It’s perhaps a travesty that Sahal Abdul Samad, whose flamboyance with the ball at his feet made many in Indian football go weak in the knees, has not even played an entire half per game, on an average, this season in the Indian Super League. And most of whatever little he has played has been out of the position he has excelled at.
It’s also a tragedy, from a fans’ point of view, that arguably the three best attacking players in the country – Sunil Chhetri, Udanta Singh and Ashique Kuruniyan – could never strike a partnership that many fantasised. Predictably, it was only Chhetri who was consistent while the other two struggled so badly that between them they have just one goal and an assist in the whole season.
So when Carles Cuadrat, the manager of India’s champions Bengaluru FC, cautioned Igor Stimac, the coach of the national team, he wasn’t really exaggerating. “If I am Stimac, I would be worried,” Cuadrat said last week.
Cuadrat was speaking in the context of the performance of Indians in ISL’s league stage, which concluded on Tuesday. The former conditioning coach of Turkish giants Galatasaray has been credited with developing several Indian players during his time at Bengaluru, first as an assistant coach and now as the manager. But he fears a lot of them have stagnated.
He wasn’t just concerned about players from his team, like Udanta and Ashique, but also the rest – Jamshedpur’s Farukh Choudhary, Chennaiyin FC’s Jeje Lalpekhlua and ATK’s Balwant Singh, among others. “They all have the quality but are not having that impact… Udanta (has) only one goal and zero assists; Ashique only one assist, zero goals… it’s scary.”
The season has offered more of the same from the past: there is still no replacement for Chhetri upfront, or Gurpreet Singh Sandhu in goal. When it comes to defending, Indians can still get the job done. But in attack, they lack creativity and technical ability.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. The ISL this season was expected to be a coming-of-age event for the new breed of players that had emerged in the last few years. The brainy Anirudh Thapa and Vinit Rai were finally being talked about as ones who could drive their teams independently; Lallianzuala Chhangte’s pace and Brandon Fernandes’ playmaking skills were hyped up; Samad’s flair and Ashique’s grit were gaining reputation; and Udanta, it was hoped, would step out of Chhetri’s shadows.
These players had had a tremendous year or so with the national team. But the short-term spike achieved by the players with the national team has not translated into full-blown success in the league. And instead of taking the ISL by the scruff of its neck, most of these players have struggled for form.
Simply going by the scoring statistics, there are just two Indians among the top 20 goalscorers – Chhetri (9 goals in 15 games) and FC Goa’s Jackichand Singh (five in 16) while in the list of top 10 players who have taken a shot at goal, there is no Indian.
Some, like Samad who likes to play in the centre but has been used on the flanks, have had to play out of their natural position while a few others, FC Goa striker Manvir Singh for instance, haven’t had enough playing time because coaches have preferred foreigners instead.
It’s an issue Indian players have faced for several years, be it in the ISL or I-League. The coaches, under pressure to fetch results, prefer to use foreign players who can make a bigger impact in positions that form the spine of the team: centre-back, central midfield and forwards. As a result, Indian players have been employed in wider areas, where they barely have any direct influence on the game.
All this eventually comes down to the technical abilities of the players. “We use videos, discuss what we have to do, like ‘go for that side of the target’ etc.,” Cuadrat said about training strikers like Udanta and Ashique. “But if it is still not happening, it’s because the top level is like this.”
What Cuadrat implies is India’s best are still not good enough to make a sustained impact in the top division because of their perceived lack of game IQ and ball skills.
Thapa, with his willingness to be on the ball and vision, has been among the few Indian outfield players who has had a decent season. He has led Chennaiyin’s resurgence, along with Chhangte, whose pace and ability to get into scoring positions, has constantly troubled opponents. The Goan duo of Lenny Rodrigues and Brandon Fernandes has looked the most comfortable on the ball, dominating the passing and possession stats.
For most of their generation, though, this season has been an opportunity missed. Instead, it turned out to be the one where at least half a dozen players from India’s 2017 Under-17 World Cup squad has enhanced their reputation. Jamshedpur’s Amarjit Singh, Suresh Wangjam of Bengaluru and Shubham Sarangi of Odisha have been solid for their teams whenever they were called up; so was ATK defender Sumit Rathi.
“The expectations were there that some of the players would take the next step but they are the best we have,” Bengaluru FC CEO Mandar Tamhane said. “Players like Amarjit, Suresh and Narender Gahlot have consistently played so many games. Aniket Jadhav has scored a goal… Jeakson Singh has been good for Kerala Blasters… they are all there and thereabouts.”
In exactly a month, on March 26, India will host Asian champions Qatar in the return leg of their 2022 World Cup and 2023 Asian Cup joint qualifier in Bhubaneswar. Before the start of the qualifying campaign, Stimac punted on several players without actually watching them play. Now that he has seen them, it remains to be seen if he continues to persist with them.
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