Kerala Blasters have parted ways with a head coach again…
It is that time of the season for a Kerala Blasters supporter. Once again, what they feared would happen in the middle of the season has finally happened – the club’s ninth different head coach has also parted ways towards the end of what has been a dismal campaign.
Much was expected of Kibu Vicuna when he was appointed last summer, shortly after the club appointed Lithuanian Karolis Skinkys as the sporting director. It was believed that the club was undertaking a whole new long-term project and Skinkys was involved in the decision to bring in Vicuna, who had won the I-League title with Mohun Bagan.
It was a straightforward decision for the former Bagan coach to sign for Blasters, considering the club that employed him merged with ATK to enter the Indian Super League (ISL).
However, there was always a risk of getting sacked at the end of the season at the Yellow Army. Since getting rid of Steve Coppell at the end of the third season of ISL, Blasters have never had a head coach who lasted for more than one season, except for David James who joined in the middle of the 2017-18 season and was sacked in the middle of the season that followed.
But there was hope that things would be different, especially during a season that was affected by the Coronavirus pandemic. Every club’s preparations were hampered by the deadly virus which forced teams to enter into a bio-bubble in Goa for the entire season.
Blasters, like many others, were off to a slow start under the Vicuna era. They were winless in their first six matches before registering their first win against Hyderabad. Vicuna was unable to decide his best starting lineup and he kept chopping and changing his lineups almost on a game-by-game basis for the first 10 matches. This was also due to the fact that they had plenty of injuries during the season.
This uncertainly could also be down to the transfer options that Blasters missed out on before the season kicked off. Sandesh Jhingan decided to end his six-year stay with the Kochi-based club and left to sign for ATK Mohun Bagan, leaving a gaping hole in the defence.
Blasters first filled it by agreeing to a deal with Colombian defender Oswaldo Henriquez who later decided not to come to India due to the rising COVID-19 cases . Henriquez was attending the online coaching sessions of Kibu Vicuna until an offer from the Israeli club came his way.
The club then agreed to terms with Tiri who also ended up joining Bagan. Jhingan and Tiri are part of the best defence in the league this season after 18 rounds. The solution to Blasters’ woes could have been simpler – when the best players leave for rival clubs, give the new coach time to assemble his own squad.
The defence was Vicuna’s biggest concern and the department in the squad that ultimately cost the gaffer his job. Blasters have conceded 33 goals in 18 games, the worst tally in the league. And even in the 0-4 defeat to Hyderabad that acted as the tipping point for the club to make the decision, two goals were the direct result of defensive blunders by Bakary Kone.
Kerala have conceded seven penalties and have dropped a mammoth 18 points after scoring the first goal, both the most by a team in ISL this season.
Kone and Costa Nhamoinesu, who many expected to form a strong centre-back pairing at the start of the season, have simply failed to deliver. Abdul Hakku stepped in as an alternative but remained error-prone. Vicuna was desperate for a solution and was forced to turn to midfielder Jeakson Singh who played as a centre-back for five consecutive games until Tuesday’s fixture.
The departure of the club’s all-time top scorer (a feat that he achieved in just one season) Bartholome Ogbeche was another move that hurt the team. His replacement Gary Hooper took time to settle into the team’s style of play and during that period, strikeforce was dependent on Jordan Murray for goals.
Facundo Pereyra was the most impressive foreign signing this season until he picked up an injury that required surgery – he may return to the squad for the final two games but it is too late for Vicuna.
Kerala’s star Sahal Abdul Samad and Rahul KP benefitted from Vicuna’s system towards the end of his tenure after initially struggling to make an impact. While Rahul has come alive on the right flank, Sahal took up the challenge of playing in an unfamiliar left flank and had begun to look livelier.
The Malayali midfielder has created 28 chances, (second-most by an Indian), completed 18 take-ons (most by a Kerala player), completed 261 passes in the final third (second-most by a Kerala player) and completed 14 passes in the opposition box (second-most by a Kerala player and only 4 players have more this season). But these numbers in attack couldn’t do anything to save Vicuna’s job as the team continued to leak goals at the back.
Blasters are out of the race for the top four and have had another season to forget. With two games remaining, they remain 10th on the league table and have won just three matches with a tally of 16 points from 18 games.
For a coach who always gave cliche answers in his pressers and played it safe off the field for the benefit of the club, Vicuna concluded his last interaction with the media by criticising the club’s transfer policy. And he knew he had to do it before he signed off.
“Our scouting of the players was bad, the plans and expectations for the season were higher than the reality.”