Can Khalid Jamil’s NorthEast United punch above their weight again?
Gerard Nus was the head coach of the Highlanders in the first few matches of the season but the Spaniard failed to get his philosophy across the team and got the ax after eleven games with the onus of taking the club to the playoffs falling on Khalid Jamil’s shoulders.
Ever since the arrival of the experienced Indian tactician, the Highlanders have looked like a different team and have played fearless football. Being the lone Indian head coach in the league, the I-League winning manager will have a point to prove this season.
A look at last season’s performance
NorthEast United’s season changed its course when Khalid Jamil was appointed as the interim manager. Although Gerard incorporated an intricate Spanish style of play, Jamil managed to bring the team together by developing a strong bonding between the players and making them play as a unit.
Thanks to the mid-season managerial change, the Highlanders punched above their weight by finishing third in the league table, winning eight and drawing nine matches. Jamil’s boys held ATK Mohun Bagan to a 1-1 draw in the first leg of the semi-final but then succumbed to a 2-1 defeat in the second leg crashing out of the tournament.
New Signings ahead of the 2021-22 ISL season
The Highlanders’ team management’s biggest job was to retain the core group players who did well for them last season and they have been successful in doing that.
Apart from Dylan Fox and Benjamin Lambot, every top performer overseas player has been retained for the upcoming season. Fox was snapped up by Goa but the Highlanders have found a reliable replacement in Australian central defender Patrick Flottman. Jamil has also signed the versatile defensive midfielder Hernan Santana who won the title with Mumbai City last season and the Spaniard will be adding a lot of versatility and experience to the roster.
In attack, Martinique international Mathias Coureur has joined the Highlanders and the forward can play in multiple positions upfront and has featured seven times for Martinique, scoring four goals. Indian acquisitions in William Lalnunfela, Danmawia Ralte, and Manvir Singh (Jr) will add to NorthEast United’s attacking depth.
Jamil has also bolstered his defense by bringing in players like Joe Zoherliana, Tondonba Singh, Mohammad Irshad, and Jestin Gorge. Having joined the club from SC East Bengal, Mirshad Michu will fight Subhashish Roy Chowdhury for the starting spot between the sticks. The experienced Sehnaj Singh and former Bengaluru FC academy graduate Emmanuel Lalchhanchhuaha will add a great mix of physicality and energy to the midfield.
Predicted Starting Lineup
Subhasish Roy Chowdhury; Provat Lakra, Mashoor Shareef, Hernan Santana, Gurjinder Kumar; Imran Khan, Khassa Camara; VP Suhair, Federico Gallego, Roccharzela; Deshorn Brown.
The retention of the core group of players that did exceedingly well last season will boost the Highlanders as Federico Gallego, Khassa Camara, Deshorn Brown, and Subhashish Roy Chowdhury will be the experienced men in the squad.
The addition of Santana could also prove to be a masterstroke for the club, as he is equally potent as a midfielder and a defender, while his ability to play out from the back immaculately will also help Jamil’s team.
Lastly, NorthEast United has a plethora of raw and highly talented Indian players. All of Joe Zoherliana, Rochharzela, Pragyan Gogoi, Pragyan Medhi and Gani Nigam are under 24 years of age. They might lack experience of playing at this level, but with time on their side and under the stewardship of a manager who gives a lot of emphasis on youth development, these youngsters could become stalwarts in a not-so-distant future.
Jamil has retained most of his key players but the absence of Apuia, Luis Machado, and Dylan Fox might come back to haunt the Highlanders. While Santana is more than capable of filling up one position, the other positions remain vacant.
The Highlanders’ current roster lacks a midfielder like Apuia who can control the tempo of the game, nor do they have a dynamic winger like Machado. Indian players will need to step up to plug these holes, but they might get found out of their depth up against the very best in the business.
Given that they have a fairly young squad, it will be optimistic to consider NorthEast United as a candidate for the title. They will aim to be in contention for a playoffs spot, but even if irrespective of where they finish on the points table, the fans of Highlanders can expect an indomitable spirit from a team that frequently surpasses expectations and defies limits.