The 2022-23 Indian Super League season saw Mumbai City FC win the league shield... actually, wait. That's understating it. Mumbai City FC absolutely rolled the league over en-route winning the shield: few teams have ever dominated an Indian football season the way this one did.
In the end, ATK Mohun Bagan won the cup, but the Mohun Bagan fans won an even bigger battle. Now Mohun Bagan Super Giants, the grand old institution of Indian football is bigger than ever before. What's been constant through all the changes, ownership issues and years gone by is that they keep appearing in the biggest games in Indian football, and inevitably... win them.
After two years in tight bio-bubbles, this was a throwback season: home and away, fans in the stands, all the travelling. From Kerala to Guwahati, from Jamshedpur to Goa, football went local again - and it was brilliant.
The football was a bit more tense, a bit cagier; a reminder that the regular season in this vast country can be more draining than most places. The goals were still there, of course, but not as many as last season. In fact, there were nine less goals in 2022-23 (345 v 354) despite there being two matches more; but the intensity of the football rarely dipped.
We saw an unprecedented 18-match unbeaten run, we saw another wondrous run of 10-wins on the trot. We also saw an even more remarkable phenomena: patience amongst the men in suits... only one manager was sacked mid-season this time around (it had been four last season) and teams like Bengaluru FC and Odisha reaped rich dividends.
It was a season of drama, controversy, and some great football stories. We muse, one final time, on ISL 2022-23:
This came very early in the season, but wow, was Mumbai City 2 - 2 ATK Mohun Bagan an absolute humdinger. There were four goals, but there could have been ten. Both attacks were in the mood that day and they just kept coming; wave after wave of incessant attack.
You would rarely have seen an eight and half minute highlights video more action-packed than this - and they left out plenty.
It was also only one of two glimpses we saw of Bagan's awesome firepower (the other being against the Kerala Blasters in Kochi).
The Kerala Blasters didn't get a refereeing decision in the favour and walked off the pitch.
Cut off the flab around the argument and this is what it boils down to -- there can be no rational defense of this behaviour.
Kerala Blasters coach Ivan Vukomanovic plays on passion but walkoff is a step too far
Leave aside that the decision was perfectly legal, if teams were to walk off every time they didn't get a decision, we would have no football to watch. There were refereeing issues aplenty through the season -- Chennaiyin FC, for instance, got about two bad decisions a game on average, and there were two pretty terrible calls in the final -- but this happens. Referees (as Simon Grayson, the coach of the team on the receiving end of those bad calls, reiterated) are human. They make mistakes. The AIFF President noted that they would introduce a VAR-lite to change things, but we've seen how VAR isn't a panacea in leagues around the world.
Referees will err again. Just as players do. Just as all of us do. What Ivan Vukomanovic and his Blasters did, though, was an unacceptable shambles. The only lesson it served to teach was one that most of us last learn on a primary school ground -- do not leave the game till the final whistle.
Still the Blasters. Still the walkout. There were a minimum of 26 minutes left in a match they had clearly been dominating at the time. Sahal Abdul Samad had come on and he had Bengaluru FC on toast, and it really would have been a cracking finish to an intense match.
Best one-man army
Dimitri Petratos. He had a hand in 67.9% of Bagan's goals (12 Goals, 7 Assists). He scored three penalties of incredible quality in the final. He was Bagan, Bagan was him.
Not too far away was the man from across the maidan - Cleiton Silva's 12 goals were 54% of all the goals East Bengal scored this season. Imagine what he could have done if he had a (fully functioning, fully utilised) midfield behind him.
Apart from the Blasters forfeiting their eliminator, it was just how much of a pushover NorthEast United were. There are always going to be seasons where nothing goes for you, but one win in twenty pointed to a team that just gave up by the end.
P.S. Also, Kiyan Nassiri being relegated to the wings by Juan Ferrando for most of the season. You can understand why the coach did it, but from an individual (and national team) point of view, boy is his natural goal scoring ability wasted out there.
Best character development arc
Lallianzuala Chhangte. From 'OMG Chhangte, how' to 'OMG Chhangte! Wow', it's been some journey.
There ain't no stopping Chhangte 2.0
Best character development arc
Bengaluru FC. After 12 games they were ninth, with 10 points. Eight wins later, they had 34 and were comfortably fourth. Oh, and then they beat the unbeatable juggernaut that was Mumbai City over two legs in their semifinal. Remarkable doesn't quite cover it.
The secret to Bengaluru FC's resurgence: Simon Grayson's tweaks in a perfect 2023
There were many great contenders (Chhangte off the crossbar against Bagan, Brandon Fernandes vs East Bengal, Diego Mauricio vs Mumbai, Cleiton Silva vs Bengaluru, anything Abdenasser El Khayati did), but a personal favourite was Adrian Luna vs Jamshedpur FC.
.@KeralaBlasters take their unbeaten run tally to 8️⃣ games as they registered a 3️⃣-1️⃣ win against Jamshedpur FC! 🔥
Watch the full highlights! 📺#KBFCJFC #HeroISL #LetsFootball #KeralaBlasters #JamshedpurFC
- Indian Super League (@IndSuperLeague) January 4, 2023
Nine seconds, six touches, four players -- the goal was a perfect on-field representation of the Vukomanovic-Blasters philosophy. It was just liquid football.
A young, slight, Indian starting up top (and scoring) consistently for a team that reached the ISL final? Oh, Sivasakthi Narayanan is the real deal.
Sivasakthi's first ISL goal: Reading defence, instinctive finish and a glimpse of his potential
Honourable mention: ATK Mohun Bagan becoming Mohun Bagan Super Giants in the last few minutes of the season. Who saw that coming?