For ATK Mohun Bagan’s Roy Krishna, life in the Indian Super League this season has been akin to trying to complete levels of a video game. He has coasted through the easier levels, persevered over tougher challenges that the bio-bubble brought along during the course of the season, and now he is on the final stage: the title-decider against Mumbai City on Saturday; and within that, a battle against one of the league’s sturdiest central defenders, Mourtada Fall.
Despite a wealth of attacking players in the ranks of ATK Bagan, no one really quite compares to Krishna. The 33-year-old Fijian has rarely missed a minute in his two seasons in the ISL. He has played 43 games in all and scored 29 goals along with 13 assists. Krishna is the scorer and Krishna is the provider.
An undersized No 9, the 2018-19 Australian League Golden Boot winner isn’t just a manifestation of pace on the field. There are subtleties to his game that often don’t get talked about. A low centre of gravity coupled with an ability to play on the physical side of the game allows him to be able to shield the ball as well as hold on to it in certain situations.
And then, there is the street smartness. He can play on the last defender and beat him for pace, especially if opposing teams play a higher line. His acceleration and shifts in gears still continue to bamboozle the defenders.
Former Shillong Lajong manager Pradhyum Reddy, who has coaching stints with Pune City and Bengaluru, said Krishna ‘ticks every box if you’re making the template for the optimal ISL foreign signing.
“He has adapted very well to the country, especially this season with the covid bubble. Given the length he had to go through quarantining for 40 days in Fiji and Australia before coming to India, it shows the kind of professional he is. I think that’s key because in the last decade we have seen foreign players in Indian football with great CVs, having played at high levels. But a lot of them haven’t had the mindset to say, ‘I’m coming to India and this is a challenge and I’ll adapt to it.’,” Reddy told The Indian Express.
And yet, for all of Krishna’s abilities, the kryptonite for him and his team this season has been Mumbai City and their sheer number of quality players for each position.
Just 1️⃣ match to go!
— Indian Super League (@IndSuperLeague) March 11, 2021
Save for a brief blip, Mumbai has kept this season in the clutch of their fingers. A star cast of foreign players, adorning the core of Sergio Lobera’s team, has from start to finish been the dominant force of this league. They have two top-quality strikers (Adam Le Fondre and Bartholomew Ogbeche) to choose from, two midfielders (Hugo Boumous and Ahmed Jahouh) who can control the outcome of a game at any point and if all else fails, there is Mourtada Fall.
Last season, Fall, playing for FC Goa, entered the Andheri Sports Complex to face Mumbai City. Mumbai needed a win to qualify for the playoffs in their last league game. Then Mumbai coach Jorge Costa had relied on some blistering pace on the wings for his goals in the form of Senegalese winger Modou Sougou.
That last league game of the season for Mumbai was a comical show of Fall demonstrating multiple ways players could collide onto his six-foot-three frame and crumple. Sougou would be swatted aside, and then beaten in the air, and then tackled to the ground. It was a mesmerising show of potent power that the Senegalese imparted on his fellow countryman.
The 🔝 2⃣ battle it out in the #HeroISLFinal 🤜🤛
— Indian Super League (@IndSuperLeague) March 11, 2021
And as this season has demonstrated, a strong tall defender isn’t the only label one can stick on Fall. In three seasons of the Indian Super League, Fall has scored 13 goals as a central defender and holds the record for the most goals scored by a defender in the short history of the league. He is currently Mumbai’s fourth highest goal-scorer.
Yet, it is the betterment of his game as a passing footballer that has been the crux of Lobera’s style of football prevailing in the sub-continent. “It’s a big challenge to train players in my philosophy. Not only in India but in Spain, the second division, Morocco. The most important thing is to have the profile of players who can play this style of football. Copy and paste isn’t helpful in football. You need to adapt your team to the level of your players. You need players with belief in the style and its ability to win. Sometimes in difficult moments, it’s easier to play a different style of football,” said Lobera, describing what his teams are like, in the Indian Express podcast Game Time.
One look at the top statistics of the ISL this season show exactly how much Fall has bought into Lobera’s style. While Fall doesn’t make it into the top 20 of the league in tackles or interceptions, he is the seventh best passer in the league (951 passes completed in 21 games) and has the sixth-most touches this season(1242 in 21 games). What this essentially translates to is – Mumbai’s and the league’s best defender has spent enough time keeping the ball as well as successfully passing it around. So much so that his best strengths – which is his ability to defend – remain statistically marginalised.
A side coached by Antonio Lopez Habas has never conceded first in a #HeroISLFinal.
— Indian Super League (@IndSuperLeague) March 10, 2021
So how does a matchup in the ISL final between the league’s best defender and the league’s best attacker play out?
“In both the games he has played he has struggled against Mumbai in terms of numbers. I think if teams try to play a high line and give space behind, Krishna is very, very adept at running in behind and scoring. Against the likes of Fall – not the easiest. Fall is quick as well and can make those crucial recovery challenges,” said Reddy.
If anything, both players have the ability to hurt opposing teams even if their best weapons are neutralised. Krishna may not have scored in the semi-finals, but he assisted two goals from deep in the midfield. Fall may have let two goals go in in the semi-finals as well, but he is still the best set-piece threat on the pitch no matter the team. Krishna and Fall are the best players in their position in this league and yet their versatility may well decide the outcome of the final on Saturday.