A 5-2 aggregate loss to FC Goa in the semi-finals of the Indian Super League (ISL) has taken the sheen off the work Jorge Costa has done with Mumbai City FC this season. His best efforts to shape a team in transition into title contenders did not pay off as Mumbai's incredible season ended at the semi-final stage. However, there are a lot of positives for Costa and Co to take heart from going into next season.
Late start to the season
After an underwhelming second season under Alexandre Guimaraes, Mumbai appointed Portugal's Costa as the new manager. The Champions League-winning former Porto player had experience coaching clubs and national teams, having coached clubs in his native country, Cyprus, France, as well as being at the helm of the Gabon national team for two years. Mumbai were the last team to appoint a manager, giving Costa and his backroom team less time compared to their rivals who had already begun their pre-season preparations.
Costa was quick to make his mark on the team, replacing the entire foreign contingent, apart from Lucian Goian, with players suited to his style of play. Paulo Machado, Rafael Bastos, Arnold Issoko, and Modou Sougou, who all had stints in Portugal arrived along with former Delhi Dynamos player Matias Mirabaje. The Islanders also signed Indian defenders Subhashish Bose and Joyner Lourenco from Bengaluru FC as defensive reinforcements.
From the onset, Costa chose to be conservative in his expectations of the season. With Mumbai taking their time to sign players, Costa was forced to wait as his rivals stole the march on him. Mumbai began the season by losing to Jamshedpur FC at home which was followed by a draw at Kerala Blasters and a 2-0 win against FC Pune City. However, Costa and his side were given a rude awakening in their fourth match. Sergio Lobera's FC Goa ran riot and thumped Mumbai 5-0.
Costa, in particular, was rankled by the loss and took offence when asked if his side failed to show character against Goa. That loss, however, marked the turning point in Mumbai's fortunes.
For the next nine matches, no team could get the better of Mumbai. The Islanders beat defending champions Chennaiyin FC home and away. Despite being down to 10 men for most of the second half at Bengaluru, Costa's men came away with a credible 1-1 draw and then proceeded to end Bengaluru's unbeaten start to the season in a 1-0 win at home. In between the matches against Bengaluru, Mumbai slammed six goals past a hapless Kerala side with Sougou scoring four times.
Costa had asked for patience from fans and the media alike in the early stages of the season and the upturn in form vindicated his stance. While the likes of Bengaluru, Goa, Chennaiyin and Pune retained their core team from the previous season, Mumbai were fielding almost a brand new team. A majority of players in Costa's preferred starting XI had never played under him or even with each other before.
The two international breaks between the season gave Costa time to catch up on what they missed out during their short pre-season. He was able to drill his style of play and to their credit, the players were quick to get used to it.
Style of play
Costa's style of play mirrors that of his Porto coach Jose Mourinho. Both of them like to base their sides on a solid defence and hit teams on the counter-attack.
Costa chose to play a three-man attack led by Sougou playing through the middle with Bastos and Arnold flying on the wings. Despite taking his time to adapt to Costa's style of play, Sougou became Mumbai's top scorer in the season as well as their all-time top goalscorer with his 12 goals.
On the wings, Bastos and Arnold provided two different attacking outlets for Mumbai. Playing as an inverted winger on the left, Bastos regularly cut inside on his right foot. The Brazilian ended the season as Mumbai's second-highest goalscorer with five goals. On the other flank, Arnold, who played as a right-back throughout his career, was pushed further forward by Costa. That move paid dividends as Arnold proved to be a revelation and was Mumbai's most consistent player this season. The 26-year-old Congolese star was formidable on the counter using his pace and guile to devastating effect. He topped the assists chart with 8 in 18 matches while also scoring thrice.
While Costa had little trouble with his attack, he had to tinker with his back four before settling on a defensive line. Initially, Costa had to slot in Subashish at centre-back alongside Goian. Upon his arrival, Joyner forged a solid partnership with Goian at the heart of defence while Subashish and Souvik Chakrabarti manned the flanks.
After conceding eight goals in the first four matches with a makeshift defence, Mumbai let in only four goals during their unbeaten run. The Islanders had the joint second-best defensive record having conceded only 20 goals, only behind NorthEast United's 18 goals. Discounting the seven goals conceded against Goa, their record of letting in just 13 goals from the rest of their 16 matches highlights their steeliness and Costa's effective utilisation of his players' strengths.
Tasks ahead of next season
Despite starting the season late and operating on a tight budget, Costa was able to forge a formidable and cohesive unit which was able to beat any team on their day. Yet, it is obvious that Costa has his work cut out for him if Mumbai are to challenge for the title next season. Midfield will be one of the areas he would need to focus on.
While Paulo Machado dictated play from deep, the Mumbai midfield did not contribute as much going forward. Though Milan Singh and Sehnaj Singh were decent in the holding midfield role, neither contributed with goals or assists. Raynier Fernandes showed promise as a box-to-box midfielder but there remains scope for improvement.
A look at the other top-four teams shows the presence of a quality Indian attacker to complement the foreign stars. Sunil Chhetri, Udanta Singh, Jackichand Singh and Rowlin Borges played crucial roles in their teams' seasons. Mumbai lack a top Indian player in the attack which will also allow Costa to free up a spot for foreign players in midfield and defence.
It is important that the club backs Costa in the transfer window if they are to avoid a repeat of Alexandre Guimaraes' disastrous second season with the Islanders.