ISL 2021-22 Preview: Will Major Rule Change Have Significant Impact on Indian Football?

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The Indian Super League enters its eighth season in existence as ATK Mohun Bagan take on Kerala Blasters. With an ISL club finally playing the Asian Champions League last season, its safe to say that the league’s status as India’s top-tier competition is well-cemented. The 2021-22 season brings with it the biggest rule change in the league in years, which could have an significant impact on the national team.

3+1 RULE

The restrictions on overseas players have aligned with Asian competitions and the introduction of the ‘3+1’ rule could see significant changes in the way that teams line-up this season.

The mandatory inclusion of an Asian in the squad has also seen teams opting for more diverse nationalities. Although the majority of the Asian picks are Australian akin to previous season, countries which will send representatives this time around include Kyrgyzstan (Mirlan Murzaev) and Iran (Iman Basafa).

Overall, a reduction of one foreigner means more game-time for an Indian in the spine of matchday XIs – the centre-backs, the defensive midfielders, the No.10s and the strikers. These additional 10,350 minutes for Indian players are also expected to ease Igor Stimac’s selection troubles in these positions.

It will be interesting to see the combinations that teams apply now that they’re allowed only four foreigners. Defensive, counter-attacking sides are likely field the additional Indian in midfield while those sides with attacking intent are likely to try and build play using a domestic player in defence.

INDIAN FORWARDS

There has been a growing clamour among the football community for a long-term succession plan after Sunil Chhetri. Although one does not seem to be the horizon just yet, Indian forwards should also benefit from the reduction in foreigners.

Although all teams have a foreign striker, the number of substitute minutes for local marksmen should be on the rise with only two more foreigners allowed in the matchday squad. It remains to be seen whether those on the fringes of the national team can grab this chance to impress Stimac and earn a call-up.

Chhetri himself is 37 and on the cusp of Ferran Corominas’ all-time ISL goalscoring record. The Khel Ratna 2021 awardee is on 47 goals, one short of Coro and may become the first player, Indian or otherwise, to reach the 50-goal landmark.

If he does so, it will be yet another accomplishment in the glittering career of the Bengaluru FC captain.

ANOTHER SEASON, ANOTHER BOUMOUS MOVE

Hugo Boumous found himself in the midst of another move this summer as the Frenchman shifted to the ISL runners-up ATK Mohun Bagan for a record ISL transfer fee. Instrumental in Mumbai City’s run to the league and shield double last time around, Antonio Habas will hope that the double act of Boumous and Roy Krishna can do the same for the Kolkata side.

Now in his fifth ISL season, Boumous’ best campaign remains the 11 goals and 10 assists he bagged in just 14 matches as Goa romped to the league winners shield in the 2019-20 season. His ATKMB stint has not started as planned as the 3-time ISL champions were swept aside 6-0 by Nasaf.

INDIAN CENTRE-BACKS

Never before was India’s lack of centre-backs more ruthlessly exploited than 6-0 loss to UAE as Adil Khan and Mashoor Shereef found themselves at the heart of the carnage. Chinglensana Singh and Deepak Tangri keep growing in strength but the overall outlook for India’s centre-backs remains bleak with Sandesh Jhingan’s minutes at Sibenik limited.

With key Asian Cup qualifiers at the end of the season, Stimac will hope for more Indian CBs to get minutes under their belt in order to provide competition for the incumbent. At the very least, teams which chase a lead are expected to remove a foreigner from defence in order to introduce an additional overseas player up front.

CAN MUMBAI EMERGE FROM THE LOB-ERA?

As Sergio Lobera departs for another City group club, his successor Des Buckingham will inherit a squad which did the double last campaign. The 36-year-old Englishman has a task on his hands to match results from last season, and emulating Goa’s exploits in the Asian Champions League will be no mean feat either.

Sergio Lobera (ISL Photo)

He will hope for a more benign draw in the ACL than Goa’s Persepolis match-up, but the Islanders’ path to the trophy will be made difficult by a revamped ATK and a consistent FC Goa.

WILL THIS FINALLY BE GOA’S YEAR?

Six play-off appearances in seven years and two finals to show for it is a disappointing return, even by Goa’s lofty standards. They will be desperate for the end-of-the-season honours, having outplayed Mumbai City in the semi-finals but losing on penalties to the eventual champions.

The Gaurs will be hungry to return to the ACL after a fighting performance this season and a pre-season appetiser – the Durand Cup. The ISL’s most consistent team have a lot of reasons to be praised for, yet the ISL trophy isn’t one of them. This is one record they will be desperate to rectify.

WHERE DO BENGALURU GO FROM HERE?

Change after three seasons for Bengaluru FC came at the expense of Carles Cuadrat who was swiftly replaced by Marco Pezzaiouli. These aren’t great times for the BFC’s West Block Blues fan group, as the club finished seventh in the league last season, their lowest finish in the ISL.

Add to that an insipid performance in the AFC Cup knockout stages where they were completely bested by ATK Mohun Bagan and the start has hardly been auspicious for Pezzaiouli. Chhetri and Gurpreet Singh Sandhu are likely to have a big say in their season’s outcome as will the new batch of foreigners who have come in as a shake-up to the post-Cuadrat era.

BASEMENT DWELLERS NEED TO STEP IT UP

Odisha FC, Kerala Blasters and SC East Bengal will need better seasons than the ones they had last time around. OFC have undergone significant changes in recruitment personnel, and the effectiveness of the process remains to be seen.

Blasters’ significant fan base will expect to be higher than their 10th placed finish in 2020-21. Their record of three victories overall was among the lowest in the league last time. With minimal turn-around time, expectations are low of the Red and Golds, and they will have a lot riding around for their foreign contingent.

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