The striker’s game has evolved over the last two seasons in the league with him going from a goalscorer to a workhorse.
In the world of Indian football, which is very largely dominated by the goalscoring heroics of the legend that is Sunil Chhetri, it is easy to overlook the little Mizo powerhouse that has kept his club and his country ticking over season after season. Jeje Lalpekhlua has spearheaded the Chennaiyin FC attack alongside some of the biggest names in the Indian game right from the inception of the ISL.
The 27-year-old was trusted with taking on board the goalscoring hopes of the Chennai side by new manager John Gregory last year and he did not disappoint, with nine goals and two assists in 20 games, as his side went on to lift their second ISL crown.
However, Jeje was the target of a lot of criticism from fans and pundits alike over his tendency to go missing in games. While this is a fair accusation, it was largely down to the way Chennaiyin were setup rather than the failure of their striker.
Watch: Jeje Lalpekhlua is the top Indian goalscorer in the ISL since its inception
At 5’8″, Jeje is hardly a target man and someone who is going to hold the ball up against pressure from opposing defenders. Instead, he relies heavily on his control, pace and agility to get himself on the scoresheet. However, the Marina Machans often failed to play to the strengths of their forward, with crosses coming in from wide positions, instead of well-threaded balls into the channels for him to run onto.
It was expected that Gregory would delve into the transfer market to sign a physical striker to partner Lalpekhlua up top and help in winning the aerial duels that the 27-year-old often lost, allowing him to latch onto the second balls. Although, Chennaiyin signed Carlos Salom on loan from Bangkok United, the Palestinian forward is not expected to start, considering Gregory’s tactics which will make Jeje even more valuable for the defending champions.
While the English tactician did not approach the issue in the way that was expected of him, he did make moves to mould his side to attack in a more Jeje-friendly way, epitomized by the signing of Andrea Orlandi. The 34-year-old can play in a variety of positions in the midfield and specializes in quick, incisive passing that often takes the opposing defence out of games, affording pacey strikers such as Lalpekhlua room to exploit.
Orlandi’s inclusion in the side will force Chennaiyin to form a narrow attack, which will suit Jeje far more than an attack that relies on width. When allowed to play in a style that suits him, the striker is a nightmare for his opposition, with his powerful runs and deceptively low center of gravity that is not typical of his diminutive frame.
Anirudh Thapa’s performances at the SAFF Cup could also help out his Chennaiyin teammate. Thapa’s tenacity in midfield and his eye for a pass will go a long way making the turnover from defence to attack far quicker and set his side on counter-attacks which will suit the Mizo striker perfectly.
Gregory’s faith in his ability means that Jeje will be his side’s only high-profile out-and-out Indian striker for the coming campaign, thus putting a lot of pressure to perform on his shoulders. However, despite often being overshadowed by bigger names that have often partnered him in attack for his club, the 27-year-old has consistently performed at the highest level and currently stands as the top Indian goalscorer in the ISL since its inception.
As such, there is no doubt that Jeje is set to light up his fifth ISL season and prove why he is truly one of the competition’s legends.