Kerala Blasters have today confirmed that they are parting ways with head coach Kibu Vicuna on mutual consent. In the official club statement, Sporting Director Karolis Skinkys said, “We had a clear objective to make improvements this season. Unfortunately, the results were not what we expected. We are grateful for his commitment and professionalism towards the club and wish him well for the future.” Although the Spaniard was brought in with much fanfare ahead of the 2020-21 Indian Super League (ISL) season on the back of his I-League exploits with Mohun Bagan, a number of factors have resulted in his early departure. Let us analyze them in detail-
Following the manifold impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Blasters were one of the most badly hit clubs in terms of their financial clout. As a result, they had to let go of two of their main players, Sandesh Jhingan and Bartholomew Ogbeche. Reports suggest that the club also requested others in the side to take a pay-cut for the season with the idea being that their new foreign recruits would come good. However, barring Jordan Murray and Facundo Pereyra, none of the others have been consistent over the course of the season.
Ogbeche’s replacement, Gary Hooper took a lot of time to settle in while Vicente Gomez has looked one-dimensional in midfield. Defenders Bakary Kone and Costa Nhamoinesu have also flattered to deceive with their form and confidence going from bad to worse with each passing game. Moreover, Sergio Cidoncha’s injury came at the most inopportune moment while none of their domestic buys, except Reagan Singh, made sense in terms of strengthening the existing squad. They also went in for Tiri to replace Jhingan but he ironically ended up partnering him at ATK Mohun Bagan.
To say that the Tuskers have been defensively poor this season would be an understatement. They have leaked 33 goals in 18 games so far and have lost a massive 18 points after scoring first, both the highest in the league. The concession of seven penalties hasn’t made their task easier. What was initially considered to be a strong centre-back duo of Kone and Costa has proved to be a disaster waiting to happen multiple times, with Kone’s errors gifting goals to the opposition as recently as their last game against Hyderabad FC.
The entire defensive unit has looked sloppy and unassured with the ball at their feet. What’s worse is that the usually reliable Jessel Carneiro has also looked a shadow of himself this season. Vicuna tried using Abdul Hakku and later, Jeakson Singh in the centre-back positions but nothing seemed to work according to plan. Another important factor has been the absence of a dominating ball winner in the middle of the park who can break up play and initiate counters. While Vicente Gomez is decent at doing the latter, he isn’t really the most physical of central midfielders who can provide protection to the back four.
Key players’ form and availability
When Kerala announced the signing of Gary Hooper, much was expected of the former Wellington Phoenix striker who had been banging goals for fun in the A-League. However, the Englishman seemed completely befuddled by the conditions and the style of play of his teammates in the first few games and rarely got into good scoring positions. Although he has since forged a decent partnership with Murray upfront, it is the Australian who has been doing the bulk of the scoring even though he missed quite a few games at the start of the season. Facundo also picked up an injury which required surgery and has been forced to stay in isolation since recovering from that.
Of the domestic boys, Sahal Abdul Samad was expected to be the talisman in midfield but even he has been forced to play on the wings owing to the unavailability of others. As a result, he has had to learn on the job and fine tune his game to adjust to the new position, leaving him very little scope to impose himself on proceedings. Even then, he has created 28 chances this season and has completed 18 take-ons, the most by a Kerala player. Rahul KP has been the other standout performer but considering his age, the fact that he has been the most impressive attacker in the squad tells you a lot about their overall quality.
Vicuna has also made quite a few strange decisions all season. He dropped Rahul KP for the match against Hyderabad and even before that, he has had a tendency to go into a defensive shell after scoring the first goal, in the process letting go of the initiative. For the fans though, this feeling of deja vu is something that will frustrate them no end. Because for a club of Kerala Blasters’ stature, they need to have a long-term plan which they can slowly work towards. For now though, it’s a similar case of ‘same old same old’ for what is one of the most passionately followed clubs in the country.