Six seasons and seven foreign head coaches. NorthEast United FC’s tryst with the Indian Super League (ISL) has been unremarkable for most part. It was only under Eelco Schattorie in the 2018-19 season that the team managed to finish in the top four and make it to the playoffs. Last season, they ended up being second from the bottom and had to fire their head coach Robert Jarni when the tournament was still going on. When Schattorie took them to the playoffs, it looked like the team had its coming-of-age moment but then Schattorie left for the Kerala Blasters, key players like Rowllin Borges and Bartholomew Ogbeche also departed. NorthEast suffered.
A new season brings new hope. Spaniard Gerard Nus is now the head coach of the team for the upcoming season. Nus began his coaching career at 22 with Premier League club Liverpool FC when he joined their prestigious academy. Since then he has been part of many teams like Brighton & Hove Albion, Ghana national side, Rayo Vallecano, either being involved as a coach in the academy or positions like assistant or head coach. Now at 35, Nus takes charge of NorthEast United with the aim to find some consistency after a difficult last season. The task is not easy, because NorthEast are not one of the ‘big teams’ in the league.
NorthEast United have retained only one foreign player from last season — attacking midfielder Federico Gallego. They have recruited six new foreigners for the upcoming season and on paper at least, the deals look impressive. Two solid and experienced centre-backs have joined the team — Belgian Benjamin Lambot and Dylan Fox from Australia. The 33-year-old Lambot has played top division football in Belgium, Azerbaijan and Cyprus while Fox has played more than 50 A-League matches for teams like Wellington Phoenix and Central Coast Mariners. In the attacking department, NorthEast have signed three foreigners — Luis Machado, Idrissa Sylla and Kwesi Appiah.
Goal-scoring was a big concern for the team last season, they netted just 16 goals in 18 matches, the worst among all the 10 teams. It was apparent that NorthEast United needed quality attackers for the upcoming season and two names, Machado and Sylla will need to make an impact when it comes to creating chances and scoring goals. Winger Machado has the experience of playing in the Primeira Liga, the top division football of Portugal, while Sylla has played in Belgium and for Queens Park Rangers in the English Championship. Meanwhile, Gallego showed his class under Schattorie but last season, he missed matches due to injury and when he came back, he was never the same player again. NorthEast management have kept faith in him and he’ll be eager to show his worth once again under a new coach. Another new signing Khassa Camara will look to be a force in the midfield.
Among the Indian players to look out for, right-back Ashutosh Mehta joined the team from Mohun Bagan and midfielder Rochharzela has been signed from Aizawl FC. Both players featured heavily for their respective clubs in the I-League last season and put out good displays. A few clubs were trying to sign Ashutosh, but NorthEast won the race and the 29-year-old reunited with NorthEast United’s assistant coach Khalid Jamil. Ashutosh played under Jamil for Aizawl FC when the team became the I-League champions in 2017.
As it is for many ISL teams, NorthEast United’s strength is their foreign players. Machado, Sylla and Gallego could prove lethal up-front provided they stay injury-free. It is unlikely that Nus will start both Sylla and Appiah in the forward positions. The team’s style and preferred formation will be clear after the first few games, but in the pre-season friendly against Hyderabad FC, Appiah and Machado scored a goal each to secure a 2-1 victory for NorthEast United.
Goalkeeper Subhasish Roy Chowdhury made 55 saves last season, the highest among all the goalkeepers. NorthEast had a very fragile defence last time around and Subhasish’s showing between the sticks was one of the very few positives for the team. Due to this performance, the management decided to retain the shot-stopper for this year as well and therefore, going into the new season, goalkeeping is one of the strengths for this team. Subhasish will have to try hard to replicate the same form he showed last time.
Injuries to key foreign players might expose NorthEast United. In fact, injuries are a big issue this season because there is no proper pre-season and players had to endure a very long gap due to the impact of COVID-19 in the sporting world. Because of this reason, ISL teams can now register up to 35 players. NorthEast United do have Indian talent in their ranks, but is it enough to consistently produce positive results? Not too sure about that.
Also, NorthEast lost Redeem Tlang to FC Goa. He spent two years with the club and played a pivotal role in the team’s success under Schattorie. Last season, his work rate was exceptional and he scored three goals too. His presence on the pitch was immense and NorthEast will miss him this season. His absence is an opportunity for other Indian players to step up.
There’s no concept of relegation in the ISL so NorthEast United did not suffer that kind of setback. Budget-wise, NorthEast can’t compete with other clubs in the league so expectations have to be in check. But questions have been asked about the club’s below-par performance over the years. They had one good season and then the head coach and a few important players left. What if the same happens again? Is this the identity of this club? To put it in footballing vocabulary, are NorthEast United FC a selling club?
Nus spoke about wanting to build something special at the club. If the focus is on building something special for the future, then NorthEast are on the right track. They have got a good set of players. But if the ambition is a title glory this season, then it’s a big question mark.