ISL final: Cool vs coiled, fixed vs flexible in clash of contrasts

The captains and coaches of ATK Mohun Bagan and Bengaluru FC pose with the trophy ahead of the ISL final. Vipin Pawar/Focus Sports/ISL

It's the pre-match press conference ahead of the 2022-23 Indian Super League (ISL) final and the two head coaches and captains are posing with the trophy for photographs.

Juan Ferrando, of ATK Mohun Bagan, is a study in intensity. Hair tousled in that trademark carefully careless manner, tracksuit rolled up to just below the knees... you can see the intention is to project casualness, but his being is far from it. What he is, is a coiled spring: all tight-wrung energy just bursting to be let out. Next to him, Pritam Kotal is channeling this. Tight, intense, straight-faced. There's not a hint of a smile on either face.

Simon Grayson, of Bengaluru FC, looks like he's come on a holiday. There's no hair to tousle but there's a massive grin on his face. There's an air of ease around him that's so powerful even Sunil Chhetri looks a little chill. Normally, Chhetri projects an intensity that's physically palpable, an energy that overpowers everything else in any room he's in, but not today. The overwhelming emotion on that weather-beaten face is, for now, calm.

There may not be much to a single photograph, but it's a stark difference that defined the press conferences of both teams; Ferrando, Kotal and Manvir Singh were on the edge of their seats, leaning forward, answering questions in a simple, straightforward fashion. Grayson, Chhetri and Gurpreet Singh Sandhu (skipper now on most days, with Chhetri benched) lean back, laugh, and rib each other while taking the mickey out of journalists. Gurpreet's vibe doesn't just mirror Grayson, it takes it to a whole different level -- and that means even Chhetri breaks out into a giggle now and then.

Just before the photograph was taken, there was a handshake between the two coaches and the energy was the same: tense and no-smiles vs ease and all-smiles. If you take a step back and rewind, it's the difference that's defined their entire seasons.

  • "Willingness" to adapt (players ready to play out-of-position) and the togetherness of the team.

  • The "quality" running through the team, not just the playing XI.

  • "A lot of character. And Grit." And how they had been "fairly consistent" through the season.

  • "Our defence."

That was Ferrando, Kotal, Carl McHugh and Hugo Boumous on ATK Mohun Bagan's greatest strength, the main characteristic that drove them into the final.

Meanwhile, Grayson, Chhetri and Gurpreet, on the same question:

  • "Belief," that players would understand what the coach wanted, and that the players would be able to do what was asked of them.

  • Them hurting and not wanting to be where they were and that translating into anger -- "one day I saw Sandesh Jhingan losing his head completely, one day Roy [Krishna] was hammering everyone, one day it was me" -- and later performance.

  • "Simplicity," the realization that they shouldn't overcomplicate things, that simple football is the most effective football.

Those answers -- the tone of delivery, the words used, the difference in expressiveness -- they reflect the two very different journeys that ATKMB and BFC have taken to get to this season's final. As much as the differences highlighted in that one single photograph.

Where BFC had to stage a remarkable renaissance (after 12 games, they were ninth on the table), ATKMB had to overcome injury issues and form and a major identity crisis.

From where they were, Bengaluru simply had to take each game in that time-honoured cliché of one-at-a-time. Anything else would have made this an impossible task -- the only way to climb the mountain was to focus on the next step. It's still the same: Grayson calling Saturday's final, "just another game".

ATKMB, meanwhile, had been desperate to be within touching distance of silverware come the business end of the season. The humiliation of the AFC Cup exit to Kuala Lumpur City had rubbed them the wrong way, and that chip-on-the-shoulder never seemed to leave them. They never wavered in their belief that this is where they were supposed to reach -- Ferrando assuring his bosses that they would "100% qualify" right after the humiliating loss at NorthEast United. Qualify, reach the final: nothing else mattered. The fact that they were here now was underlined several times over in the ATKMB press conference, the words "final", "big game", "reward", and "trophy" repeated over-and-over again.

This difference is not a psychological intangible. In fact, you can see it in the way they play.

ATKMB are all rigid lines and discipline. Even Hugo Boumous, that quintessential non-conformist, stays in his lane and does what's asked of him. Their football is at times a bit stilted, but everything is geared toward making the machine move along. It's not how they had started out, not how Ferrando had professed how they would play, in the early days. But it's what's gotten them here. Tight-wrung has worked, and Ferrando sees no reason to change that. That's the energy he brings into his team.

BFC, meanwhile, should by all rights be a boring team: their favoured formation is the 3-5-2 (all too often football's answer to, and improvement of, a sedative), they have an English coach who doesn't really talk about playing philosophy or tactical tweaks. And they were boring. In the beginning. As the months wore on, though, expansiveness became central to their way of playing - wings back bombing forward, midfielders running into the box, strikers drifting hither and thither pulling opponents apart. Grayson would say that he's the same today as he was on the day he joined the club: in the way he addressed the players, in the way he's prepared for games. For Bengaluru, not being particularly high-strung has worked perfectly: In the last eight games of the league stage, they scored 19 goals. In that same period, ATKMB scored eight goals. Chill, smile, joke around a bit. They are, after, all in a good place.

On the field, in the semifinals, Bengaluru more or less outplayed Mumbai City for large stretches of their tie. ATKMB basically outlasted Hyderabad. Off the field, Bengaluru remain (arguably) the best run football club in the country. ATKMB are still in the middle of a bitter schism between ATK (management) and MB (fans).

You couldn't have asked for two more disparate entities to stand in the spotlight, but it doesn't matter, now. After 23 gruelling games, they are both here. In Goa. For the final.

And it's shaping up to be a cracker.