If Mumbai City FC, backed by the riches of the City Football Group, was the ‘Goliath’ as they were described before their lung-opener in ISL 2020-21, then he was once again slain by ‘David’ on the night as NorthEast United FC (NEUFC) sprung a surprise in their very first match of the season.
The 1-0 victory on Saturday was NEUFC’s first in an opening game of the season since 2016 as the Gerard Nus era got underway with a winning start.
The Spanish manager of NEUFC, who is also the youngest in the ISL, gave an account of his tactical astuteness and versatility at the Tilak Maidan. In one of the interviews before the season opener, Nus had spoken about how he would set his team up to play an “attractive style of football that will bring result”.
However, he was aware of the talents that Sergio Lobera’s Mumbai pack in their squad, and the pragmatic instincts of Nus overtook his adventurous intentions as he put out a team that sat deep and rarely ventured out of their own half until the turning point of the match arrived.
Nus, in the post-match press conference spoke about the difference in the salaries that Mumbai and NEUFC players earn. He wanted to play on the counterattack and while the broadcaster showed NEUFC would be deploying a 4-3-3 formation, they held up a 4-4-2 shape for the large part of the first half as focus remained on closing down the channels and cutting the supply line from the midfield to center-forward Bartholomew Ogbeche.
Mumbai were patient in their build-up and dominated the ball possession and NEUFC hardly had any sniff of it. Moroccan midfielder Ahmed Jahouh was running the show for The Islanders and it was he who would eventually decide the fate of the game. The turning point came in the 43rd minute when Jahouh was sent off with a straight red card for a studs-up challenge on Khassa Camara from the behind.
The equation changed from there and Nus decided to take the game to Mumbai, capitalising on the numerical advantage that they had. NorthEast began the second half on the front foot and it took them just three minutes in the second half to create a decisive goal-scoring opportunity.
Dylan Fox’s header from a Luis Machado cross from the left flank struck Rowllin Borges’ hand inside the box and the referee pointed to the spot straight away. Ghana striker Kwesi Appiah stepped up and scored his first goal for NorthEast to give them the all-important lead.
Mumbai could never recover after conceding as their passing game lost its intensity and NorthEast dictated terms till the end of the match. Sarthak Golui had an opportunity in the 65th minute to level things but his header sailed over the crossbar. Mumbai are too good a side and Lobera is too good a coach to stay behind in the title race for too long but the loss on the opening night of their mega project under the new owners was truly unexpected.
Talking about individual performances, NorthEast’s defensive midfielder Camara stood out among his teammates for his work rate. In the first 43 minutes, when Mumbai dominated the proceedings, it was Camara’s admirable work in the midfield that restricted the likes of Hugo Boumous, Jahouh, and Borges from finding Ogbeche in the front. The result of Camara’s hard work was that for the first time a Lobera side failed to register a shot on the target in the ISL.
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There were some lessons for the Mumbai coach as well. His deployment of the prolific goal-scorer Adam le Fondre out wide didn’t do him any favour, there’s little the English striker can do from outside the box. Lobera could look at playing Ogbeche and le Fondre together as NEUFC won’t be the last team that would opt to sit back and defend against them.
For NorthEast, it was a great night where the result was a product of tactical versatility, disciplined football, and a fearless attitude. Teams would need to be wary of Nus and his men as the tournament progresses.