The starlets embark on their second top flight campaign following a change in management.
The young Indian side finished last in the I-league last season and have travelled much across the world, playing countries and clubs alike. While defeating Argentina U-19 will remain etched in the memory of most fans, the youngsters will need to prove their credentials and whether the project, revamped last year, is on the right track or not.
The side should not be expected to win the title, but challenging for the top half isn’t completely out of consideration. Under Floyd Pinto, the side will see a different style, a different target and certainly different expectations.
Here, we take a look at how the club is shaping up heading into the new season – their weaknesses, strengths and an in-depth approach to ascertain what they can provide on the pitch and exactly how far they can go.
Last Season’s Performance
After a highly emotional FIFA U-17 World Cup at home turf, the Indian Arrows project was re-started by the AIFF to ensure the young boys that participated in the global tournament continue their development. Managed by Portuguese manager Luis Norton de Matos, the Arrows may have faltered to thread some rhythm, but had moments of brilliance on the pitch.
Last season, the side managed four wins in 18 attempts
From Nongdamba Naorem’s solo effort against Lajong FC to KP Rahul’s deft touch against Lucian Goian, the boys show they have it in them, and just need to be more consistent in their efforts. The team managed four wins in 18 attempts, scoring 13 times and conceding 24. The debutants boiled off during the later stages of the league, and were brisked off by most teams. Injuries, too, played an important hurdle in the journey.
With a squad that has travelled together, the chemistry certainly looks better. The U-20 players have integrated with the U-18 boys well and if the boys start on the right note, they can certainly give a scare to most sides.
In pre-season, the squad played the likes of Argentina and Serbia
Indian Arrows probably have had the best pre-season in terms of diversity and quality of opposition. The side, that mostly features players from the U-19 Indian team, has played Argentina, France and Croatia age-group sides in the last couple of months, travelling across Europe and the rest of the world.
The side defeated Argentina, lost twice to Serbia, and were trounced in a close encounter against France. They managed to hold Venezuela to a goalless draw, earning praise from the opposition manager. Recently, the team lost 5-2 against FC Pune City in a friendly, to acclimatise the boys to home conditions. The team will play its home games in Bhubaneshwar, having operated from Goa and Delhi last season.
Floyd Pinto, the U-19 team coach, was made assistant when the Indian Arrows project was set into motion last season. An understudy to Norton de Matos, Pinto slowly grew into the role and took over the reins when the 64-year-old left in July due to health reasons. Pinto has helped the side to adjust to its strengths and is known to be close to his squad.
He’s supported by former Indian international Mahesh Gawli, a defender with tons of pan-Indian club experience and international exposure. Gawli’s influence will certainly be positive over the boys, who will look to make themselves heard amidst adults.
Team manager Velu Dhayalamani keeps the spirits of the team high, while goalkeeping coach Mohammed Ansari helped in keeping Prabhsukhan Gill ready to take over the role from Dheeraj Singh Moirangthem, who’s playing the Indian Super League with Kerala Blasters.
Defender Narender has joined the squad after a long injury lay-off and is set to play a pivotal role in the backline alongside the imperial Anwar Ali. Four U-16 players – forwards Rohit Danu and Vikram Pratap Singh, defender Gurkirat Singh and goalkeeper Lalbiakhlua Jongte have also joined the camp in Bhubaneshwar.
Versatile winger Naorem Roshan Singh, who was on loan from Bengaluru FC has returned to his former club. Dheeraj, alongwith Jeakson Singh Thounaojam, has joined Kerala Blasters. Forward Edmund Lalrindika looks likely to have left as well. Princeton Rebello has continued his development with FC Goa in the Indian Super League, and will not be a part of the side. Defender Sahil Panwar, who left the side midway last season, is with the FC Pune City side and will continue to feature for the ISL team. I-league champions Minerva Punjab also welcomed back Nongdamba Naorem, who was on loan to the Arrows last season.
Prabhsukhan Gill, Lalbiakhlua Jongte, Samik Mitra
Suresh Singh Wangjam, Amarjit Singh Kiyam, Abhishek Halder, Lalengmawia, Jeakson Singh Thaunaojam, Vikram Pratap Singh.
Formation and Tactics
Boris and Stalin will play the wingback roles and will exploit opponents with their raw pace
The team has seen a diverse transformation over the last few months under new trainer Pinto. Playing a defence-heavy formation, the coach has overseen both four-at-the-back and three-at-the-back styles in the side. With three in central defense, the team has looked more confident going forward.
In a 3-4-3 formation with two wing backs in Stalin and Boris, opposition can expect enough young and raw pace from this group of lads. Centrally, Amarjit Kiyam, the expected captain, will sit behind and pull the strings from deep. Abhishek Halder, Suresh Singh Wangjam or Jeakson Singh will be expected to play the coordinator between the midfield to the attack.
Up top, Rahul KP can be expected to start on the left, with Meetei, Jadhav and Vikram Pratap Singh probable candidates down the right. Both Rahul and Meetei are creative outlets and have carried the ball forward single-handedly in the past. Up top, Abhijit Sarkar and Danu have been in fine form in recent times and are expected to continue in the same vein.
The team will certainly not play a heavy possession system, but can be expected to press fast and transition with pace. Abhishek Halder can play a key role with through balls in between the lines and over the top, but it depends on how Pinto employs his forward line. The team will not look to gain a lot from set-pieces, and open play can be expected to be their strength. They should also try and gain early initiatives, as resilience and physicality may wear them out later in the game.
Youthful exuberance and their journeys together. The team has travelled together for the longest time and know the playing style of its teammates inside out. Not a lot of coaches in the world can boast of the same, but Pinto can.
The only weakness the side face is physicality
The team has virtually taken only a few days off after the end of last season, playing in several tournaments across the world. Thus, their cohesive gameplay and ready replacements of every player is certainly their biggest strength this season.
Physicality, again. This aspect of their gameplay remains against any senior opposition, with set-pieces being their chief area of vulnerability. The centre-backs aren’t the tallest in the country, and are likely to be bullied by foreign strikers across other I-league clubs. The physical condition of the side, otherwise, has looked good over the last few months.
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Players to Watch
Gill has been an able replacement for Dheeraj
The Ludhiana born lad has replaced young prodigy Dheeraj Singh Moirangthem calmly and has taken the opportunity with both hands. Not as brilliant a shotstopper as Dheeraj, Prabhsukhan is certainly a better commander of his box and has looked to be powerful in the air as well.
His love for clean sheets is a boon for the Arrows and Gill’s resolute nature under the bar can help the side ensure draws and wins for the young side.
The lad who has improved a lot over the last year, Ali has emerged as the defensive leader under Pinto, regularly starting games at the heart of the defence. The 18-year-old has also worked on his passing and long-distance set-pieces, adding more to his armoury. Ali will be expected to lead the side in the absence of Amarjit and looks likely to become one of the best defenders of the league.
In front of the goal, Sarkar needs to be at his best to help his side convert the chances better. Having scored four goals last season, Sarkar needs to add to his list to help Pinto defy the demons from last season. Sarkar has scored prolifically in recent months and will need to continue his good run to ensure his team can put points on the board.
What To Expect
A mid or lower table finish. Shillong Lajong is another side that is going with an all-Indian squad and it will be interesting to see the pan-Indian club take on the NorthEast club. Arrows definitely have quality and cohesion in their ranks to continue the good work they have done over the last couple of months and once they start getting into a positive rhythm, they can push heavyweights like East Bengal or Mohun Bagan to difficulties. A lower-half finish can be expected from the lads.