It was not just another Off the Pitch with Khuri for Manjappada on Sunday. Our dear Khuri Irani hosted the most prominent figure at KBFC at the moment; Kibu Vicuna, our own gaffer. An elated Khuri started the session thanking Manjappada’s core team for their wonderful goodies. Manjappada is always thankful to Khuri for her love and support, too. Like Khuri mentioned, it was a pleasure to see our coach in yellow 💛 . For those of you who missed the interview, read on to find important excerpts from the latest episode.
Khuri: What made you join Kerala Blasters as the head coach?
Kibu: As you said, Kerala Blasters is one of the best clubs in India and they have the best supporters in the country, THE BEST. Kerala is a beautiful place and the project we are going to do in Kerala in the next few years is important. It is a challenge and is exciting and I am very happy to join Kerala Blasters and be a part of the family.
Khuri: How much of a role did the fans play in you joining Kerala Blasters?
Kibu: I always say that fans are important, they are player #12. They (the fans) are one of the best things Blasters have. I am very happy to join a club with the most number of supporters in the country.
Khuri: What are the goals for the next season? In your meeting with the management, director, CEO, president, have you charted out a game plan for the next year?
Kibu: Yes, ISL competition is very tough. The objective after the last two seasons, where the team could not reach the playoffs, is to finish in the top four and reach the playoffs. The first objective is to be one of the best four teams in the country.
Khuri: Kerala has reached two finals but is yet to win the trophy and in your case, you won the I-League last year. You want to continue winning trophies.
Kibu: Everyone wants to continue winning. It is our job, our passion but it is better to go step by step. First, we want to build a strong team and they play good football. If we play good football, we are closer to getting good results.
Khuri: What is your philosophy going to be in the squad you will be acquiring next season? What will we be looking at?
Kibu: Every coach has his own style. I have watched all the games of Kerala Blasters last season. I think we have good players to play an attacking style of football. This is going to be our objective. We will try to get the best team possible with the possibility we have. We are in the process of building a strong team.
Khuri: Why do you think Kerala Blasters could not make it to the semifinals last year? What do you think was missing?
Kibu: The team played well last season. In most of the games, they had more possession than the opponent but sometimes possession is not the most important thing. Most of the time, the most important thing is to create more chances than the opponent. In some games, Kerala had more possession but the team didn’t create more chances than the opponent. Sometimes, they were unlucky with the injuries. I think we have to continue playing this possession-based style, try to create more chances than the opponent, and try to be more organized at the defence. I think the team conceded too many goals last season.
Khuri: It is entertaining to watch this attacking style, you want to see those many goals scored but at the same time you said there has to be some consistency in the defence. So you will be looking for a balanced in your squad and not just creating chances or finishing.
Kibu: Yes, you are completely right. Balance is the key word in football. You must have balance between defence and attack and also the way the team is attacking is going to depend on how we are going to defend. Football has four moments, the time when you are attacking, the time when you are defending, the transition between attack and defence and the transition between defence and attack. Football is a flow and we want to improve (this) in every aspect of the game.
Khuri: One of the aspects that has been consistent in Kerala Blasters is that their consistency has been missing. I don’t mean the squad or the starting 11. It is also the mental conditioning. You are leading but you can’t go on and pick up three points at the end of the game. What we saw from Kibu Vicuna was a team with great mental strength, 12 out of 13 times you (Mohun Bagan) were leading, you went on to win the game and one draw only. Will you be incorporating that mental strength in your team as well?
Kibu: Of course. Perhaps, it is the most important aspect of the game because at the level of ISL and I-league, from the tactical aspect, every coach is well prepared, every coach comes with a different style but good organized training sessions, good plans in the game, and it is important to create a family in the game, to have our own values (of Kerala Blasters) and then if we are confident of the way we are playing, the way we are training, the way we want to play, we will be close to good results.
Khuri: I was talking to Juan Ferrando (head coach of FC Goa) and he said we need a special person just to take care of mental conditioning. Do you agree with that?
Kibu: Yes, completely agree. In fact, in our staff, we have the second coach Thomasz Tchórz, Paulius Ragauskas is the physical coach (trainer). This season we also have David Ochoa (Tactical and Analytical coach) with a pro license and he is an expert in sporting coaching and approved by Spanish federation. This part of football is very important.
Khuri: How important is preseason to get the squad ready for the Hero ISL when it starts?
Kibu: Preseason is very important not only physically but in every aspect of the game. We are starting to create a style so it is going to be an important physical aspect and tactical aspect. Even now, we are not training with the team but the physical coach has sent the players physical tasks that are to be done every day. We are also monitoring the weight of the players. We are now in special circumstances. Since the beginning of June, we have been in contact with the players. They have a physical plan that they can do at home. We also have tactical sessions once a week through video calls. We are starting not in the field but off the field.
