NorthEast United FC came out on top against all odds in a season where nothing seemed to be going their way after a solid start. The Highlanders defeated the eventual champions in their opening game and sent a statement of intent to the rest of the league.
But, they lost their momentum midway through the season and went on a seven-match winless run. The team recorded just two wins in 11 matches under Spanish tactician Gerard Nus. The Highlanders’ management were quick enough to react and parted ways with him. Khalid Jamil took charge thereafter and the rest is history as they say.
Today, Football Monk takes a look at the five reasons for NorthEast United FC’s success in the season gone by.
5. Copper-bottomed foreign contingent
To start off with, NorthEast United’s competent foreign contingent was a driving force behind their late surge into the semis. Portuguese ace Luis Machado has the highest number of goal contributions in their camp (9). Jamaican firepower Deshorn Brown got his scoring boots back after signing for the Highlanders in the January transfer window. And Guinean target man Idrissa Sylla became the super sub after scoring a few crucial equalizers off the bench.
In addition, Mauritanian Midfield General Khassa Camara and Uruguayan Magician Federico Gallego worked their socks off in the middle of the park. Both registered a combined seven assists. At the back, Benjamin Lambot and Dylan Fox kept things very compact and maintained a pretty decent defensive record. Furthermore, the duo made three combined goal contributions too.
4. Dependable Indian unit
In a season of wonders for the Highlanders, their Indian unit was the cherry on the cake. They went for a complete revamp with just a few Indian players being retained and a lot of fresh faces from the I-League came in and took over since Day 1. Lalengmawia’s rise has been no short of a fairy tale story.
Their forwards too stepped up on the occasion and scored as well as assisted a lot of goals. VP Suhair netted thrice while Ashutosh Mehta, Imran Khan, Apuia, Rochharzela scored one each. Subhasish Roy Chowdhury and Gurmeet Singh kept five clean sheets in total. The custodians also made a combined 42 saves.
3. Formidable attack
After a forgetful 2019-20 season, the Highlanders changed their forward line completely with new recruits coming in from across the world. And their hard work during the offseason paid back very well. NorthEast United maintained the joint second-best offensive record in the league with 31 goals to their name with an average of 1.55 goals per game.
They had 11 different goalscorers, the most in the league, a stat which itself speaks so highly of their attack. Machado had seven strikes to his name followed by Brown’s five goals. Skipper Gallego netted in four times with Sylla and Kwesi Appiah scoring three each.
2. Never-Say-Die attitude
The Highlanders were nicknamed the “Comeback Kings” by fans for their ability to get something out of bad games. One just can’t write them off as they know how to get something out of nothing. They came from behind to salvage a point on multiple occasions with the most notable ones being their ties against the Kerala Blasters and ATK Mohun Bagan.
Despite being 2-0 down at half-time, they overturned it into a draw against the Yellow Army. Appiah fired in an early second-half goal and Sylla scored a stoppage-time equalizer which helped NorthEast gain a point. Such scenes became a new normal every time the Highlanders played. It was Sylla, yet again, who scored a stoppage-time equalizer just when ATK Mohun Bagan thought they would walk away with a 0-1 victory in the first leg of semi-final.
1. Khalid Jamil – The Mastermind
Khalid Jamil is known for his masterclasses with Northeastern clubs. First Aizawl FC and now NorthEast United. The Highlanders showed Gerard Nus the exit door and Jamil took over the hot seat for their reverse fixture against Jamshedpur in what was the beginning of a new era.
His side went on to establish a 10-match unbeaten run and defeated heavyweights like ATK Mohun Bagan and Mumbai City FC, again. The 49-year-old led the Highlanders to their best-ever finish on the table (3rd) and booked a playoffs berth. He broke all the stereotypes about Indian coaches not being good enough to take over ISL clubs and guided the Highlanders to their second semi-final appearance in just nine games.