What is holding champions Chennaiyin back?
Defending champions Chennaiyin FC picked up their first point of the ISL season, following a goalless draw against Delhi Dynamos. It meant Chennaiyin have endured their worst start across all seasons with three defeats before the match in Delhi on Tuesday.
What have been the reasons behind this sluggish start, and what could they do to bring some momentum into their game?
Imbalance in defence
One of the key factors this season has been Chennaiyin's defensive frailty, and that has prompted John Gregory to field Francis Fernandes as right-back across the last two games. Inigo Calderon, perhaps the team's most versatile defensive player, began in that position in the first two matches and then played as central midfielder in the 4-3 defeat at home to NorthEast United.
Against Delhi, Gregory fielded him as centre-back alongside Eli Sabia and it seemed to bring out the best in him. He still had to do a lot of covering up for Fernandes, though, and the right defensive flank is something Chennai will need to shore up for future games -- teams with the ability to run at them through the left could pose more problems.
Ganesh-sized hole in the middle
In their championship-winning run last season, a major role was played by Dhanpal Ganesh. He occupied the middle of the park with authority, flew in with challenges that kept rival attacking players in check, and contributed crucial goals when matches were evenly poised.
Ganesh has been injured for most of the start, and that has forced Chennaiyin to be a bit conservative with their usage of Raphael Augusto, who has still made the biggest impact in all their games, but seems concerned about going too far forward. Augusto has to be given the freedom to go forward more, and perhaps the easiest way to achieve that would be by a subtle change in formation.
Jeje's lack of form
Jeje Lalpekhlua began the new season with an uncharacteristically jittery effort in Bengaluru, losing his footing on a couple of occasions when in sight of the Bengaluru FC goal. That seems to have set the tone for a dry run in the league, which has seen him relinquish the starting position to Carlos Salom of Palestine as the lone striker.
Thoi Singh's efforts in midfield have also meant that the Indian-foreign balance has worked out well from a selection perspective. Jeje is too good a player to start from the bench, though, and must be restored to the starting lineup. How to do it most effectively is where Gregory might need to go out of his comfort zone.
Change the formation
There were some positives in the Delhi game -- Salom got in between the opposition centre-backs a few times and was denied by an in-form Dorronsoro in goal. Sabia proved to be a threat off set pieces and came close to scoring when the crosses were sent in with precision from the flanks. Most importantly, Chennai kept their first clean sheet of the season.
Two possible formation changes could hold the key for Gregory, including a 4-4-2 with Augusto lining up behind Salom and Jeje. This could also allow Gregory to bring back Mailson Alves, who had to make way for Inigo in defence, and Thoi and Francis could operate along the two flanks.
The other, more radical change could be fielding a back three of Sabia, Calderon and Mailson. This would free up Jerry Lalrinzuala and and Francis to use the width of the pitch. It also gives them more options in the attacking third, including getting Augusto to sit behind the strikers and run the game on his terms. The muscle in midfield could come from either Anirudh Thapa or Germanpreet Singh, or a combination of the two.
Gregory must be willing to back his instincts at this stage, or their playoff hopes could slip by fast.