With 13 defeats, three draws and just two wins, Chennaiyin FC endured a nightmare campaign in the fifth season of the Indian Super League as their title defence ended in humiliation. If finishing dead last wasn't bad enough, Chennaiyin finished with the lowest points tally ever in ISL history with nine and also the worst defensive record. To put that into context, even when the ISL consisted of eight teams, no side had ever finished with a single-digit total. A season like this would have cost any manager their job.
However, Chennaiyin enter the sixth season of ISL with coach John Gregory in charge for a third successive season. What makes this even more perplexing is that midway through the season, Gregory himself had given in to the fact that he might leave the two-time champions after their AFC Cup group stage matches. Perhaps, Chennaiyin's run to the final of the Super Cup may have changed the minds of the owners. Or the Englishman had enough goodwill leftover from winning the title to keep his job. That will not be the case this time around as Chennaiyin look to add a third title to their trophy cabinet.
After being handed a new contract, Gregory set about undertaking an overhaul of his squad, especially his foreign contingent. Brazilian centre-back Eli Sabia is the sole foreign player retained from last season's squad with captain Mailson Alves and fan favourite Raphael Augusto being axed.
"Overseas players have to be the outstanding players you build your team around. In the process of changing things, we had to make a few difficult decisions. Raphael was one of the difficult decisions we made," Gregory said.
Augusto had been Chennaiyin's best player over the past four seasons contributing to both their title wins and was one of the few bright spots last season's disastrous showing. With defending champions Bengaluru FC snapping up the Brazilian, Gregory's decision to let Augusto go may come back to haunt him.
Chennaiyin have roped in centre-back Lucian Goian from Mumbai City FC to replace Alves with the Romanian having proved himself to be a reliable defender in the ISL. Chennaiyin have also signed Afghani defender Masih Saighani from Abahani Dhaka, whose stoppage-time winner for his former club knocked Chennaiyin out of the AFC Cup.
In the midfield, Chennaiyin have recruited Brazilian Rafael Crivellaro and Romanian winger Dragos Firtulescu to bolster their attacking options. With Jeje Lalpekhlua struggling with injury last season, Chennaiyin had to rely on Carlos Salom to provide them with goals but the Palestinian struggled in front of goal. With Jeje still working his way to full fitness, Gregory has signed two strikers, former Maltese captain Andre Schembri and Lithuanian Nerijus Valskis to lead the line.
Chennaiyin have also strengthened their Indian contingent by signing the versatile Edwin Vanspaul and winger Lallianzuala Chhangte. Vanspaul was a mainstay in the Chennai City FC side which won the 2018-19 I-League and provides Gregory with a reliable player who can play anywhere on the right.
In Chhangte, Chennaiyin have one of India's most exciting youngsters. The Mizo impressed with the erstwhile Delhi Dynamos and nearly earned a move to Europe. Now in Chennai, Chhangte has the opportunity to become a talismanic figure while also nailing down a starting role in the national team.
Deepak Tangri returns to his parent club after spending a fruitful loan spell at Indian Arrows where he formed a good partnership in midfield with Amarjit Singh. Chennai also welcome Dhanpal Ganesh back who missed all of last season with an injury. The 25-year-old enforcer's presence was missed in midfield and his return will allow the likes of Thapa and Crivellaro to flourish further up the pitch.
In their pre-season matches, Gregory set his side up in a 4-2-3-1 formation with a back four of Jerry Lalrinzuala, Goian, Sabia and Vanspaul and a midfield pivot of Sahghani and Dhanpal Ganesh. The Englishman started with these six in all their pre-season matches while tinkering with his attacking options. Considering Gregory sticks with the set-up during the season, that will leave him with two foreigners to play in attack.
The experienced Schembri will be expected to lead the line with one of Crivellaro and Firtulescu occupying one of the wings and Chhangte starting down the opposite wing. With Masih and Dhanpal sitting deep, Thapa will be afforded the freedom to dictate play closer to the opposition goal.
Chennaiyin looked sluggish and one dimensional most often than not last season. The ruthlessness which propelled them to the title a season ago was missing as they struggled to impose themselves on the pitch. Much of the blame lies with Gregory who often looked like he lacked a credible plan B when things went against him. The new season will be a test of his tactical knowledge as much as it will be of his leadership and man-management skills.
Ahead of the season, Gregory termed last season's 10th placed finish as a "huge lesson" from which his side could learn and not a "failure". Gregory should hope he and his team do not repeat the same mistakes because another disappointing season could end the Englishman's stay in Chennai. The team will play their first match of the new season on Wednesday against last year's finallist FC Goa.