ISL 2017/18: Simplicity spurs Jeje Lalpekhlua's success in his quest for constant improvement
With the score at 1-1, the game was well and truly in the balance, the game was calling out for a decisive moment. It was ATK vs Chennaiyin FC in Kolkata, a clash between the only two teams to have ever won the Indian Super League. Yet it was a clash between two teams at opposite ends of the spectrum - Chennaiyin at the top end of the table while ATK had just fired their coach after a season of struggle.
We often say that moments of brilliance settle games, but sometimes the brilliance is rather understated. As Inigo Calderon's cross from the right struck an ATK defender and looked to be harmlessly heading into the welcoming hands of ATK keeper Debjit Majumder. Until it didn't and ended up in the back of the net instead thanks to an intervention by Jeje Lalpekhlua.
Jeje pressed, forcing a mistake from Debjit which saw him fumble the ball. Jeje then lifted the ball into the goal. While almost everyone else in the stadium was befuddled at what had happened, Jeje had veered away in celebration.
"Yes you know, whenever the ball comes into the box, anything can happen", says Jeje as Sportskeeda caught up with the Mizo striker for a chat on the sidelines. "I charged at the ball, he saw me coming and he missed. As a striker, you have to be ready. That's the mindset that I like to have, that anything can happen when the ball is in the box."
Anything can happen indeed as Jeje exhibited, conjuring up a chance when there was seemingly none. It's the mentality that he says he carries with him every time: "And I try to be ready. I will make a run, even if no chance comes along, it's fine. But I have to make those runs and put pressure."
Not feeling the pressure
However, Jeje hasn't found the back of the net since that game against ATK on the 25th of January. He saw his penalty saved in a home game against Bengaluru FC and then missed a really good chance away against Kerala Blasters last Friday.
This has seen Jeje remain stuck on seven goals for the season for a while now. Jeje though feels that he doesn't feel pressure because of it.
"No, no pressure", says Jeje. "Our team is very strong this year, probably one of the best squads that we have had. As a striker, even if I don't score a goal, a defender pops up and he scores. That's why I think our team this year is very good. So, no pressure on me."
He says he doesn't take any criticism that comes his way to heart: "I generally don't pay attention to it. Even if I listen to all this, nothing’s going to come from that. Even if I'm not getting the goals, I'm still putting in the same hard work. I've done more finishing training. As a striker, you can't score in every game, but you just need to keep putting in the work."
Jeje isn't the most flamboyant of strikers. He isn't going to marvel you with spectacular long-range efforts, but he is going to pick off chances that come his way in the box more often than not. And he's very efficient when it comes to conversion percentage; he is usually 50% or higher as far as shots taken versus goals scored is concerned.
Keeping it simple
"You know some people have told me that I need to be selfish. I also sometimes feel that yeah maybe I should be. But I don't care about that", says Jeje when asked about his goalmouth action.
"For me, I get the ball, I can try to take a shot and score, but if there is somebody in a better position, then I would give it to him. There's someone who I can give the ball to behind me, then I would give it to him. Simple."
He says more than goals, his priority is in keeping possession: "That's my goal. Not to lose the ball. Get the ball, give the ball, try to score if possible. That's my game, I like to keep it simple. I don't take too much risk and when a chance comes I look to finish it."
The strength of his Chennaiyin squad this season is something he alluded to at the very first press conference of the season, ahead of the team's opener against FC Goa. And he mentions it again here. He's not wrong; after a disappointing seventh-placed finish last season Chennaiyin are back in the semis and they've been top four for much of the season.
"Our squad is very strong", he reaffirms. "Take for example, Raphael's (Augusto) injury. Rene (Mihelic) came in, Gavi (Jaime Gavilan) came in and did the job. And in Mumbai, I wasn't there, Rafi played. Sereno missed a game, Dhana (Dhanachandra Singh) came in for him. Whoever's coming in is playing well. The replacement players are very good. I feel we have strength in all positions."
A challenging season
As far as his own game is concerned, Jeje mentions that this season has been a challenging one for him. Chennaiyin is one of only two teams, Mumbai City being the other, to field an Indian striker up top to lead the line. Other teams have featured Indians in the front-three, but have rarely had one as the spearhead.
