The attacker is ageing like fine wine and is still the best player in the country.

Captain, leader, legend. Sunil Chhetri needs no introduction. He has stayed loyal to Bengaluru FC, heading into his ninth season with the club. Aged 38, the BFC captain still exhibits hunger and sharpness for goals every time he steps onto a football pitch.

Bengaluru FC have pressed the reset button this season. The Blues have acquired several new faces in the transfer market. Some first-team regulars have also gone out of the front door. New manager Simon Grayson will usher in the new era as BFC aim a return to the top. Let us take a look at how Grayson can utilize Chhetri’s strengths and best use the Indian national team captain.

Chhetri was in red-hot form throughout the 2023 AFC Asian Cup Qualifiers. He scored a brace against Cambodia and a free-kick against Afghanistan. He then scored his 84th international goal against Hong Kong, finishing as the top-scorer in the third round of qualifiers. Chhetri has scored 51 times and provided six assists in 112 starts for BFC. This equates to a whopping total of 0.51 goals and assists per 90.

Subdued 2021-22 season

Partnered with Prince Ibara, Cleiton Silva and Udanta Singh in attack, Sunil Chhetri had a very underwhelming 2021-22 season. The club captain managed just four goals in 20 appearances, his lowest return for BFC in a season. His form and Ibara’s availability also relegated Chhetri to the bench at times. His displays can be attributed to a lack of service and an unsuitable high-pressing style of play instilled by Marco Pezzaiuoli. Chhetri’s form was a problem too. He often missed sitters, something that is uncharacteristic of him.

Transfers indicate the strategy for the 2022-23 season

Last year’s biggest problem was the lack of service to the strikers. This problem has been solved with the signings of Javi Hernandez and Prabir Das. Noarem Roshan Singh, an impressive crosser from the full-back position, was also handed a new contract. Roy Krishna has been brought in to replace Silva and the Fijian has had the experience of playing in a two-striker system. Krishna formed a telepathic relationship with David Williams during his time at ATK Mohun Bagan.

Chhetri’s biggest strengths over the years have been his composure in the box and heading ability from deep crosses. With the key new additions raring to go and having already played with him, Chhetri can ease into the system and continue doing what he does best.

How BFC could lineup to suit Chhetri

3-5-2

Chhetri should ideally start in a front two, partnering Roy Krishna. He is most effective as a centre forward and having Javi in behind will save the chance-creating responsibilities, leaving Chhetri to focus on his finishing.

A back three with Roshan and Prabir/Udanta as wing-backs, a midfield of Bruno Ramires and Suresh Singh Wangjam holding base and Javi in the hole can work wonders for Bengaluru. A front pairing of Krishna and Chhetri will make for a very competitive starting XI, containing players in their preferred positions.

Prabir and Roshan can send in a variety of crosses from out wide, as the midfielders will look to dominate the centre. Javi will look to dissect defences with through balls, all facets that play right into Chhetri’s abilities.

4-3-1-2

A solid back four might be Grayson’s preference against tougher opponents. Four players in midfield spaces can dictate the play in this formation from a solid defensive base. The success of this formation will depend on how quickly Krishna can form a lethal partnership up top with Chhetri.

Expectations for the next season

Sunil Chhetri is still in the peak of his fitness, evidenced by his taunting reel after beating the BFC youngsters in the pre-season beep test. A realistic target will be 8-10 goals and a couple of assists, bearing in mind that Roy Krishna is likely to be on penalty duty and Roshan Singh on free-kicks.

Chhetri and BFC know their potential. Many squads have strengthened in key areas and the 2022-23 season of the Indian Super League promises to be the best yet. BFC will aim to be in good shape right from the start. Their experience will hold them in good stead to push them through to the knockouts and beyond. The increasing hope of football returning to the Kanteerava Stadium will be a shot in the arm to both the players and the supporters, who have been starved of watching the Blues live since the pandemic began.

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