Failing to face set pieces led to the downfall of NorthEast United

After appearing in nine matches, ATK Mohun Bagan sits atop the 2020-21 Indian Super League (ISL) table with 20 points. They are a point above second-placed Mumbai City who have a game in hand.

As the Mariners extended their unbeaten five games with a 2-0 win over NorthEast United on Sunday, they also served the rest of the league as a recall.

The fixture against the Highlanders figuratively had the words ‘dead end’ written everywhere. It was always going to be a battle between two teams that thrived when they defended themselves deeply and countered their opponents.

Prior to the start of the match, of all ISL teams this season, Bagan’s passing and passing accuracy numbers were the lowest. Their opponents NorthEast United had an average possession of 42, the lowest by a team this season.

It was a slow start as expected and the first half went without the keepers having been tested. The North East defense did a decent job of containing players like Roy Krishna and David Williams. On the other end, Carl McHugh was once against heavily involved in everything Bagan did in their own half.

Bagan pushed mainly through the right flank with Prabir Das marauding the field against Provat Lakra. He was found in space several times in the first half but couldn’t make full use of his chances. On the opposite flank, Ashutosh Mehta was doing a good job of keeping David Williams quiet but control only lasted until the break.

In the 51st minute Tiri threw Edu Garcia’s corner on the way to Roy Krishna who led into the first goal. Seven minutes later, another Garcia corner found Sandesh Jhingan in the middle of the box, but this time the ball was put into his own net by Benjamin Lambot as he tried to clear the danger. In seven minutes, a scoreless and close competition turned into a one-sided affair.

Kwesi Appiah’s injury meant Nus depended on Idryssa Sylla who was clueless in the final third and didn’t have enough support Bagan’s defense blocked their half after taking the two-goal lead. The Highlanders had to work hard to get back into the game and they just couldn’t do it.

Federico Gallego’s deliveries in the box were the only danger Bagan faced, but even they were irrelevant. The Uruguayan’s only real attempt came from a free kick that hit the crossbar. Nus made an offensive change in the 77th minute when he brought Luis Machado in place of Khassa Camara, but by then it was too late as Habas’s men had taken over the pitch.

The Highlanders had plenty of time to get back into the game in the second half, but their response was disconcerting. There was little intention to disturb Arindam Bhattacharya who only had to deal with one direct shot on target during the entire match.

Gerard Nus has a lot to think about given that NorthEast United have won just one game in their last eight ISL outings. While they struggle to score goals, like most ISL teams, their defense has also been shaky. The Spanish team are struggling to replicate or keep their early season promise. They need to start racking up points as soon as possible, as the other teams start to close the gap.