Happy marriage could be key to ATK Mohun Bagan’s title push

ATK Mohun Bagan? ATK? Mohun Bagan? It was a business deal that was sealed quite a while back but as the defending champions of the Indian Super League (ISL) and the I-League became one, the question of their identity continues to hover over all they do. The articles of incorporation […]

ATK Mohun Bagan? ATK? Mohun Bagan? It was a business deal that was sealed quite a while back but as the defending champions of the Indian Super League (ISL) and the I-League became one, the question of their identity continues to hover over all they do. The articles of incorporation and the money dictate that ATK hold precedence. The IFA registration, the history and the sheer heft of human souls invested in the decision make it Mohun Bagan.

A controversial ad, a few marked changes to the logo… and a massive online campaign have welcomed ISL to the Kolkata maidan and all that the cradle of Indian football brings with it. The emotions are heavy, unadulterated and worn on the sleeve as a badge of honour. For Bagan fans, it doesn’t help that the other major player of the maidan has also joined the league but with seemingly very little fuss about nomenclature or jerseys or crests. Nor does it help that East Bengal’s fans won’t stop reminding them of these facts. This storm will continue to gather clouds as the season wears on, but in these times of social distancing and closed stadiums, it may be most appropriate to focus — for now — on the football pitch.

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And there, this team is pure ATK. The squad is virtually identical to the one that won the ISL last season. Not one player who won the 2019-20 I-League for Mohun Bagan is in it. The ISL-winning coach remains in charge.

Yes, they will be clad in the iconic maroon-and-green instead of the nouveau riche, Atletico Madrid-inspired, red-and-white stripes, but close your eyes and you can almost see how this side will line up. Three at the back, two wingbacks, two central midfielders behind a floating trequartista, two forwards. Exactly like they did last season. Heck, you can probably name Antonio Habas’ preferred starting XI right now. For all the upheaval around them, within their bio-secure bubble, it is this consistency that makes them one of the favourites for the title. This is emphatically Habas’ team, and even if there were players in Bagan’s 2019-20 squad that could have made this one, it’s hard to see who might have been displaced from that Habas first XI.

This is also because ATKMB have spent sensibly in the transfer market this summer. The league’s second-best defence has been further tightened — Tiri provides more leadership in the middle, Subhasish Bose lends solidity to the left flank and Sandesh Jhingan brings the blood and thunder. They’ve got another A-League star in Bradden Inman to add pizzazz to the midfield. The unfortunately injured Jobby Justin has been replaced with the promising young Manvir Singh, and… that’s about it. ATK were a superbly-balanced outfit last time around, and they have simply gone and finetuned it this window. If it ain’t broke, etc. etc.

As a two-time winner, Antonio Habas is the most successful ISL coach in the league’s history. Faheem Hussain / SPORTZPICS for ISL

Their strengths, therefore, remain the same. A coach who knows how to win this league (two-time winner, now). A decent, no-nonsense goalkeeper. A defence that has been made more solid. A midfield which is equal parts combative (Pranoy Halder, Michael Regin, Carl McHugh), utilitarian (Jayesh Rane, Javier Hernandez), and inventive (Edu Garcia, Michael Soosairaj, Inman). An attack that works in eerily telepathic tandem (Roy Krishna, David Williams) and an addition to it that gives them a hitherto-missing plan B (hoick it up to Manvir).

Across the field, they have the depth to stick to their philosophy, and the variety to change it up if required. In this age of truncated pre-seasons and increased potential for soft-tissue damage, that may well hold the key to success.

There are, of course, a few intriguing sub-plots within this big squad. Will Boris Singh get a chance to show his undoubted talent ahead of the league’s best attacking fullback in Prabir Das? Will Soosairaj be given the freedom to showcase the magic in his feet now that Bose is available to play left wing-back? Can Krishna and Williams continue to kill it up front? Just how will the introduction of Jhingan affect discipline at the back?

But none of those are weaknesses, merely — to borrow one of this sport’s oldest clichés — the kind of problems a manager loves to have.

Defending champions ATK Mohun Bagan will kick off the new season against two-time finalists Kerala Blasters FC on November 20. Ron Gaunt / SPORTZPICS for ISL

Now, while internally there are few issues, the world around them has changed considerably. It’s here that the new, no, the old identity will be fully brought out. You see, while the body may be ATK, the heart and soul of this ‘new’ club, as has been witnessed rather emphatically in the months preceding, are firmly Mohun Bagan. And while ATK’s footballing rivalry with last season’s closest rivals Bengaluru FC and FC Goa and this season’s heavy spenders Mumbai City FC will continue to demand the tactical attention of Habas and his coaching team, they all pale in comparison with the big one.

East Bengal. Green-and-maroon vs. red-and-yellow. The Kolkata Derby. The derby. For ages, supporters have measured success and failure not by win percentages and trophy counts, but by success against the enemy. Three stars on the crest or not, ATK ahead of their name or not, beating East Bengal will remain the unsaid objective No. 1 for Habas.

And so the grand old club of Indian football weaves itself a new chapter into a story that has spanned more than a century. In this iteration, they are moving forward, adapting to a changed world, accepting a new reality. In this telling of the tale, it is not much of an exaggeration to suggest that they have a team that will take some stopping. Whether they acknowledge themselves as such or not, they are last season’s champions, and almost to a man they return to the site of their glory, firm in the knowledge that winning it all again is well within their grasp.

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