ISL: Can Eelco Schattorie revive Kerala Blasters’ fortunes?

Eelco Schattorie knows Indian football, ISL and how to deal with the expectations of the fans but Kerala Blasters is not an easy project…

For all the love and support Indian Super League (ISL) club Kerala Blasters enjoy, they are yet to win a trophy. It’s been six years, what’s stopping them?

The Yellow Army came close twice and suffered heartbreak on both occasions. The 2016 final loss now feels like it happened long ago. The two seasons since then have been largely forgettable for the fans of Blasters. There were too few highs and too many lows for the fans to tag whatever happened since that famous final as ‘memorable’. Heading into the sixth ISL season, Kerala Blasters are now more desperate than ever to keep their large fanbase happy.

The club has tried to approach the process of building the squad in a different way. The fourth season’s transfer market saw the arrival of former Manchester United coach Rene Meulensteen and ex-Red Devils duo Dimitar Berbatov and Wes Brown, none of whom inspired the team to achieve any sort of remarkable success on the field.

The fifth season saw David James go the other way – bringing in lesser-known players from different parts of the world and offering Indian players more first-team minutes – and it still didn’t work either because the players just weren’t good enough compared to other teams in the league or the team as a whole lacked tactical flexibility and competence to keep up with the rest of the league (or both). And the result was a ninth-placed finish, a drop of three spots from the previous season.

In the third approach in as many seasons, the club has now opted to go for personnel who are well-known and proven in Indian football.

Head coach Eelco Schattorie is no stranger to the dramas and emotions of football in India, having managed NorthEast United, East Bengal and United SC in the past. He took the Highlanders to their first-ever playoffs and exceeded expectations despite working with a small squad. His appointment is a clear indication that the Blasters are trying to cater to the demand of attractive football.

The style of football Kerala Blasters played was a big issue for the fans in the last two seasons. While Meulensteen’s team looked lifeless, David James’ route one approach that suffered a 14-match winless run last season was even more frustrating for stadium-goers.

Fans would have been okay with players kicking the ball to the striker’s chest if the team kept winning, but that never looked likely to happen. As a coach, Eelco Schattorie likes to be proactive and also offers tactical flexibility that is needed in ISL.

“Kerala is known for having a huge fanbase. That should not be pressure because you play for the supporters. You need to bring in a brand of football that they like, that fits the culture, that people are pleased with. That is what I’m going to try to do,” he had told when he joined the club in May.

The Dutchman has assembled a squad that looks superior to previous ones at least on paper. He has identified the areas that need improvement, adding Mario Arques to a midfield that lacked creative players except for 22-year-old Sahal Abdul Samad. Players who can find gaps in the attacking third are essential to a team that wishes to play attacking football.

For a coach that has the ability to work on a shoestring budget, Eelco Schattorie has been given a luxury of options at his new club. He knows the fanbase is demanding and he knows the league. After two seasons of failed projects and experiments, will the third time be the charm for Kerala Blasters?

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