Khuri: What does Kibu Vicuna do? Does he decide the gameplay according to the strength of the squad he has available or does he decide the squad he wants according to the philosophy he has? Which one do you prefer?
Kibu: This is also a balance. Every coach has his own idea. For example, Guardiola and Simeone are completely different coaches, both very good but with different styles. I have my own idea, we have a coaching staff with our own ideas but of course we have to know which players we have. In every team, the team is going to be different because of the players, the way they feel football.
There are two dimensions in football. Tactical dimension means the way you want to play. Then, there is a strategical dimension –what you are going to play and how you are going to play according to the opponent.
Khuri: How much importance would you place on the Indians who form a part of the team? How much weight would you put on your Indian signings?
Kibu: For me and for the club, we are going to give chance in the preseason to some players in the academy and reserves team to be in the (senior) team. We have very good players who are part of the national team like Nishu Kumar, Sahal Abdul Samad, Jeakson, Jessel, Prashanth, Rahul, and Naorem. They are very good players and are very important. I think as a club, Kerala Blasters should give chances and a possibility to play in the starting 11. We must establish a good connection between the junior team, the reserve team, and the senior team.
Khuri: Last year, six out of 15 Indians were U23. You have to have a balance between the young players and the experienced players.
Kibu: Yes, we have players who are senior players with experience in professional football and players who are starting. For example, Rahul, Jeakson, Prabhsukhan Gill, Naorem, they were all in the Indian U17 World Cup squad. We also have players like Givson who played in the Indian Arrows last season. We also have Abdul Hakku, Nishu Kumar, Jessel, Prashant, and Seityasen who are experienced in ISL.
Khuri: When a new head coach comes into the team, they would want to bring players that they have played with or they have watched before who agree with your philosophy. We always say that players is a reflection of a coach. What do you think about a coach wanting to get players he has worked with?
Kibu: Yes, it is very important for us to have players who suit our style. For example, for us it is important to have players who play possession-based football, technically good players, and brave players to play in the final third. I think it is important to have players who fit our style but also to have different players. Every game is different.
Khuri: Do you think there is a difference in the quality of foreign players when you compare players in the ISL to what you have experienced last year.
Kibu: I think, in both leagues, there are good players. Perhaps, in ISL there are more experienced players. 33, 34, 35 years. In both competitions, foreign players are adding more quality to the game.
Khuri: The whole idea of foreign players coming to the ISL was that our Indian boys rub shoulders with them and learn from them, not just on the pitch but also off the pitch, in the locker room, in the hotel room, etc. You want the foreigners to be role models for the Indian players.
Kibu: Yes, I completely agree with you. Not just on the pitch, off the pitch, the experience they have, for example, the professional behavior. They must help the young players to not just be a good player but also to be a good leader. As a striker, you must show other strikers the tactical aspects of the game.
Khuri: Sahal Abdul Samad is a local hero. He is a demi-god in Kerala but is very young. 50,000 screaming fans in the pitch for a young boy will be a little bit of pressure to take. You as a coach and your foreign players need to provide support to a young boy like that (Sahal).
Kibu: Sometimes it is difficult to handle the pressure. On the other hand, I always say that pressure is a privilege. That means that you are in a good team, you have the privilege to play with a lot of supporters. All players want to play in a big field with a lot of supporters but it is also true that they have to create the correct environment for the young players to develop their qualities.
Khuri: Manjappada are completely mental, they are crazy about football. They love their team which is why we all love Manjappada. It makes them one of the best fans ever. I will name a player, he played for Kerala Blasters first, then he moved to another team, came back to Kerala to play an away game. I interviewed him and asked him if he was pressurized because you are the opposition. He said, “No, Khuri. I felt more pressure when this was my home ground.” What would you say? You want 50,000 fans to make it intimidating for the opposition but even for you it is a lot of pressure, you have 50,000 fans judging you. What do you think? Who faces more pressure?
Kibu: We have to handle this pressure us an advantage for us. As I said at the beginning, for us our supporters are our strength. We have to enjoy every game at home. We have to enjoy the fact that our supporters are with us. Also, we have to make people enjoy our game and the way we play. Hopefully, with the results.
Khuri: We know that because if these circumstances, for the safety of the fans, we might have some matches behind closed doors. You are going to miss the fans at the stadium because of that. What are you going to say to the fans?
