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ISL 2021-22: Coyle’s men are the league winners as the Mariners stumble on the final hurdle again

ISL 2021-22 League Winners Jamshedpur FC
ISL 2021-22 League Winners Jamshedpur FC | Source: JFC Media

An image that stands out in memory of Owen Coyle’s time in the Premier League is how he used to wear shorts in the dugout. It paints an appropriate picture of a man who cares little for anything other than getting the job done. His now league-winning Jamshedpur FC side are a tribute to this reputation, and their performance against an ATK Mohun Bagan side that was 15 matches unbeaten coming into the final league game was reflective of this practical approach to the game.

That is not to say Jamshedpur have been an ugly team this season. The explosiveness of Greg Stewart, Jordan Murray and Daniel Chima Chukwu has provided some truly stunning goals, but the focus has certainly been functionality more than aesthetics. It is a smart approach given the relatively fewer resources that Jamshedpur have and it has certainly worked wonders.

FINAL LEAGUE MATCH = LITERAL FINAL FOR THE LEAGUE TITLE

Call it fortune or clever fixture planning, but it is two seasons in a row now that the Indian Super League Shield, and the rewards that go with it, have been decided in the final match of the regular season. Coyle’s challengers took on the established but hurting big boys of ATK Mohun Bagan on Monday night in a match that could not have more at stake.

The odds were stacked in Jamshedpur’s favour ahead of kick-off – they needed just a draw to secure the shield. Even a one-goal loss would have put them on top based on goal difference but Juan Ferrando’s side are no pushovers. The young Spanish manager has succeeded two of the league’s best managers in Sergio Lobera and Antonio Habas during his time in India. The fact that he has largely improved upon their work is a testament to his tactical ingenuity and thorough preparation.

There was more than just the title for ATK Mohun Bagan to win. Despite their success in their previous iteration as ATK in the short history of the Indian Super League, they have failed to win the shield since it became a thing of relevance. The last two seasons have seen them stumble upon the final hurdle and this was a chance to right those wrongs, to retake their assumed position atop the Indian football pyramid.

Jamshedpur came into the match having won their last six matches on the trot. Unlike most teams in the league, they had been very consistent – their longest winless streak in the entire season was just three matches. The last two league winning sides have been more stylish, but JFC’s triumph is more endearing to the romantic football fan that believes in the travails of love.

Though they made it look so, the league has not been easy, and neither was the final leap. The first half was cagey, reflecting the tentative approach of both sides. Against a Ferrando side, it is always difficult to dominate possession and Jamshedpur did not try to do so. They were happy to sit back and play on the counter-attack which seemed to work well for them.

Coyle’s men were also not afraid to get their hands dirty, showcasing the fighting spirit that has come to embody them. Pronay Halder went in hard on Manvir Singh in the opening ten minutes – an archetypal ‘let them know you’re there’ tackle. It was probably not the smartest idea to do so right in front of the ATKMB bench with his tackle sparking a minor brawl on the touchline.

ATK Mohun Bagan’s quality though was clearly visible. Liston Colaco, in line with his season’s performance, was exceptional. The young Goan beat his man time and again on the left wing but things just did not come together in the final third. His smart layoff to Joni Kauko was arguably the Mariners’ best chance of the first half, but Peter Hartley’s glorious gleaming forehead was in the way of the Finn’s shot.

Jamshedpur did threaten on the break intermittently. Chima Chukwu drew a save from Amrinder after a decent cross from Laldinliana. They grew more confident as the half grew and should have done better after forcing mistakes from Pritam Kotal and Sandesh Jhingan in dangerous areas. Their profligacy was concerning, but ATKMB’s disposition to give up good chances kept the game on a relatively even keel.

Half-time was a welcome relief to both sides. Jamshedpur needed a breather and ATKMB needed ideas. Laldinpuia came on at right-back to deal with Liston and whatever Coyle said in the dressing room seemed to work. Jamshedpur in the first half was a side that had the quality and efficiency of league winners, but in the second, they were a side that had the conviction of being deserved champions.

Stewart stung Amrinder’s palms with a long range free-kick soon after the restart and it did not take long for Jamshedpur to go one better. Len Doungel and Chukwu did well in midfield to scrap the ball out for Stewart who drove at the ATKMB defence. The Scot’s attempt was blocked but the ball fell to Ritwik Das who made no mistake with a composed finish from the edge of the box.

That left ATKMB needing three goals to win the shield but it was hard to see them conjuring even one strike up. Hartley & Sabia were imperious in defence, Jitendra & Pronay relentless in midfield and Stewart & Chukwu menacing in attack. Ferrando’s side controlled the ball, but Jamshedpur controlled the game. 

As the full-time whistle neared, it was remarkable how little ATK Mohun Bagan created. Jamshedpur looked more likely to get a second and probably should have, but the solitary goal was enough to see them through in the end. Less than five years after they were formed, Jamshedpur were league winners. The sheen may have been taken off with a playoff for the AFC Champions League spot with next season’s winners, but that won’t matter tonight.


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GOLD MINING SEASON

The Red Miners have perhaps been helped by an interruptive season. Maybe other teams would have performed better with more stability and maybe Jamshedpur would not be as effective in other circumstances, but their record speaks for itself.

No Jamshedpur signing, other than that of Stewart, raised eyebrows ahead of the season. Ritwik Das, who got the winner on the night, is one of many players that have met or even exceeded their ceiling under Coyle. Boris, Pronay and Len are players that were deemed excess to requirements by their sides, but they have all been integral to Jamshedpur’s success.

Tactically, Jamshedpur have been moulded in a more British way. The defensive line took on more importance with the arrival of Eli Sabia. Most teams took the decision of having an Indian-foreigner pairing at centre-back with one foreigner in defensive midfield but Jamshedpur played with Sabia and Hartley for much of the season. It was a safety first approach, but Coyle’s pragmatism has been justified.

ISL 2021-22 League Winners Jamshedpur FC

The full-backs, Ladinliana and Boris are also more cautious options compared to the likes of Akash Mishra, Roshan Singh or Saviour Gama. Midfield relied on the energy of Jitendra and Pronay, both of whom had their fair share of doubters, but their reliability has superseded any benefit that a more technical midfielder would facilitate.

In attack, Greg Stewart has obviously been the superstar. Just the second player to reach double digits in both goals and assists in Hero ISL history, Stewart has provided Jamshedpur the extra bit of quality they needed. The support act of Murray, Chukwu and earlier, Valskis has been effective, leaving Stewart to do the spectacular.

Chukwu in particular deserves a special mention. He came from East Bengal in the winter with just two goals to his name all season, given the unenviable task of replacing former golden boot winner Valskis. The Nigerian though was used perfectly by Coyle, scoring seven goals in eight appearances in the title run-in, highlighting once again that the team is much more than just the sum of their parts.

There is of course plenty left for this side to achieve. The rescheduling of the AFC calendar means that they will have to beat next season’s champions for a spot in the AFC Champions League. Even before that, they have the post-season playoffs for the ISL Championship on the horizon. However, what they accomplish, or rather don’t accomplish, hereon should not undermine the immensity of their league win.

Tactically astute, physically robust and defensively disciplined with a sprinkle of magic here and there, Jamshedpur are India’s new champions and they deserve every bit of the plaudits coming their way.


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