It's a challenge which Jeje says he's relished: "Especially this season, it's a challenge for me. From the start, from the first game onwards, it was challenging. I took it in a way that 'Yes, I should do this'. Chennaiyin is playing an Indian striker. Other teams also do, but more like a winger. So whatever the foreign strikers are doing, I have to do all of that. I've put in the hard work for that because it's very important to the team."
The striking department isn't the only one though where Chennaiyin have fostered Indian players. Key positions such as left-back and central midfield have been donned by the likes of Jerry Lalrinzuala and Anirudh Thapa, Bikramjit Singh and Dhanapal Ganesh respectively.
When asked about the opportunities afforded to these players at the club, Jeje says, "I think the coach has a huge role to play here. He has belief in all the youngsters. That's the reason I think Thapa is doing well. Take Dhanapal Ganesh; in three years he didn't get a proper chance. This year he's become one of our main players in midfield."
A family feeling
He also feels that familiarity - Chennaiyin retained the most number of players, second only to Bengaluru and even signed a lot of their former players back in the draft - has had a role to play in the development of this squad.
"This is one of the strong points for us this year. We know most of them. The Chennaiyin team is a family. Like if you see Dhana, last season fully he didn't play because of injury, but he's been taken this year. The ownership also wishes we stay together", the striker believes.
He also revealed that even those that left, the club initially tried to keep: "Chennaiyin, I feel, likes to keep its players - Khabra and Jayesh (Rane) also they tried to keep, but other teams took them, Bengaluru and ATK. They like to build a team together which I have not seen any other club do."
The Mizo man also pointed out how the club even maintains a good relationship with alumni - "So every time you see the Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, if it's an ex-player’s birthday, they wish them. Other teams don't do it. So Chennaiyin is not just a team, it's a family."
The rise of the youngsters
His state-mate Jerry has made the left-back position his own since being thrust into that role last season and his development along with that of many other young players has left Jeje very happy. And he feels it's happening because now they are getting the chances, more than in previous seasons.
"I think that's important because you see this year's ISL, so many young players are playing well. Like Jerry (Mawhmingthanga) and take the guy who plays on the left for Delhi, Nandha, he's a very good player. I hope to see so many more young players come up and play, not just at the club level, but also in the national team", says Jeje.
And, of course, he feels especially happy when there's talent coming through from his home state of Mizoram: "Especially when I see players from my state, coming through I feel very happy. Mizoram football has improved so much in the last two years. In the future, I want to see so many players like Jerry and others come through."
The young guns aside, Jeje has also had three new foreign players join up who have become mainstays in the starting XI - Henrique Sereno and Inigo Calderon in defence and Gregory Nelson out on the wings.
Jeje has enjoyed playing with them and had high praise for the duo: "Inigo, he's a very, very good player. He's very professional on and off the field. We need to learn a lot from him. He's the right-back and he knows when to attack and when to hold the ball. The Indian players need to learn from him. His reading of the game is fantastic."
"And Nelson is a very good player. He can beat anyone with his dribble", Jeje adds.
Mr. well behaved
While his goal-scoring certainly has made Jeje popular, one of his most understated qualities on the pitch is his ability to not lose focus. We rarely see him lose his temper or get into a shouting match with an opposition player or the referee. It's a quality that's made him a role model for many.
Jeje chuckles when we discuss this, recalling an incident from the ATK game. "You know against ATK I got a yellow card. I just tried to block the ball for the free-kick and the referee gave me a card. I told him that I had picked up only three yellow cards in my football career. And he just laughed", he recalls.
He says he chooses to keep away from squabbling because it won't change anything.
"So for me if the referee has made the decision, it's finished. You cannot do anything. If you say anything, the referee will give you a yellow which affects not just you but also the team. And if it's a red card, then it becomes difficult for the team. So you need to respect the referee."
While already established at the national and club level for a fair few years now, Jeje admits that there are things he looks at where he can improve. He says the list is long, "Everything. No, really there are so many things, like running then game style which will put me in a better position in future."
Keeping it simple and putting himself in positions where he can succeed has served him well thus far in his career and there are no signs it should be any different for the man with the sniper celebration in the years ahead.