When John Gregory was first announced as manager by Chennaiyin FC there was a mixed response from the Chennaiyin fans. Coming after a disastrous 2016 campaign Gregory was a strange choice as he had failed in his stints outside England and was away from management for two years. Chennaiyin FC were linked with several younger managers including Brazilian Olympic winning coach Rogério Micale and the decision to hire Gregory was a shocker for most.
Chennaiyin FC management wanted an experienced figure to replace Marco Materazzi, and Gregory was a perfect fit. Nobody expected him to win the title last season. He had a pretty average squad at his disposal and his best time at management were nearly 15 years ago at Villa. Due to his lacklustre time at Israel and Kazakhstan, a few sections of fans labelled him as an expert in getting his teams relegated.
I still remember Chennaiyin FC’s first game against FC Goa at home where he had got everything wrong in the first half. He set up his team in 3-4-3 formation playing a very high line with a number of players playing out of position. He wanted the team to keep more possession and play out from the back. By halftime the team and was trailing 3-0 conceding all three goals on the counter. I don’t think anybody expected him to stay long at the club after the display in the first half. He made two changes at half-time, changed the shape and Chennai put in a decent performance in the 2nd half scoring a couple of lucky goals courtesy of FC Goa’s goalkeeper Kattimani.
Gregory started making changes from the next game, he understood the limitations of his squad and played to their strengths than trying to repair their weaknesses. He started to emphasise on defensive stability than trying to play attractive football which he did in the first game. The results were positive as Chennaiyin had a great run winning six out of his next nine games.
Chennai didn’t have a perfect season as they had constant ups and downs throughout the season and could manage to win only half their games at the end of regular season. The best thing about John Gregory was that he evolved as the season progressed, he would admit his mistakes and change rather than being stubborn and sticking to his tactics. He was a very positive figure to be around even when the results didn’t go his way.
Gregory’s experience was very vital for Chennai in the playoffs. Every decision he made was perfect, He studied his opposition well, set up his team the right way and made the right substitutions as Chennaiyin FC convincingly outplayed two of the best teams in the league.
Gregory’s tactics can be summed up from his words last season:
“Football-wise, we might not be technically gifted but our players are difficult to play against. We put a lot of faith in our defence, and we’ve got endurance.”
Gregory sets up his team in a 4-2-3-1 formation, a system built on defensive organisation and work rate. Gregory prefers players with superior work rate and endurance over players with technical ability. He makes his team sit deep soak pressure from the opposition and play on the counter-attack. The midfield is always congested with the wingers dropping back allowing the opposition deep into their own half followed by aggressive pressing to win back the possession setting up quick counter-attacks.
Chennaiyin probably have the strongest defence in league with 3 experienced foreigners and one of India’s brightest prospects. The defence is compact, narrow and is hard to break down. The defence is often criticised for their aggressive approach which led to Chennaiyin accumulating most number of yellow cards last season with both centre-backs serving multiple suspensions.
Gregory prefers having a double midfield pivot with both central midfielders sitting deeper providing cover to the back four and constantly winning balls to setting up counter-attacks. Gregory made a bold choice of playing Raphael Augusto, who played as a defensive midfielder for all of his career, as an attacking midfielder, the decision was successful as Augusto was key to Chennaiyin attack, he would often drop deep collect the ball and move forward setting up most of the attacks.
Chennaiyin FC are often criticised for their lack of creativity. Gregory dropped the likes of Mihelic and Gavilan who were technically superior for the likes of Nelson and Fernandes for their higher work rate and endurance. The decision to play Jeje Lalpekhlua who is 5’8 as a typical number nine was also not well received, the striker often struggled and could manage to find the back of the net only in six games. Chennaiyin FC heavily relied on set pieces to score goals with 50% of their goals in the regular season coming through dead ball situations.
Expectations for 2018-19
John Gregory has made his intentions clear that he wants to win the championship again this season. Chennaiyin have improved their squad significantly this season despite losing Henrique Sereno and Bikramjit Singh. Chennaiyin FC will have a packed schedule in the second half of the season with the AFC Cup but with a strong bench and reserve squad, the sky is the limit!
There is also a lot of talk about John Gregory having a poor second season at every club he has managed, well before coming here he hadn’t won anything his whole career and that changed. I expect him to have another solid season with a much stronger squad under his disposal.