New-look ATK to bank on English embrace this season
On the face of it, reigning champions ATK begin the 2017-18 Indian Super League (ISL) with a cast that makes them among the frontrunners to win the title in the first expanded season.
The stardust is sprinkled right from the top, where Teddy Sheringham's relative lack of managerial experience doesn't take away from his stature in the game as a goal-poacher for the England national team and clubs like Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur. Sheringham's former Spurs teammate Robbie Keane will lead the attacking line, though an Achilles injury has ruled him out of the season opener on November 17 in Kochi.
Noticeably though, the team formerly known as Atletico de Kolkata begin this season for the first time without any links with La Liga side Atletico Madrid, and besides title-winning manager from 2016 Jose Molina, they have had a near-complete overhaul as a squad. The only two players retained were goalkeeper Debjit Majumder and midfielder Prabir Das, and defender Keegan Pereira was bought back during the player draft, third pick for ATK behind midfielders Eugeneson Lyngdoh and Jayesh Rane, both regulars in previous ISLs with FC Pune City and Chennaiyin FC.
"When a team is used to winning, you very rarely change a manager. Maybe if you are Sir Alex Ferguson, but even that was because he was moving on," Sheringham said when asked if he had come across a similar change for a championship-winning team.
The reasons for splitting with Atletico remain unclear, with principal owner Sanjiv Goenka quoted earlier this year saying, "Atletico de Madrid have not invested a penny to date. It was anyway funded by us not them. They had 25 per cent which they would sell to us, to me." Atletico, who have acquired stakes in Mexican club Atletico San Luis and French club Lens over the last year and a half, put the split down to differences of opinion over youth development. ATK officials that ESPN reached out to for this story refused to comment on some specific clarifications that were sought.
Besides Molina, some of the best foreign players from previous seasons are gone now. Spanish defender Jose 'Tiri' Arroyo, winger Sameehg Doutie from South Africa and the versatile Canadian Iain Hume have all moved to other clubs in the league, while attacking midfielder Javi Lara and Borja Fernandez, perhaps the ISL's best player across three years, will no longer be seen this year. The Spanish flavour has been replaced with an English seasoning. Perhaps that could see the traditional ATK style of holding the ball and stringing passes together replaced by more long ball?
The role of technical director Ashley Westwood, former coach at Bengaluru FC and the man who had a big hand in rebuilding the team, has been vital in rebuilding the side. Westwood's Bengaluru also liked using the width of the pitch and showed a dependence on strong centre-forwards to get their goals. "He's not as involved on the field. He's working above us, but has been a fantastic help for us. All Indian players are known to him, but he's doing other things at the club," said Sheringham of his compatriot.
Rane, who had come to be one of former Chennaiyin coach Marco Materrazi's first picks in the team, felt Westwood's influence over the team could continue into the season. "He [Westwood] has a lot of experience with Indian football. He picked all the Indian players. He wants to win. It will be a tough call between Ashley and Teddy to pick the players [on matchdays]," said Rane, who felt the height of Robin Singh could make the India international an important part of Sheringham's plans.
A day ahead of their season opener, Sheringham joked that Robin Singh sat next to him in the flight and kept telling him how good he was. "He's a big, strong boy, which is very seldom the case in India. He knows the leagues in India very well," said Sheringham. Rane, nursing a knee injury when he spoke with the media in Kolkata over the weekend and hence watching the training from the sidelines, felt that Sheringham wanted wingers and wing backs to do more. "There are different ways to win a football match. If you have the players who can cross it, you play to that strength," said Sheringham.
The backbone of the team from last year is gone, and they are called now ATK by choice rather than economy of effort.
As Spanish defender Jordi Figueras leads them out at the Nehru Stadium on Friday, he remains the last surviving link with the team's instant association with a proud European football giant. As they look to embrace the English way, just how far does that take ATK on the opening night could be the biggest clue to how their season will unfold.