ISL 2021-22 review: Was this the best season yet?

Unexpected champions, an unexpected return of fans... was this the best ISL season yet? ESPN

Jamshedpur FC winners of the league shield. Hyderabad FC winners of the cup. Those two sentences alone should tell you how unusual a season it was - in the best way possible. Pre-season predictions mattered for little as the lead atop the table switched hands frequently and teams remained bunched together for the most part. The top four was decided only in the last round of matches. The title on the last day. The games were end-to-end, and more often than not, contested tightly. The goals were plentiful: 354 in 115 games at 3.08 gpg and the action on the pitch was as entertaining as those numbers suggest.

We saw teams that made their fans prouder than ever before even if they didn't win any silverware (hello, Kerala Blasters!) and some that... didn't (hello, East Bengal!). We saw charismatic coaches leave distinct tactical impressions on games. We saw six new managers at the start of the season, and four mid-season sackings. We saw an old master struggle (sorry, Sunil Chhetri) and another thrive (well in, Bart Ogbeche). We saw a season that suffered some pretty woeful goalkeeping for the most part being decided by a goalkeeper's heroics. And at the end of it all, we saw the sight that made everything whole... fans in the stands.

We muse, one final time, on ISL 2021-22:

Best teams

There can be little debate that the teams that ended the top four were the most consistent across the season. Each had their own battles to fight. Jamshedpur coped with the loss of goalscorer-in-chief Nerijus Valskis brilliantly. Hyderabad overcame two separate COVID-19 outbreaks. ATK Mohun Bagan moved from ATK old timer Antonio Habas to Juan Ferrando, changed their style of play completely, and were in the title race till the last minutes of the season. Kerala Blasters went from no-hopers to can-do-anything entertainers in the span of a pre-season.

They each had their own unique brand of football. Jamshedpur were direct, loved running with the ball through the middle, dominated the inside channels and won almost every second ball. Hyderabad controlled play, created mainly through sensational wingplay; wingers and fullbacks in perfect tandem, feeding one of the greatest strikers to play in this league. ATK Mohun Bagan unleashed their multi-talented wingers and asked them to cut inside and wreak havoc. Kerala Blasters pressed and pressed and then pressed some more in their unique 4-2-2-2 formation (all the other three primarily play 4-2-3-1).

Pressing was something most of these teams did well, actually. It's a phenomenon that certainly pleased Indian national coach Igor Stimac, for one, who said the increasing intensity, and subsequent quickening up of the game, could only do Indian football good. He's right. With the tempo amped up by the top teams, players had nowhere to hide and had to push themselves to their limits to keep their places. It made for great watching.

Best policy decision

That was taken before the season began, restricting teams to four foreigners on the pitch. This meant the teams, and managers, that trusted Indian talent the most simply did better. That was borne out by the results: Jamshedpur winning the league; Hyderabad FC and Kerala Blasters competing in the final, the common thread linking them the uncommon trust in local talent.

More trust, more game-time = better performance. Whodathunk?

Best moment (on the pitch)

You've just won the ISL final after a draining 130 minutes of normal, extra time and penalties. Your team is going berserk on the field. Your support staff are screaming onto the field to join them. The first thing you do? Go to the disconsolate goalkeeper of your opponents, pick him up, and give him a hug. Manolo Marquez Roca - master tactician, right proper gentleman.

Best moment (off the pitch)

Kerala. The whole state. What we witnessed at the end of the second leg of the first semifinal was something special. It was an explosion of adrenaline and relief and pure joy that captured the essence of what sport is all about.

Scroll up and down this thread, and then do it again. It was magnificent.

Best match

The final.

The quality of football, the narrative arcs, the equaliser, the intensity, the relentlessness - top notch. Then you add to it the build-up, and what was happening all around those twenty-two men on the pitch. Thousands from Kerala descended on Goa, hundreds from Hyderabad, as the league opened itself to crowds for the first time since March 2020. The real sounds of football - chants, lulls, lullabies, boos, referees being told to do things we cannot possibly print here, cheers, heartbreak, roars - filling the warm Goa night.

Football, as the great Jock Stein once said, is nothing without the fans. The eternal truth of those words were highlighted in sharp relief that day.

Biggest what-if

What if Kerala Blasters had not been struck down with an outbreak in January just as they were picking up momentum for a title push? What if Ahmed Jahouh had remained fit? What if Marcelinho had joined NorthEast United earlier? What if Juan Ferrando had stayed through the rough early patch at FC Goa? What if Roy Krishna had been fully fit all season? What if SC East Bengal had actually started preparing for the season months in advance like everyone else?

The biggest what-if, though, probably concerned Hyderabad vs Jamshedpur in that last week of massive fixtures. What if Laxmikant Kattimani, Juanan, Victor Joao and Bart Ogbeche had started that match, the one that arguably decided the league champions? What if they had gotten the postponement they had asked for?

COVID-19 and fixtures and the need for self-reflection

Nothing we say about this season will be complete without mentioning this. Every team was badly hit. Every manager spoke about how incredibly hard it was to manage, about how football was the last thing on anyone's minds, about how players simply wanted to go home. The league struggled to deal with the outbreaks, which in itself was no fault of their own, that's just the nature of this virus, but the decision-making process for rescheduling and postponement lacked transparency and drew flak from all corners. When people aren't sure if matches will go ahead two hours before kickoff, something ain't right. It's tough being in a bio-bubble, and confusion is the last thing anyone in it needs.

The resulting fixture congestion added to an already jam-packed calendar, and did no one any favours. It really is time now, ISL, to explore staging a season that isn't crammed into four months of daily matches and weekend double-headers.

Which leads us to...

Biggest whinge

Transparency (in decision-making at the highest level), where art thou?

Best goal

Instead of reading about it, why don't you set aside two and half minutes of your life and soak in the glory of these absolute golazos:

The best part of this whole thing, you could have made it a top 10 and it'd still be just as difficult to pick #1. There really were some smashing goals in the 354 that flew in.

Biggest disappointment

It's a tie between East Bengal (20 games, 18 goals scored, 36 conceded, 11 points earned) and Khalid Jamil (from inspiring NorthEast United to the playoffs last season to barely finishing above rock bottom as the season descended into farce).

Best character development arc

Laxmikant 'I did my job' Kattimani.

Best character development arc (in-season)

Daniel Chima Chukwu scored 2 goals for SC East Bengal in 11 games. He scored 8 in 9 for Jamshedpur FC.

An indictment of the state of the former club, a testament to the genius of the now-ex coach of the latter club and proof of the temporariness of form and permanence of class of the character in question.