ISL 2020-21: Use of foreign players in key positions hurting India’s chances of producing spine of national team
While it would remain advisable for the Indian team to be pragmatic and not get caught up in every tactical trend used abroad, identifying and developing players in key positions with an eye towards the future must be prioritised considering the current dilemma.
As football has modernised, become faster and more technical, the average age of teams throughout the world has dropped as well. Younger players are considered fitter and also able to be better moulded tactically which allows coaches to exert a clear footballing identity. Fans also crave to see academy graduates and talented youngsters being given a chance in the first team so the search is constantly on for the next Messi or Ronaldo, or in India’s case, the next Sunil Chhetri.
Chhetri is 36 and having maintained incredible fitness levels, he has been outstanding for club and country after entering the fourth decade of his life. But it would be unfair and unrealistic to expect him to carry the burden of an expectant fanbase into his 40s, so who is going to take up that mantle for the Blue Tigers? Where are the goals, creativity and leadership going to come from?
Since the inception of the league, most managers have preferred to use their full quota of foreign players in the starting XI and they usually take up the positions of the two centre-backs, two in midfield and a striker up top. These positions are what make up the spine of the team and if Indians are not getting regular playing time in these parts of the pitch, they are not likely to develop enough to be considered key players for the national team.
“Developing players and getting results can sometimes get in the way of each other because a club has to do what is in its best interests,” said Mandar Tamhane, CEO of Bengaluru FC. “In the football business, winning games and titles is the primary aim and the manager’s job is to put out the best possible line-up which can achieve that.”
The most obvious problem lies in the goals department where no Indian player, Chhetri aside (14 goals in 2017-18), has managed to get into double figures since the ISL began in 2014. Chhetri, despite being deployed in a wide forward position on the left, is the highest scoring Indian with 45 goals in 89 appearances (as of 30 December 2020). Jeje Lalpekhlua is the only other Indian in the top 15 with 23 goals in 73 appearances (as of 30 December 2020) and with his injury problems and lack of form, he cannot be considered as a viable replacement. The other Indian players in the list are all wide forwards like Lallianzuala Chhangte, CK Vineeth and Jackichand Singh.
There are hopes that ATK Mohun Bagan’s Manvir Singh, getting better every year, could be a long-term replacement in the centre forward position but his deployment in Antonio Habas’s system might hinder his development to lead the line for India. Playing second fiddle to Roy Krishna, Manvir has operated either as the former’s strike partner or in a slightly wider position on the right when David Williams or Jayesh Rane are accommodated on the left.
In defence, Sandesh Jhingan is an automatic pick but it is alongside him where India need someone to complement his aerial and physical strengths. Adil Khan, Narender Gahlot and Rahul Bheke have all had varying degrees of success playing there but the former duo find themselves out of favour with their clubs at the moment. Bheke is a defensive full-back who can play across the backline but this versatility can sometimes be a curse rather than a blessing. As a result of almost all of the ISL clubs preferring foreign players as their centre-back pairing, Jhingan and Chinglensana Singh of Hyderabad FC are the only Indians currently holding down a regular starting berth.
The conundrum in the heart of midfield is slightly less concerning with Brandon Fernandes, Rowllin Borges, Anirudh Thapa, Suresh Singh Wangjam and Vinit Rai starting regularly for their clubs. Sahal Abdul Samad is still a big hope for many but he must add more consistency to his game. Other than these, the emergence of Princeton Rebello, Deepak Tangri and Mohammed Yasir makes that part of the pitch seems almost spoilt for choice compared to the dearth of options at centre forward and centre back.
India also seem well-stocked at full-back, the wings and the goalkeeping department. Due to the concentration of foreign players in the spine of the team, domestic players have received plenty of opportunities and game time on the flanks with Liston Colaco particularly impressive as an impact player for Hyderabad FC. All goalkeepers in the league, first and second choice, are Indian which might keep Gurpreet Singh Sandhu on his toes to keep hold of the No.1 jersey for the national team.
This is an age of pressing high up the pitch, ball-playing centre backs, full-backs being able to get up and down the touchline, strikers dropping deep and many other unconventional traits. While it would remain advisable for the Indian team to be pragmatic and not get caught up in every tactical trend used abroad, identifying and developing players in key positions with an eye towards the future must be prioritised considering the current dilemma.
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