The 2023-24 season of the Indian Super League begins on the 21st of September, and it promises to be a special one. Aside from being the 10th anniversary edition of the league, the ISL is perhaps the most competitive it has even been.
Mumbai City won the League Shield last year, with ATK Mohun Bagan taking the ISL crown. Including those two teams, there are six managers who’ve won trophies in Indian football this time around, with Carles Cuadrat and Sergio Lobera returning to familiar shores.
As is customary now, we pick out 6 aspects of every team – the coach, the best player, the team’s biggest strength, their major weakness, what to watch out for, and their most exciting new signing. There’s also predictions, but as it is Indian football we’re talking about, they can only go hilariously wrong.
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(Note: The teams appear in the order they finished the league stage last season.)
Coach: Des Buckingham. Won his first ISL League Shield last year, but missed out on the ISL Trophy
Player: Greg Stewart remains influential as ever, but it has to be last-season’s PoTY, Lallianzuala Chhangte. More curled beauties from range nestling in the top corner, please.
Strength: It’s Mumbai City. The quality within their squad remains stellar, although
Worry: Knockout football. Mumbai were imperious in the league, but stumbled in knockout football, as they did in last year’s ISL semifinals and in this season’s Durand Cup quarterfinals.
W2W4: Will fatigue from a packed calendar that includes an AFC Champions League campaign trip up Mumbai?
Signing: Akash Mishra. Mumbai’s left-backs have always been given the freedom to maraud forward and the former Hyderabad FC man could reach new levels under Buckingham.
Prediction: A title challenge seems inevitable, although the aim will be to go for a cup double.
Coach (NEW): Conor Nestor, ‘first-team coach’. Managed Svay Rieng to the Cambodian championship.
Player: Chinglensana Singh. Hyderabad’s raft of departures will need their defensive leader to rise to the occasion.
Strength: Manolo Marquez left behind a very good foundation to build on.
Worry: No Manolo Marquez. No Bart Ogbeche. No Akash Mishra. No Odei Onaindia. No Javi Siverio. No Borja Herrera. Which club can survive such departures?
W2W4: Thangboi Singto, now officially the ‘head coach’, has a reputation for fostering Indian talents. Can he repeat his magic with Manolo Marquez gone?
Signing: Jonathan Moya has had quite the journeyman career, but he may fulfill Hyderabad’s need for creativity and goals.
Prediction: Bottom half. The club were a perennial playoff presence under Marquez, but if their Durand Cup showings continue, they could be starting at a tough season.
Coach: Juan Ferrando. ISL Champion. Durand Cup Champion. Bagan’s champion.
Player: Dimi Petratos. No matter which big name waltzes through the Bagan door, Petratos remains their beating heart in attack.
Strength: The sheer number of options in the squad. Even when things aren’t going well, Ferrando always can call upon one of his star names to conjure up some magic.
Worry: Bagan win, but never look convincing while doing so. It might catch them out in the league, which demands greater consistency. Losing Ashique Kuruniyan for the season might also affect their plans.
W2W4: How Ferrando manages to integrate Jason Cummings, Armando Sadiku, Petratos and Hugo Boumous into a cohesive quartet.
Signing: Sahal Abdul Samad. Used in a pivot alongside Anirudh Thapa, Sahal’s offensive and defensive output will be crucial as Ferrando attempts to fit his star names into a cohesive XI.
Prediction: Title challengers. And they could even win the Trophy given their knockout pedigree.
Coach: Simon Grayson. Almost led BFC to an improbable title last year.
Player: Sunil Chhetri. (Although we might witness the baton being handed over to Sivasakthi Narayanan this year)
Strength: Grayson’s ability to eke out the best from his squad. It’s fair to say none of his players underperformed last season (barring the start).
Worry: BFC might be unduly affected by the national team’s packed schedule, which can see injuries derail their season.
W2W4: Will Grayson’s effective counter-attacking style change? Especially as opposition clubs understand it better now.
Signing: Slavko Damjanovic. For a team dealing with the departure of a reborn Sandesh Jhingan, Damjanovic’s arrival could prove crucial in Grayson’s need for a steady defence.
Prediction: Playoffs. BFC might find it difficult to put together a title challenge, but their knockout pedigree is impressive, and a playoff run might be enough to earn silverware.
Coach: Ivan Vukomanovic. Still serving a ban for leading Kerala Blasters’ infamous walkout.
Player: Adrian Luna.. The Uruguayan has set such high standards that last season was a relatively middling one – he’ll be motivated to build on that this year.
Strength: When the crowd and Vukomanovic’s flowing team football are in sync, there are fewer sights more impressive in Indian football.
Worry: The fines imposed on the club have seen a sedate transfer market, with plenty of holes in the squad.
W2W4: Will the fans stick with their team in a potentially tough season? There were plenty of complaints after a dismal Durand Cup outing.
Signing: Pritam Kotal. His experience will prove crucial in a team which might need to shore things up at the back.
Prediction: Battle for the last playoff spot. The Blasters did not inspire much confidence in their pre-season performances and might find it difficult to be in the playoff race.
Coach: (NEW) Sergio Lobera. ISL league and cup double-winning champion. Also sixth in the Chinese second division.
Player: Diego Mauricio. His goals were pivotal in the Super Cup win and despite Odisha making some big signings like Ahmed Jahouh, everything will revolve around him.
