The Islanders have made a name for themselves as a pragmatic, counter-attacking team over the past three seasons. It seems to have worked well for them with Alexandre Guimarães guiding the franchise to the playoffs for the first time in 2016 and Jorge Costa repeating the feat last season. All parts have to be in working order for this game-plan to pay off though. Guimarães found this out the hard way when his defence line conceded twenty-nine goals in 2017-18 after only letting in eight the previous regular season.
What set Mumbai apart last season from say, Steve Coppell’s ATK who displayed similar defensive organization, was the ability to score goals. Modou Sougou was the league’s second-highest top scorer with twelve and was ably supported by Arnold Issoko and Rafael Bastos on the wings. Paulo Machado pulled the strings in midfield and initiated the speedy transitions which made them such tricky opposition.
There wasn’t much bench strength though and it showed in the latter stages of the campaign. After going three months without defeat, they lost four of their last five regular season games when key personnel were missing. All the momentum built over the earlier months was lost and it played a part in their semi-final loss to Goa. Teams had also started to figure the Islanders out. They allowed Mumbai to keep the ball while ensuring that there wasn’t space behind them for Sougou and co. to run into.
Costa will be hamstrung by the departure of a number of key players. Lucian Goian was a critical cog in the Mumbai backline for three years and he will be sorely missed. Joyner Lourenco filled in beside him and steadied the ship after Subhasish Bose struggled at centre-back but has since moved to Jamshedpur. Issoko and Bastos have made their exits as well and their replacements will have to match their performances if Mumbai have to carry the same offensive threat this season.
Diego Carlos has experience in the league and should take one of the slots in the wings at the beginning of the season. Sèrge Kevyn and Amine Chermiti have also been brought in to bolster the forward line while Mohamed Larbi, who made Tunisia’s preliminary squad for the 2018 World Cup looks a good signing in midfield. Mato Grgić was immense for NorthEast United and he should replace Goian. Rowllin Borges will take Sehnaj Singh’s role as the midfield enforcer. Sourav Das and Sarthak Golui are two young Indian players who could make a difference.
There have been indications in pre-season that Costa may tweak his tactics and play more possession based football. Countryman Machado could possibly play further upfield and it is interesting that he has taken the number ten jersey this season. With Borges and another impressive young Indian player in Raynier Fernandes sitting behind him, he could be afforded the freedom of the park to create opportunities for his side.
If the new players acclimatise well and hit the ground running, the Islanders could trouble most sides. They have never made back-to-back playoff appearances and that should be the first target. If a first title win follows, that would be the cherry on the cake.