With most teams that reach a final, there are a plethora of reasons for getting there. When it comes to ATK Mohun Bagan and the 2022-23 Indian Super League final however, there are plenty of reasons why they ought not to have been there.
Here's how ATKMB defied footballing logic to upset the odds, despite plenty going wrong for them:
They had a terrible start to the season
There are good pre-seasons, there are bad pre-seasons, and there's whatever ATK Mohun Bagan had before the 2022-23 ISL season started. First, they rocked up to the Durand Cup with an air of 'we've got bigger things to focus on' and were knocked out in the group stage.
They were then booted out of said 'bigger thing', the AFC Cup, by unfancied Kuala Lampur City FC - conceding two goals AFTER the 90th minute.
That terrible start resulted in a playing style at odds with their coach's philosophy
A direct consequence of that KL City capitulation was that Ferrando's expansive, Catalan™ football was abandoned. Out went all the fun, the goals and the inverted wingers given complete freedom. Instead, the mantra became solidity, discipline, a bit more solidity. Sit in a low block and venture forward when needed. Maybe shift to a mid-block if the opponent just can't be bothered.
At times, it almost felt like Antonio Habas had never left. Ferrando had been brought on board to change the pragmatic, ultra-defensive ways of Habas and there had been glimpses of that happening last season. This time around though, the team reverted to the mean.
They barely scored or created chances
ATK Mohun Bagan scored just 26 goals all season, in 23 games (21 in 22 when taking away the five against Kerala Blasters). The only teams scored less were the league's bottom three. They were almost entirely dependent on two players for those goals - Dimitri Petratos (10 G, 7 A) and Hugo Boumous (5 G, 4 A) with combined total of 26 goal contributions. No Dimi, no Hugo, absolutely no party.
Also, Ferrando's side only created 23 big chances all season (again, only three teams created fewer).
Their best player from last season faded, badly
Liston Colaco went from contributing a goal every 117 minutes to one every 267 minutes this year, now basically a shadow of his former self. In part, this was a result of Liston playing alongside both Boumous and Petratos - who like to drift into the inside left channel and occupy the kind of spaces Liston loves to operate in.
This meant that whenever he got into the kind of shooting position he liked, it was cramped, with his own players and opponents who were trying to close down all of them. It led to a lack the kind of confidence a player like him needs -- to take on opponents one-on-one, to shoot from outrageous positions, to simply be who he truly can be.
They lost four key players to long term injury
Florentin Pogba had been signed, to much fanfare, and immediately made captain. He had also, almost immediately gotten injured. That ruled out a centre-back that the coach would have depended on starting week-in, week-out. Also ruled out for the season was Tiri, an integral part of the ATKMB defence for two seasons. And mid-way through, Deepak Tangri, a battler of a central midfielder key to Ferrando's Plan A (of aggression off the ball).
The biggest blow, though, was Joni Kauko, whose season ended very early on (six games in). With Kauko, ATKMB looked capable of being a Ferrando-in-theory team, all fun and jazz and excitement and goal-filled. Without him, they look like what they do now. Simple as.
They even managed to lose to the one team no one loses to
NorthEast United had just one win all season long. In twenty whole games, they beat just one team. We'll give you one wild guess as to which team it was.
Upset, capital U.
Inevitable, despite everything
And yet, here they are. At the final of the 2022-23 season of the Indian Super League. Logic would dictate that they shouldn't be here. What logic doesn't know, though, is that they are who they are.
Call them ATK, call them Mohun Bagan, call them ATK Mohun Bagan: when the biggest matches in Indian football roll around they are almost always in them.
Football heritage, both age-old and nouveau riche.