Johan Cruyff once said that if you have the ball you must make the field as big as possible, and if you don’t have the ball you must make it as small as possible. This was the crux of Cruyff's footballing philosophy, which has made its way into the coaching manual of most modern managers in world football. Rene Meulensteen also hails from the same country as Johan Cruyff, and 'seemingly' subscribes to the Cruyff school of thought.
Meulensteen's boys had the ball for the bulk of the match, they made the field as big as possible by making full use of the width of the pitch but were clueless with the ball as they raided Jamshedpur's defence. Rino Anto and Lalruatthara were sticking to the sidelines and joined in every possible attack that germinated from the flanks.
Even the two centre-backs Sandesh Jhingan and Nemanja Lakic Pesic were 50-60 yards apart, as Arata Izumi along with Courage Pekuson was given the responsibility to break up play and shield the back two. Steve Coppell figured out the danger and Jamshedpur's Kervens Belfort had to track back deep into the defensive third to keep a check on Rino Anto's decisive forward runs.
When a team tries to operate using the flanks, one would expect a heavy downpour of crosses inside the box, or the wingers would cut inside and bombard the goalie with relentless shots on goal. The men in yellow had only 11 crosses in the span of 90 minutes and managed only two shots on target. The stellar forward line of Ian Hume, Dimitar Berbatov and CK Vineeth lacked the creative impetus and seldom there was any imagination in their onslaughts on Jamshedpur's fortress guarded efficiently by Anas Edathodika and skipper Tiri.
The fans were expecting a number of duels on the pitch as crowd favourite Kerala boy Anas went up against Berbatov whereas Sandesh Jhingan had to deal with Jamshedpur hitman Belfort. Unfortunately, the yellow sea of fans had to go home disheartened as their favourite team meted out another goalless stalemate.
Marquee player Dimitar Berbatov was used in a strangely withdrawn role by Rene Meulensteen, almost as a midfielder but the Bulgarian had a frustrating night. The Dutch coach was obviously banking on his wealth of experience and skill to break opposition resistance in midfield and feed Ian Hume upfront with defence-splitting deliveries. He rarely lost possession and did thread in some lovely passes for his teammates. But the lack of coordination among the Kerala forwards meant his creativity was not utilised properly.
Moreover, there was always the persistent shadow of Mehtab Hossain on the ex-Manchester United man, with the battle between them threatening to boil over at times.
Coppell's men were happy to defend deep and waited for the right opportunities to hit on the counter. Jerry, Belfort and Nigerian Izu Azuka used their blistering pace to unshackle Blasters' mid-field, before getting thwarted by Jhingan and Pesic in the attacking third. Both defenders were solid at the back and lunged in with vital tackles at critical positions on the field to defy the Jamshedpur forwards. Coppell's men raided with purpose and plan and as the minutes rolled they increased their tempo, getting out of their defensive cocoon. When Anas had to be replaced, Coppell gambled by bringing on Bikas Jairu to inject more pace down the right with Memo filling up Anas' boots for the last 25 minutes.
In the end, they ended up with 15 crosses, five shots on target and were rewarded with six corners. One wonders, if Coppell was a bit more adventurous and had thrown in the attacking aces sometime earlier, they could have pocketed the full three points.
Ian Hume, who has the most number of goals and appearances in ISL, was another anonymous figure on the pitch. Apart from finding Vineeth on the far post with a tailor-made cross, which the former Bengaluru FC forward failed to head on target, he looked like a fish out of the water and ultimately had to be subbed off on the 62nd minute. Hume was heading the Kerala attack and a lack of quality delivery by either Berbatov or Pekuson, left him a solitary figure up the pitch.
There was a visible disconnect between the midfield and Hume, as Berbatov dropped as deep as the half-way line along with Jakichand Singh and Pekuson to aid Arata Izumi at times. Kerala's lack of a driving presence in midfield was very evident tonight.
Although Mehtab collected the man of the match award, it was only for the heroics of shot-stopper Paul Rachubka that Kerala managed to avoid the blushes at the end of 90 minutes. The former Leeds United man, made a double save in the first half, denying Memo with his free-kick from just yards outside the box and then Jerry who failed to tap in the rebound from sniffing distance of the goal. But a valiant effort in the dying embers of the game to keep out Belfort's header off Goncalves' cross was the highlight of the match. The Manchester United academy graduate stretched every muscle of his body and dived to his right to claw away a header that looked destined to go in.
Meulensteen has an unenviable task at hand, as his team is playing flat football, creating very few chances. They have already dropped four points, same as Jamshedpur FC, but at least the men from the steel city have the consolation of the dropped points coming in away fixtures. And Coppell is a master of grinding out results away and then going on a strong home run, as Kerala Blasters themselves will testify.
Both coaches will be happy, with their defensive organisation and the ability to weather the stormy phases of the match. But if Kerala Blasters and Jamshedpur FC hope to qualify for the play-offs, they must show their desire on the pitch by playing attractive football, backed by creativity and purpose. They need to break that discernable pattern of square passes and instead be a bit more adventurous. For let us be honest, Friday's match was crying out loud for some excitement for major parts.