India’s performance in the Under-17 World Cup so far has been a combination of shrewd tactical display and occasional flashes of individual brilliance. Throughout their preparatory phase, the Indian players and coaches have been realistic about the skill-set they possess. The team were aware they would spend most of the time chasing the ball, so Luis Norton de Matos and his assistant Hugo Martins have structured the side in a fashion that it makes it tough for the opponents to find space.
Few Indian teams — senior or junior — have been so disciplined in maintaining their shape. The two defensive lines have operated with high efficiency, giving USA and Colombia very little space to work with. Another stark difference is the team’s reaction when under pressure. While others mindlessly thump the ball forward to clear the danger — be it national team, league or school level — this team passes its way out of trouble without panicking. There are a few stray passes, but there is an effort to use their brains.
In doing so, there have been some memorable passages of play. Because they have been tactically solid, a few players have been able to show what their made of. Nongdamba Naorem’s mazy run, cutting in from the left, against the USA; Boris Thangjam’s smart chipped pass to KP Rahul to slice open Colombia’s defence and twinkle-toed Komal Thatal showboating his skills against the Americans. These have been displays of ball control and skill which are rare in Indian teams and with maturity, they can only get better. The Indian Express takes a look at a few such moments that have stood out despite India’s defeats.
Timothy Weah is the biggest star of this USA team. PSG’s brightest youth prospect, he is the son of a former Ballon d’Or winner. But he was made to look like a novice by a rookie Indian midfielder. It had been only a few minutes since Nongdamba Naorem was brought on as a second-half substitute by de Matos in the first match. And he did not waste time in showing what India had been missing all night.
Nong, as he is fondly called, was one-on-one with Weah on the left wing. He opened up his body, as if to show he’ll go left. Weah bought the dummy and the moment he committed himself, Nong twisted and waltzed past his right. The quick-footed winger entered the box, drew forward two American defenders and dribbled around them. He made a similar run against Colombia as well, proving the one against the US wasn’t a fluke.
Very few Indian players have shown such ball control while on the run. There needs to be more awareness, no doubt. Had he looked up, Nong would have seen an unmarked player at the edge of the US box. Against Colombia, he could’ve been clever and played a through ball to Jeakson Singh. Something that can improve with experience.
Boris’s chipped ‘assist’
There’s something about Boris Thangjam that immediately catches your attention. He’s perennially out of position. But he never allows his marker to run past him. Boris is tiny for a defender. Leandro Campaz, the dangerous Colombian forward, swatted him like a fly every time there was a ball played in that direction.
Boris, however, is quick as a wing-back should be. He ran tirelessly and threw himself at Campaz — always getting the ball, never the player. Namit Deshpande played a reliable cover. He had to, because at the slightest of opportunities, Boris would dart forward. And he would generally ensure something concrete came out of his runs.
He was lively throughout, winning the 50-50 challenges and involving the strikers a lot more in the game. Like the one-two he played with striker Abhijit Sarkar, which ended with Colombia goalkeeper Kevin Meir making a fine save. That was India’s first real chance of the match, and it wasn’t the last.
In the first half stoppage period, Boris created another chance that very nearly resulted in goal. He picked up a loose ball on the right flank and ran between two defenders. He saw the third defender charging towards him, sticking out his leg, and just before the tackle came in flying, Boris played a beautiful chip with the outside of his right boot. It found Rahul KP, who was unmarked, and you could see the horror on Colombian faces. They’d given up. This would be a goal, they thought.
Rahul’s eyes lit up as he saw the ball leave Boris’s foot. He took it on the chest, let it bounce once and smashed a volley. Any experienced striker will confess how tough it is to execute a perfect volley. There was little wrong with Rahul’s shot but it rattled off the bar. Too much force, perhaps.
But you can cut Rahul some slack. In the first match against the US, he filled in for a suspended Boris in the defence. It was a near-flawless game, with Rahul almost marking Weah out of the game. Against Colombia, Rahul was back to his preferred position on the left wing, replacing an injured Komal Thatal.
It was a curious decision but made sense as the game wore on. Rahul looked more incisive and compared to Komal, he was able to gel with the forwards better. It’ll be interesting to see if de Matos sticks to this decision or will be tempted to give Komal another start in India’s final group match against Ghana.
Ali, rock-solid at the back
Unlike the rest, Ali hasn’t done anything flashy and largely goes unnoticed. That’s the beauty of his play. He anticipates danger, organizes defence, talks to the goalkeeper and has shown high levels of concentration. The I-League teams, even ISL for that matter, have generally employed foreigners as centre-backs, insisting there is not enough quality within India for that position. Ali, though, belies that claim.
He is one of the biggest reasons, goalkeeper Dheeraj Moirangthem being another, why India haven’t suffered heavy defeats in their opening two matches. He’s barely put a wrong foot and the only time he strayed out of position, against Colombia soon after India scored the equaliser, India were punished.
Ali, who started as a forward, has also shown he can be a handful going forward. He very nearly scored a goal against the USA but his shot, like Rahul’s, hit the crossbar. He has the height and if he bulks up a little, Ali can be an asset to the national team. For now, his physicality and concentration will be put to test against Ghana, easily the strongest of the three sides in India’s group.