The Blue Tigers need to move on from the current system.

The Indian football team has had brilliant strikers over the years in legendary IM Vijayan, Bhaichung Bhutia and most recently Sunil Chhetri. All of them have gone on to win multiple accolades. They were also the record scorers of their eras. Chhetri is India’s all-time highest scorer with 80 goals in 125 matches — with five goals in last year’s SAFF Championship.

He continues to do the business domestically as well for Bengaluru FC in the Indian Super League (ISL). He scored four this time, despite an underwhelming campaign for BFC this season. Apart from him, the national side, has lacked a natural goalscorer or No. 9 for some time.

Balwant Singh and Jeje Lalpekhlua showed promise but had relatively short stints. Basically, none of the potentials were close enough to be his replacement. Chhetri himself was one such candidate during his predecessors’ time. Combine this with evolving tactics, an aging Chhetri and you get a major conundrum that needs to be settled.

Over-dependence on Sunil Chhetri

Chhetri scored five of India’s eight goals at SAFF Championship last year (Courtesy: AIFF Media)

To understand this let’s take the case of last year’s SAFF Championship. Despite winning the tournament, India’s poor goalscoring abilities and reliance on Chhetri was evident. 

Sunil Chhetri scored five of the eight goals by the Indian football team. The team averaged close to 16 shots per game, with an overall 79 shots. This shows a desperate need for strikers. For this, regulation changes were also made in terms of foreign players; for scouting and developing strikers.

Lack of traditional strikers

There still is no sign of proper centre forwards, barring a few names. But they too are wingers or wide forwards. Liston Colaco, Rahim Ali and Manvir Singh are examples of this. They have excelled statistically, but do not operate as centre forwards.

Liston has eight goals and three assists in 20 appearances this season with a whopping 7.0xG. He’s the Mariners’ top scorer this season. Positionally, he can play on both flanks. For Hyderabad FC, he played as a right-winger in a 4-2-3-1 formation under Manolo Marquez last season.

Liston Colaco
Liston has been in sensational form for ATK Mohun Bagan this ISL season (Courtesy: ISL Media)

He was initially slotted as a left wing-back by Antonio Habas. But presently operates upfront as a left-winger under Juan Ferrando. He can operate on both sides and with both feet — as proven over the last two seasons. Hence, the Goan is certainly on Igor Stimac’s radar, but of course, not as a centre-forward.

Rahim Ali is one of those rare hopefuls in India who can operate as a No. 9. He has played in the position under Igor Stimac. In the U-23 AFC Asian Cup Qualifiers, he troubled defenders with his presence. He also held the ball very well and brought his teammates into the game.

Overall, he registered a goal and an assist in the tournament. He later went on to play for the senior team and at the SAFF Championship. Ali registered an assist in the final against Nepal. However, he only played nine games for the crisis-ridden Chennaiyin side this season — who eventually finished eighth in the standings.

Manvir Singh
Manvir was seen as India’s next big No. 9 but has managed just 9 goals in national colours (Courtesy: AIFF Media)

Manvir has been a goalscorer beside Chhetri for the Indian football team. But he doesn’t play as a No. 9 either for India or ATK Mohun Bagan. Despite having a good season for the Mariners, Roy Krishna and David Williams take up the traditional striking position. Similarly, other prospects at their respective clubs are operating on the wings. Marquee international strikers are playing upfront.

What is the way forward?

With the emergence of wide forwards, India need to be creative in their approach towards its striking issue. They need to embrace a new system for the upcoming friendlies as mentioned by Ashish Negi on the Inside Indian Football show on YouTube. This can be done by drawing inspiration from the disappearance of the traditional No. 9 role in modern football. Here’s how we think the team can line up for the — 4-2-2-2 formation as used by Ralf Rangnick’s Manchester United at times.

How Indian Football Team Could Lineup in 4-2-2 Formation (1)
Here’s how India can possibly lineup in the future without a proper No. 9

Flexible attackers

The attack will primarily feature Liston Colaco and Aniket Jadhav. Both players can stretch the defence and play wide. This will allow them to continue their brilliant work with ATKMB and HFC respectively.

Dynamic midfield

Attack-minded players in Brandon Fernandes and Sahal Abdul Samad will be behind them. Samad has stepped his game up in a big way for Kerala Blasters. The 24-year-old is comfortable with the ball, dribbles with grace and trickery. He also delivers regular through balls from the unlikeliest of positions. Basically, he’s evolved as a player this season.

Subsequently, his runs have dramatically improved, especially when they come from wide areas. Add all of this to his goalscoring capabilities and he’s a brilliant option on the right. Brandon will support him. He played just seven games but was excellent for FC Goa amassing 273 passes by the end.

Ashish Negi discusses on Inside Indian Football show how India can finally take advantage of its lack of a proper Central-forward

He can help with his chance creation, through balls, flank shifts, short passes and movements in the final third — all of which he excels at. These two will allow the team to dominate spaces between the defensive midfield and forwards. Behind them, we have the most potential in Lalengmawia and Anirudh Thapa. Both are individually brilliant as they continue to excel for their respective clubs.

Apuia has impressive close touches, can set up counter-attacks and hold the ball. While Thapa possesses defensive ability to press opponents intelligently. This helps to prevent counterattacks. Collectively, this can help India fall back to their positions during major transitions in the game.

Focus on full-backs

Attacking players like Akash Mishra and Roshan Singh can take the full-back role. Both have excelled for their respective clubs Hyderabad and Bengaluru. Mishra is thriving under Manolo Marquez’s system. Meanwhile, Roshan is brilliant with both feet. This allows him to excel at set-pieces too apart from just being a regular attacking full-back option.

Akash Mishra
Mishra and Roshan have arguably been the best full-back this ISL season (Courtesy: ISL Media)

Essentially, all of this means a total revamp compared to the football that India’s been playing for years now. This is not as easy to execute as seen on paper. But this is probably India’s best bet for the future, especially considering the lack of a No. 9.

With tactical evolution globally, such creativity and experimentation will be crucial in the long run. At the same time, it’s not just the players but management and leagues that’ll have to shift towards this kind of football, gradually.

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