeast played before his appointment as head coach.
Interestingly though, as compared to the league, Northeast create below average from the wings. Don’t let the colors fool you, it’s not as big an underperformance as it seems.
However, the main point is that most of their goal-scoring opportunities come from the centre, which only goes to show how influential Gallego is. Creating chances from deep also suits Deshorn Brown’s playstyle, wherein he can use his pace and power to outmuscle defenders and be through on goal.
This is where things get fun, pragmatic coaches and defending patterns. From what I could gather, there are two (and a half?) major defensive formations. The 4-4-2 and the 4-3-1-2 which also becomes a 4-3-3 at times.
The 4-4-2 is a classic. Most teams in the ISL adopt this approach while defending and why wouldn’t they? Double coverage on the wings, one ball presser and one cover up front, plus two midfielders. Having used this formation extensively under Nus, the team was well versed with the defensive responsibilities that came along with this template.
Here is the 4-3-1-2. This usually came into play when Imran Khan started. VP Suhair went into midfield and formed a trio with Apuia and Camara. Meanwhile Machado partnered Deshorn Brown in the press and Imran Khan stood behind them.
At times it would change back into a 4-4-2 with Imran and Brown up top, and at other times it would be a 4-3-3. As we all know, formations are arbitrary, so what matters more is pressing.
Northeast like to use a pendulum press (a press where they mark the pivot). Picking up right where we left off, we can see Imran pressing Steinmann. Meanwhile, the other players mark out the passing options.
Below, in a 4-4-2, there is no pressure applied on the ball carrier. Instead, the intent is to contain. Gallego is on Joao Victor, Apuia is close to Sastre (which forces him back), Ninthoi near Akash and Sylla moving to press Odei. Hyderabad would either have to play a long ball, or bring players back.
Again, we can see NEUFC’s reluctance to close down the ball carrying defender. The pass options have been cut out.
Since there isn’t much pressure applied on the ball-carrier, the passes often make their way to the midfield. This is where the team turns up the heat. Once the ball crosses the half-way line, the zonal press begins. If it is on the wings, Machado or Suhair attack the ball.
The defensive mids position themselves closer to clamp down on the opponents. If the ball is in a central area, Imran also gets involved in the press along with Apuia (as shown below).
Here we can see the movement for what was described above. Apuia pressing immediately, and Camara closing in space. Machado positions himself for intercepting loose balls and creating a turnover.
If this wave of pressing fails, one of the centre-backs is allowed to leave their line and cut out the danger immediately. Fortunately, this doesn’t happen as much because Jamil’s team has some incredible work-horses.
Apuia and Camara’s elite technique also ensures that they seldom lose the ball after winning it back.
While pressing, full-backs are also given the freedom to charge. Here we can see Nim Dorjee in the opposition’s half trying to win the ball back. The same can be seen on either flank, for any of their full-backs
When the team is in shape and is being attacked on the wing, they prefer having 3 of their own players to help out with defending. Apuia shifts in as cover, and the full-back is given freedom to go 1v1 with the ball-carrier. The winger (Suhair here) tracks back and marks passing options or presses the ball-carrier. This is something that was observed in Nus’ plans as well
For their corners, they like to have 4-5 players in the box. VP Suhair, Benjamin Lambot, Dylan Fox/Mashoor Shereef, Ashutosh Mehta/Nim Dorjee and Deshorn Brown/Idrissa Sylla.
As you can see, Suhair stands close to the keeper to make rushing out difficult. One player (Mashoor here) runs in from deep, and the remaining 3 cluster around the centre and try to get their head to the ball.
Machado and Apuia float outside the box to attack second balls, and the defending pair are the left-back and Camara. Their job is to delay the counter as much as possible till the team tracks back.
An interesting pattern was noticed in throw-ins. When a throw-in is awarded on the right hand side, in the final third, Mashoor Shereef takes them over Ashutosh Mehta. For any other position, the full-back usually takes the throw. This may be because Ashutosh is adept at crossing, and bringing him the ball in the final third could be fruitful
This is their formation during goal-kicks. Subhasish prefers going long and utilizing Sylla or Brown to win the ball. We can see that the striker has come to head the ball, and Machado is running in behind for a flick-on. Gallego and Ninthoi have come closer for second balls and the remaining players have retained their position. By creating a narrow block, Northeast also make it easier for them to win the ball since there is less space between opponents.
As said earlier, the full-backs are extremely pro-active in closing down players. This means that if a striker drops into the half-space, they can lure the full-back out and set up a winger rushing into the gap.
Here we can see the left-back being pulled out twice and East Bengal finding space on the right. Although the wings are relatively non-threatening positions, Northeast have suffered from this predicament before.
For example, their 3-3 draw against Chennaiyin FC. Chhangte repeatedly penetrated the space behind Ashutosh Mehta and ended up scoring goals. If a team has a pacy winger who can carry the ball, the Highlanders would have a tough time.
Here we can see where they conceded most of their chances from – and without a doubt it’s the wings and outside the box.
The left flank is relatively better protected as the left-back doesn’t overlap as much. But the league average could also be lower for the left than the right as many Indian clubs use attacking left-backs and defensive right-backs.
There are two reasons for why they concede chances from zone 14.
One is that if their midfield press is broken, there is enough space between the lines to create opportunities.
Second is that when they are defending a cross, they tend to pack their box and have very few players outside the box to press. However, this may not be a big issue because even though a shot is taken, it can be blocked by players inside the box.
Giving Jamil the reins and trusting him with the rest of their campaign paid off wonderfully. They played with a certain swagger, and showed how far any team can go if they put efforts into scouting, and trust their Indians. Whether he will continue at the helm next season is unknown, but one thing is for sure – Khalid Jamil is the Hero of the Highlands.