Strength: Momentum. The club’s first-ever trophy last year was added to by the coup of getting Lobera as well as a raft of fresh new faces.
Worry: Does Lobera still have his magic after a disappointing spell in China? Will he be able to get his new squad to gel?
W2W4: Roy Krishna and Diego Mauricio being supplied by Ahmed Jahouh… there aren’t many defences who can stop this.
Signing: Ahmed Jahouh. Stealing away Mumbai’s lynchpin in midfield is quite the achievement, with the Moroccan set to reunite with former Mumbai boss Lobera.
Prediction: Playoff at the minimum, dark horses for a title challenge.
Coach: (NEW) Manolo Marquez. Miracle worker with Hyderabad and ISL champion.
Player: Noah Sadaoui. The Moroccan was quite the handful last season, if a little profligate, but his Durand Cup showing proved he can be quite the goalscorer.
Strength: Marquez with a budget and arguably a better squad. Goan fans can look forward to some good football.
Worry: Even if Goa have made canny signings, they don’t have the star power of some of the top teams.
W2W4: Goa are dealing with raised expectations with the arrival of Marquez. Can they deal with the pressure?
Signing: Odei Onaindia. Yes Sandesh Jhingan is arguably more high profile, but Odei knows exactly what Marquez wants from their time together in Hyderabad and will be crucial in implementing his style of play.
Prediction: Playoff at the minimum, dark horses for a title challenge.
Coach: (NEWish) Owen Coyle. ISL champion and bundles of positive energy. Not the first time he’s been tasked with reviving Chennaiyin.
Player: Rafael Crivellaro. The Brazilian midfielder reunites with Coyle and there are hopes that they can re-create title-winning magic
Strength: See ‘Coach’
Worry: The giant, Anirudh Thapa-shaped hole in the middle of the park. Also, can Crivellaro return to his heights?
W2W4: Chennaiyin were already playing some good football in the Durand Cup and Coyle’s impact might witness the return of attacking football after a dour couple of years.
Signing: Christian Battocchio – the Argentinian-born Italian has Europa League pedigree and will be crucial in the central areas of the park.
Prediction: Playoffs, although it’s not as much of a certainty, with the squad yet to be completed.
Coach: (NEW) Carles Cuadrat. ISL champion and bonafide set-piece genius, back in India.
Player: Naorem Mahesh Singh. Already crucial to East Bengal and the national team, the youngster can only get better.
Strength: Cuadrat has already managed to make East Bengal a functional, defensive outfit going by their Durand Cup showing.
Worry: It’s East Bengal. Consistency isn’t really in the club’s DNA.
W2W4: The number of 1-0s East Bengal earn with a set-piece, fluke goal or a piece of magic.
Signing: Nandhakumar Sekar. His ability to pull a rabbit out of a hat could dovetail perfectly with Cuadrat’s style of play.
Prediction: Playoffs. The title may be a bit far, but Cuadrat is someone who can never be counted out.
Coach: (NEW) Scott Cooper, once a history-making coach with Buriram United and later assistant to Sven-Goran Eriksson with Philippines.
Player: Ritwik Das is one of the lone pieces of continuity from the league-winning team of two years ago. If he recaptures his form that once earned a national team call-up it could be quite the boon for Cooper.
Strength: Jamshedpur’s pool of youngsters, and a manager who has some pedigree in promoting young Asian players.
Worry: The lack of investment might come to haunt the former ISL league shield winners.
W2W4: Cooper’s Buriram team were a high-scoring one, and given there are still gaps in JFC’s defence, they could be quite the entertaining watch.
Signing: Petar Sliskovic can find the net in Indian football, and with a front-foot team behind him, could be quite the signing.
Prediction: Bottom half, in all likelihood. However, if they are able to be more than the sum of their parts, they could prove to be quite the surprise.
Coach: (NEW) Juan Pedro Benali – once a technical assistant to Claudio Ranieri and with experience in DoF roles as well.
Player: Parthib Gogoi. With Romain Philippoteaux now free to create, Gogoi scored at will in the Durand Cup, although the ISL might be quite the test.
Strength: Hard to pinpoint one strength, but Benali’s been able to get his team to create throughout the Durand Cup.
Worry: A completely revamped squad might struggle to gel together.
W2W4: After perennially hovering around the bottom of the league (one brief Khalid Jamil-inspired season aside), NEUFC’s potential resurrection hinges around the administrative revamp headed by Mandar Tamhane – which could be a blueprint for other clubs.
Signing: Phalguni Singh. He put East Bengal to the sword in the Durand Cup and might be a breakout star in the ISL this year.
Prediction: Bottom half, but if luck is on their side, NEUFC could compete for the final playoff spot.
Coach: Staikos Vergetis.
Player: Luka Majcen. The Slovenian forward plundered goals in the I-League for Gokulam and Punjab, and has already shown he can trouble ISL defences. Just ask Juan Ferrando and Bagan.
Strength: The lack of data surrounding their style – they could surprise a few teams by capitalizing on unknowns
Worry: The Durand Cup appearances were *very* uninspiring – arguably worse than their I-League displays last season.
W2W4: Punjab FC’s success could strengthen calls for more promotion to the ISL on merit (and perhaps not with an entry fee).
Signing: Wilmar Jordan Gil. The striker was quite the handful last year, and has experience with making things count for an unfancied team.
Prediction: Bottom half, and will probably fight to not finish last.