The City Football Group mean business with Mumbai City FC. Well, they almost always do, so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. But the sheer scale of the overhaul of the team over the summer — while the world reels under the massive human and economic costs of the pandemic — has been quite something. Over the summer, they’ve gone full CFG on the Indian Super League (ISL), swiftly and silently assembling what, on paper, looks like the strongest squad in the league. They’ve poached the best players domestically and brought in some A-list talent from outside these shores.
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They’ve brought in two of the league’s best in their positions at either ends of the pitch — Mourtada Fall and Bartholomew Ogbeche. They’ve brought in the league’s best deep-lying playmaker in Ahmed Jahouh, and last season’s runaway player of the tournament, Hugo Boumous. They’ve brought in two-time A-league golden boot runner-up Adam Le Fondre. They’ve brought in youngsters of immense promise in Cy Goddard (midfielder, Japanese), Mohammed Rakip (right-back) and Vikram Pratap Singh (wide forward).
But even more importantly, they’ve brought Sergio Lobera back to these shores.
Lobera left the league and FC Goa last season — with just three games to go — under acrimonious circumstances, but he seems at peace with it all ahead of the 2020-21 season.
As ever with Lobera, it’s the evangelical zeal that grabs you, that demands your full attention.
He is immensely happy with the squad that he and the CFG have assembled. He’s glad to have the “amazing problem” of having maybe too many big names. He’s even happier that he now works for a management where he ‘doesn’t have to waste time trying to explain what he needs as a coach, what his players need’. He is also hell bent they will play the way he has always had his teams play.
“The style of play, the idea, the philosophy — it is non-negotiable. We can change the formation, we can play 4-2-3-1, 4-4-2, but the most important thing for me as the coach is the way we play. And the players need to understand this and believe in this.”
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Yes, it’s a truncated, almost non-existent, pre-season. Yes, those that remain from last season are used to a pragmatic style of play, the polar opposite of what he believes in. Yes, it’s not easy to entirely comprehend and execute such a complete shift in tactical approach in such a short span. And no, none of this means anything to Lobera.
There are no options.
Understand the philosophy, believe in it, play with it.
The way he sees it, there are two things you can do when you are in this kind of unprecedented pickle. Think of it as a problem, and complain. Or accept the challenge, and adapt quickly. You know which way he’s chosen. And you know which way he wants Amrinder Singh, Rowllin Borges, Raynier Fernandes and Sarthak Golui — all key to Jorge Costa’s conservative approach over the past couple of seasons — to choose.
“We want to win, but how we win is very important to me,” he insists, repeatedly.
“I want the ball.” A grin. “We must keep possession, recover the ball quickly when we lose it, try to play in the opponent’s half, and try to score a lot.” A bigger grin. Lobera is in love with the game, and it shows. This is something that he has lived his football career by, and it’s not changing.
He means it when he says he wants his teams to score a lot — his FC Goa scored 42, 36, and 46* goals, during the three seasons he was there (in just the league stages. i.e. 18 games). They made the semifinal and the final in the first two seasons, and even though he wasn’t around to see it to the end, it was his team, his players, his style of play that won the league stage shield last season.
Now this may mean forsaking a little of the balance between attack and defence, but it’s a risk he’s willing to take. Not least because he believes that’s how all footballers want to play. With the ball. Taking risks. Enjoying it.
“It’s very important to me that [the team] enjoys during the ninety minutes, and not just when [they] finish the game and get three points,” he says and you can see he believes it’s what makes those who play for him keep wanting more.
For him, more than anything financial, this is the reason why Boumous, Fall, and Jahouh followed him to FC Goa from Moghreb Tetouan and from there to Mumbai. Why Mandar Rao Dessai, captain of his hometown team, a winger converted to fullback by Lobera, decided to join him at Mumbai. Why Hernan Santana — who played under Lobera at Las Palmas — left Sporting Gijon in Spain’s segunda division to come to the ISL.
It’s also the fundamental principle he is convinced will help him get his message across to those who are new to him, and his philosophy. So even though he has been able to “work with the entire squad for only maybe 3-4 days during the pre-season,” he doesn’t see the need to panic.
It’s not that he doesn’t understand the importance of three points, the need to win: “We need time to implement our style of play, but we don’t have time to try to win.” He understands there is immense pressure after the kind of spending the CFG has put in. In fact, he welcomes it: “If you don’t have this pressure, it means that you are not managing a very good club with a very good team.” It’s just that he doesn’t think any of these things should mean he must back down from his convictions, dilute his philosophy, compromise.
Because when you say things like “it’s very important that we take care of football [the sport],” compromise is an alien term to you.
And so this quiet, studious man will button up his t-shirt, all the way up to the collar, fold his arms and get to work. Mumbai City FC are serious challengers for the ISL title this year, and Lobera’s going to make sure they go about mounting that challenge his way. The fun way.