The summit clash of the Indian Super League this season has seen two of the strongest, most consistent sides earn their spots in the final.

Mohun Bagan Super Giant and Mumbai City FC finished atop the league standings – first and second respectively – and brushed away the challengers in the semifinals with convincing victories.

The interesting part of their clash, at the Salt Lake Stadium on May 4, will be another chapter of one of the most pertinent conundrums in football – what works? System or circumstance.

The term ‘system’ here means operating in a certain way irrespective of what the consequences are while the ‘circumstance’ refers to prompt actions, at times even knee-jerk reactions with damaging consequences.’

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Under the gamut of ‘system’, a team or a manager sticks to his plan even when the team loses key players to injury or suspension.

Pep Guardiola is the best example of the same – whether or not a team has a striker, Manchester City (Guardiola’s side) keeps pressing high up the pitch to force errors.

On the other hand, Roy Hodgson’s management can be looked at as an embodiment of circumstance football. The veteran coach’s fluid formations mid-game was one of his strongest suits.

The system: Mumbai City

Dragging the topic back into the Indian context, the way Mumbai City, a team under the same conglomerate – City Football Group (CFG) – handling Man City, operated on and off the field was testimony that a club can achieve consistent success if it has a standard school of thought.

When Sergio Lobera, the first Mumbai City coach after the CFG takeover, left, the club did not look for a high-profile manager from Europe.

Instead, it looked inwards – a manager who preferred the same formation (4-2-3-1) and had proven success with a fellow CFG side, Melbourne City, in Australia. Des Buckingham won the A-League, Australia’s top division, and the A-League Grand finale.

It was under Buckingham, that Mumbai City became the first Indian club to win a match in the AFC Champions League, beating Iraqi Premier League side Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya 2–1 in 2022.

Buckingham took the route of propelling attacks down the wings, with Bipin Singh and Lallianzuala Chhangte (wingers on either flank) contributing to nearly half of Mumbai City’s goals (39 of 80) in all competitions last season.

And when Buckingham left for Oxford United, CFG knew who to hire. Perhaps, what kind of a head coach preceded the thought of who.

And then, Petr Kratky arrived – someone more underrated than Buckingham, who had worked previously at Melbourne City. Mumbai City was his first consignment as head coach and he has taken over the baton of wing play from the Englishman (Buckingham).

Under Kratky, Vikram Partap Singh and Chhangte have become Mumbai’s trusted personnel, contributing to 32 goals out of 60 in all competitions this season, improving Buckingham’s record.

The Islanders have seen quite a few personnel changes, but its philosophy has undergone very little change.

The circumstance: Mohun Bagan

The other part of the narrative, circumstance, deals with looking at matches with the sole purpose of results with little or no effort of sticking to a particular thought process.

The signing of Anirudh Thapa, India’s star midfielder and the then-Chennaiyin FC captain, was a glaring example of the same.

When Carl McHugh left (for FC Goa) and Joni Kauko was injured, Mohun Bagan went for Thapa as a defensive midfielder (No. 6) option – someone who usually played as a No. 10 (attacking midfielder) or No. 8 (central midfielder).

Mohun Bagan did not hesitate to bench him despite signing him for a very high transfer fee (reportedly three crores) after he looked uncomfortable while playing out of position – another mistake, this time, financially.

The club’s change in manager was another example.

Juan Ferrando failed to deliver results when three of Mohun Bagan’s key players – Anwar Ali, Ashique Kuruniyan and Sahal Abdul Samad – remained unavailable due to injury, slumping to three consecutive losses in the ISL which eventually led to the Spaniard’s sacking.

The club, which was operating through a 4-2-3-1 shape and playing possession-based football, reinstated Antonio Lopez Habas, a coach it had sacked in 2021.

Lopez’s philosophy was very different – a more direct-attacking approach with a 3-4-2-1 formation (so far this season).

Both changes, benching Thapa and reappointing Habas, have borne fruits, which shows that neither side is wrong with what they did.

The difference merely lay in the principle – a propensity to keep going a certain way against the penchant for believing that change was the only constant and wins were the only things that mattered.

The conflict has seen Mohun Bagan reign supreme in their most recent fixture, the Shield decider, on April 15.

In the final on Saturday, it remains to be seen whether the ‘system’ changes the ‘circumstance’ or circumstances change the system.