ISL: Prepared to play in any position, says Bengaluru FC's versatile defender Rahul Bheke
Rahul Bheke always needs to have a word with the coach before every match. The Bengaluru FC defender knows for sure that he is going to play, but is unsure of the position coach Carles Cuadrat has in mind for him.
Whether centre-back, full-back or wing-back, Bheke has always got your back. And it is this versatility that makes him an indispensable player for the Blues in the Indian Super League (ISL).
"It's really a challenge to play in different positions," Bheke tells Sportskeeda in an exclusive chat. "For every game, I have to be prepared (to play in) all positions and I have to be available to play wherever the coach wants me to play.
"I'm happy I am capable of playing different positions. I will keep on doing this and help the team."
Under Albert Roca last year, Bheke was deployed in the central defence along with John Johnson and Juanan Gonzalez in a 3-4-3 system while Subhasish Bose and Harmanjot Khabra or Nishu Kumar played as wing backs. Against a few opponents, he was used as a full-back, the right-back spot being his preferred position.
He struggled initially to adjust to the new position but performances improved. Mind you, Bengaluru conceded the least number of goals - 16 in 18 games - during the league phase of the 2017/18 ISL and it isn't easy randomly playing anywhere on the park at the top level.
"Even before I joined BFC, I used to play in different positions. Last year, when I played under Albert Roca, he too played me in a range of positions because of the unavailability of players or injuries.
"Eventually, I got the confidence of playing in a position other than my natural one because the team kept winning and that helped me," he explains.
Every spot has its own set of demands and one needs to develop a flexible mindset to be able to play comfortably anywhere on the pitch.
For Bheke, that took a lot of hard work. There was that moment in December 2017 when he conceded a free-kick outside the box and Dhanpal Ganesh scored the winner for Chennaiyin FC from the resulting set-piece.
What followed was worse - Bheke fouled Jamshedpur FC's Sameehg Doutie and Trindade Goncalves converted from the spot for JFC last season. For Bheke to grow as a versatile player, it required patience from the coach - and the fans.
Roca gave him that freedom and Bheke, on his part, ignored the tirade of abuse that follows after a player errs to gain that confidence now.
In the 19 ISL games last season, Bheke played as a left-back in three games, centre-back in seven games and right-back in nine games.
This season under Cuadrat, Bheke has finally returned to his favourite spot on the pitch but playing anywhere in the backline is no problem for the 27-year-old.
"The mindset is different for each position," Bheke further adds. "If I am left-back, I have to focus on using my left leg and being a right-footed player, I need to work extra hard to not make mistakes.
"If I am a stopper-back, I can't afford to make mistakes as I am the last defender. My decisions have to be right always while playing there. When I am playing as a stopper-back, I won't be joining the attack but I will look to score goals from set-pieces as that will be the only time that the central defenders join up.
"While playing as a wing-back, I can overlap, assist and try to score goals. It's a totally different thing for any player. But I can even do it in the middle of a game.
"It's a just a change in mindset. Last year too, I did those things. I was playing as a right-back at the beginning of the match, then shift to the left-back spot and sometimes defender as a centre-back.
"Against Jamshedpur FC in BFC's last game, I started as a right-back and then shifted to the left. A change in mindset is required for each position but it comes naturally to me now."
Any talk on versatility is incomplete without mentioning BFC's other midfielder/defender Khabra. Khabra, who was Bheke's teammate at East Bengal too, is finally getting to play in the midfield this season. But the players don't mind playing anywhere on the pitch, as long as they get to play the game, Bheke says.
"I am most comfortable playing the right-back position where I have played most of my life. But I can play wherever the coach asks me to."
There's another reason that Bheke likes to play as a right-back - he loves scoring goals. In his BFC career so far spanning 21 ISL games, Bheke has not netted once. He did score four times in the AFC Cup - against FC Istiklol and Altyn Asyr especially - and also once during the Super Cup against his former team East Bengal.
Now, playing as a right-back, Bheke can venture deep into the pitch and he wants to sort out his ISL goal statistic first.
"I was at home watching the ISL draft on Hotstar with my mother and brother last year. I had no idea Bengaluru FC would pick me.
"My mother only knows Bengaluru FC as the club that Sunil Chhetri plays for and she was happy that I would play alongside him (laughs)."
"That said, I have scored a couple of goals in the AFC Cup (as a central defender) but the most memorable one for me is the goal against East Bengal in the Super Cup final, which helped our team win. However, I didn't score in the ISL at all last year so I will try my best to open my account in the ISL (first)."
While it seems that this entire setup has been facilitated after the departure of Bose to Mumbai City, Bheke says he still misses him in the team dugout.
"He was very important for the team and is my good friend. We used to chill out together. This year, we have Nishu Kumar playing in Bose's position as the left-back.
"Nishu, who is a young fellow in our squad, is doing well. We have got a few players for that position and it's not a problem but I want to wish him the best of luck for his career with Mumbai City."
But is a national team call-up on the horizon for Bheke despite his good display? The Mumbai lad certainly hopes that he is at least called up for India's next friendly against Jordan.
"I really really wanted to be part of the team that played against China last week and the result they achieved is commendable. The players played well and their efforts were high.
"Each and everyone was giving 100 per cent on the pitch. I said we got the best possible result out of that match but we even got a few chances and could have scored against China.
"It's not like China were dominating that match, even India had their chances. But that's that and I will do whatever I can to be in the squad for the next friendly."