Kibu: In this moment, we don’t know what is going to happen. We have time. Hopefully, we will play with the supporters. For us, it is our biggest strength. We play football to ensure that our people enjoy, which is most important. For example, we are watching the Spanish League and it is very sad to see fantastic games (being played behind closed doors). It was like a friendly game because they play without supporters. Hopefully, everything is going to be alright and we will play with our supporters. They are going to be very important for us. It is like we are starting (the game) with a 1-0 for us because they are our strength. I don’t think we are going to play behind closed doors, I hope not.
Khuri: Once you come to Kerala, what are you looking at as your biggest challenge? As the new head coach of Kerala Blasters, what is the biggest challenge you are seeing in front of your eyes?
Kibu: To create a very good atmosphere in the dressing room, to play everyone with the same style, to play good football. We don’t know what results we are going to get but we will be persistent to get a good team, to create a good family inside the dressing room, and then to play good football that everybody believes in. The first challenge is to create a good group.
Khuri: As the head coach, you are the umbrella under which the whole team is standing. Are you one of the coaches who wants to be very approachable for your players, young or old, Indian, or foreigner that they can come to you if they have any problems? Would you want to be approachable for your players?
Kibu: Yes, of course. If you want to have a good relationship with your players and try to get the best of them, you have to know them, which value is important for them if they have any personal problems, try to get knowledge in football aspects, their strengths, and areas of improvement, create individual training to improve the aspects that will give them more confidence. I always say that the best player in the team is the team. All individuals are very important but the most important player is the TEAM.
Khuri: Any player in particular who caught your eye?
Kibu: Of course foreign players were excellent but in Indian players, for example, Sahal Samad is a very good player, a creative player, a very different player. I can play him as the #8, #10, to give the last pass, through passes, he has good vision. I know Rahul is a player with a lot of potentials. Jeakson, the defensive midfielder, Jessel had a fantastic season. Nishu Kumar is player who plays for the national team. Naorem, played with me in Mohun Bagan, I hope he does well for Kerala Blasters as well. Prashant, the game Abdul Hakku played against ATK, he played well. We have a good goalkeeper. I think all the players have to be ready to have a good season.
Khuri: What about the foreign players who caught your eye from the ISL or the I-league?
Kibu: Ogbeche had a fantastic season. Cidoncha is a fantastic midfielder. In other clubs also there are very good players with a good CV. In I-league also there are very good players. I don’t want to talk about players. Hopefully, we will create a good team.
Khuri: Can you at least tell the fans what they can look forward to or what they can expect in the next few weeks?
Kibu: I cannot say anything because the sporting Director and the club are working daily to try and get the best team possible. Last week we presented Jessel. He was the best left-back in ISL last season. He is going to be very important for us. Hopefully, in the following days, we can present other players. I can only say that (to the supporters) that we are working daily to try and get the best team possible.
Khuri: Now that the Hero ISL has an AFC Cup spot and AFC Champions League direct spot, is that a direct motivation for you to finish top of the table? And for foreign players?
Kibu: Our plan is to try and finish as best as possible and for us as you said if we get our first objective (finish in the top 4), we are going to be close to the possibility of playing in Asia. I know that is very important but we have to go step by step. We are in the first part of our season. Though we are not training, we are trying to build a good team.
Khuri: The climate in Kerala is hot and humid. For you and the players to acclimatize is quite a challenge.
Kibu: Yes, it takes time. We have the experience of Kolkata last season. I arrived in Kolkata on the 27th of June and in July and August we were playing CFL 2 PM in the afternoon and it was very hot. I know Kerala is going to be even hotter. It is part of our job. We will try to prepare the training sessions. Everyone is going to participate in the same condition. That is why nutrition is important, to rest properly, to be in good physical condition. We have to handle everything in detail. The weather is an important part of India.
Khuri: The fans are worried because some of the big names, the mainstays, have now left and parted ways. It is going to be a little anxiety for the fans thinking OMG what happened to our club now. What will you tell your fans?
Kibu: Sometimes, it is hard when some players who spent a lot of time with the club leaves. This is part of football. The club wishes these players the best in their future. The most important part of football is the club. The club always stays. The players, coaches are always going in and going out. The most important thing now is Kerala Blasters. Some players are leaving and some are coming to the club. I can ask help to the payers coming to the club. They are going to be important players. If the supporters support these players, they are going to be more comfortable and play good football. In every club in the world, there are players leaving. These are bad moments, people love them but they are going to love the new players as well.
It is important to dream high. To get something, the first step is to dream about it. We are going to do our best. We have been working since June to create a good team. Fans are very important to us. They are player #12. I hope they will enjoy it from the beginning.
Manjappada is well known for its ardent support towards the club during the difficult times and the support will continue forever. We have complete faith in the club and the stakeholders. As our coach said, we fully understand that players and coaches will come and go. The only constant is the club, Kerala Blasters FC.
– Ashwin R