To the knowledgeable few who are well versed with the Geography of the country of India, Aizawl is the capital of the state of Mizoram in the North-East of India. But, to the niche section of football fans in India, it represents the home city of Aizawl FC, currently third in the I-League table just behind Bengal heavyweights East Bengal and Mohun Bagan.
The story of the club from Mizoram is a unique one, having won the I-League second division couple of seasons ago, they finally got their shot at the big boys of Indian football. They even appointed Manuel Retamero Fraile; the Spaniard tasked with instilling a style of play which would reflect the progress made by the club since its inception.
The then manager did so and quite successfully guided the Reds to a Mizoram Premier League title. But, the I-League is a difficult nut to crack and it did not for the Spaniard. His time in charge of the side showcased only in glimpses what the manager was instilling in his players, as the harsh reality of modern football caught on as he was sacked after six games in charge (only winning one of the six).
Since then their season spiralled into mediocrity under manager Jahar Das, as they eventually finished 8th among nine teams in the League, amassing only 16 points from 16 games. Hence, you probably wouldn’t have blamed their supporters for rolling their eyes when they heard that Khalid Jamil was supposed to take over as head coach for the season. Since then, things have constructively turned for the better.
Khalid Jamil’s tactics against the tide of thought
Khalid Jamil spent seven years at Mumbai FC, in managerial roles, and during that time he gathered the reputation of being the hardest of taskmasters and a tactician who reacts rather than the one who generates reactions. In simple words, his football was often "hit the ball long" to the striker and play off him.
At Aizawl though, he has changed. The version of football he plays with his team is very different from the football he played with Mumbai FC, although the latter might have better resources than Aizawl. He has mostly played with a version of 4-4-2, in which one of the two strikers up front drops to pick up the ball from the midfielders, and join in the attack when the ball is coming in from wide areas.
Against East Bengal, his starting eleven was this Albino Gomes, Lalramchullova, Kingsley Eze, Zohmingliana Ralte, Lalruatthara; Laldanamwia, Al-Amna, Alfred Jaryan, Brandon, Jayesh Rane, Bayi Kamo Stephane. That is a team which has effectively two number tens in Al-Amna and Jayesh Rane, two wingers in Brandon and Laldanmawia, and obviously Kamo Baye as the striker.
Not only that, Alfred Jaryan, although played as the deep lying playmaker, is more of a forward-thinking midfielder. That is a team not just starkly against the philosophy associated with Khalid Jamil, but also against the modern football which prefers two (or in some cases one) holding midfielders.
The system allows Aizawl to get into the backline of the opposition much faster, and with much more efficiency than any other team in the League (apart from maybe Mohun Bagan). On Monday, they had 14 shots to East Bengal’s 4, against Bengaluru FC in their previous encounter they had 13, five more than Bengaluru, a by-product of their lucid style of play .
Well thought and astute foreign signings
The rate at which an international signing flops in India is alarming to the rate that it is not even funny to a rival fan. The stark examples of that were Roby Norales and Ildar Amirov, both deemed not good enough despite training under a month with their respective clubs.
That said, Indian organizations do pull off coups now and then with foreign players. Sony Norde and Wedson Anselme are both great examples of a well-scouted footballer, especially given the former is a regular for the national team.
For Aizawl, three of their foreign signings who started the season have all performed well beyond expectations. Kingsley is a beast at the back and has a very cultured left foot which he uses to start attacks from the back regularly. In midfield, Jaryan is a leader and an ace passer of the ball with a great shot on him.
But, their crown jewel is understandably Kamo Baye, who although took some time to get going, has grown into the role of the lone centre-forward leading the attack. He holds up the ball well, is tricky and never stops running, what they call a manager’s dream and a defender’s nightmare.
That, in short, is the spine of the team, and three signings who add quality to their ranks. Al-Amna has shown what he is capable of. Arguably their foreigners have outperformed Bengaluru FC and Mohun Bagan’s counterparts. That is a copybook example of how to recruit foreign signings for the season.
Add to that the local players, and the likes of Jayesh Rane playing out of their skin for their manager, the club have a real strong team in their hands. Their win against East Bengal might go down in history, but don’t be surprised if they do it again and again.
Importantly, the 11,345 who came to the stadium know that the League is not far away. If Khalid Jamil continues to inspire, and his players continue to play as they have, Aizawl FC will be putting their beloved city on the map.