Indian Football: Igor Stimac's side faces defensive issues ahead of King's Cup
A full 142 days after the Indian football team unceremoniously crashed out of the Asian Cup, the Blue Tigers will be back in action when they take on Curacao in the King's Cup on Monday. It will be India's second appearance in the competition after finishing second in the 1977 edition.
The opponents should not confuse the new Indian team with the one helmed by Stephen Constantine. The new coach Igor Stimac had done extensive research on the problems faced by the Indian team and so far, we can say that he is going in the right direction.
However, one aspect of the team the fans are worried about is the defense. Igor Stimac has taken only five defenders with him for the King's Cup and that can hurt India.
The center-back conundrum
Of the five defenders who made the final King's Cup cut, Sandesh Jhingan is the only legitimate center-back in the squad. Anwar Ali (Jr.) could have made it to the final 23 but an untimely injury cut short his way.
Pritam Kotal never played in the heart of the defense in the previous ISL season. Subhasish Bose and Rahul Bheke guarded the center of the field in a very few matches for the full ninety minutes. And, Adil Khan is more of a defensive midfielder who has to make up for the mistakes of his comrades in the back.
The ISL and I-League clubs understand the importance of center-backs in the game and thus deploy foreign players in those positions to execute their club ambitions. The Indian players only get their due opportunity in case their foreign counterparts are injured or in the fag end of the season when all the scores are settled.
Kerala Blasters (Sandesh Jhingan and Anas Edathodika), Indian Arrows (Anwar Ali (Jr.) and Narendar Gehlot), and Shillong Lajong (Aibanbha Dohling and Kenstar Kharshong) were the only three teams this season to use an Indian pairing and they all finished in the wrond end of the table.
The ISL and I-League clubs which decided to overcrowd the midfield with foreigners to position Indian players in the center-back have tasted mixed success, often winning the matches by outscoring the opponents and rarely being able to maintain their clean sheets.
It has resulted in more playing time to Gaurav Bora (Chennai City FC), Lalchawnkima (Mohun Bagan) Joyner Lourenco (Mumbai City FC), Pratik Chaudhary (Jamshedpur FC), Sarthak Golui, and Sahil Panwar (both FC Pune City), but their impact on the team's performance have shown varied results.
What happens to the defenders coming from the junior Indian teams?
Another interesting aspect of the Indian team is that defenders from the youth teams rarely make it to the senior team. Adil Khan, Subhasish Bose, and Rahul Bheke never played for any of India's youth teams. Sandesh Jhingan played only in the AFC U-23 Championship Qualifiers. And, Pritam Kotal started out as a defensive midfielder in his younger days.
Then, the question arises what happens to the defenders coming from the youth teams from India. Let's take the example of India U-19 squad which participated in the AFC U19 Qualifiers in 2015.
Shahabaz, Kapil Boro, Nishu Kumar, Gursimrat Gill, Mohd Sajid Dhot, Sarthak Golui, Amey Ranawade, and Lalthakima were the defenders registered by India in the tournament. Of these eight names, only Nishu and Golui are given the opportunities to start for their club, with others either restricted to the bench or hanging their boots.
The same squad also included Vinit Rai, Ashique Kuruniyan, Daniel Lalhlimpuia, Lallianzuala Chhangte, and Jerry Mawihmingthanga, who now play much more prominent roles for their ISL clubs.
Every player who transitions from the youth teams to senior football makes mistakes initially. The Indian clubs are ready to face the brunt of the mistakes of midfielders, wingers, and even goalkeepers but not that of defenders. They will improve only if given chance regularly and, the ISL and I-League clubs need to understand that.
Will this hurt in the future?
Any back-four composition from the lot of Pritam Kotal, Sandesh Jhingan, Subhasish Bose, Adil Khan, and Rahul Bheke looks strong on the paper for now. However, it doesn't have the depth as that of the midfield and the strike force.
With the retirement of Anas Edathodika, India have the options of Salam Ranjan Singh, Seriton Fernandes, Sarthak Golui, Gaurav Bora, Anwar Ali (Jr.), Asish Rai, and Nishu Kumar to use in the back-four in the World Cup Qualifiers. However, the stark difference in the quality of these two groups might pose a problem.
In the short term, one can only hope that the five defenders Igor Stimac have chosen remain injury-free and be at the top of their game. But, the country needs to find a feasible way to churn out defenders in all the four positions.