The midfielder scored the winning goal for India against Afghanistan in the AFC Asian Cup Qualifiers.

The entire Indian football fraternity was left in awe as they witnessed the rise of Sahal Abdul Samad last season. Breaking the shackles of his poor end product, the Kerala Blasters midfielder racked up six goals and an assist. He blossomed into the man the Yellow Army wanted him to become.

He encapsulated his coming of age when he scored a historic winner for India in an AFC Asian Cup Qualifier game against Afghanistan. Ahead of the ISL’s upcoming edition, let’s look at five things that will ensure Sahal’s upsurge.

5. Trust his instinct in the attacking third

Gifted with immaculate technical ability, Sahal Abdul Samad often overdoes things inside the box. After venturing into the final third, he performs an extra stepover, a turn, or a pass instead of shooting. Ivan Vukomanovic largely rectified this in the previous season.

Operating in an attacking quartet with Alvaro Vasquez, Jorge Pereyra Diaz, and Adrian Luna, Sahal received superb support. It helped him mature into a more confident attacker, who wasn’t burdened with creating chances one after another. His game became more direct as he was at the right place at the right time.

Vukomanovic has given him the freedom to play his football – instinctive, unpredictable and effective. These are which he thrives on and will help him grow as an attacker.

4. Gelling with new foreigners

Kerala Blasters have released both Alvaro Vasquez and Jorge Pereira Diaz to rival ISL outfits. Vasquez was roped in by FC Goa while Diaz signed for Mumbai City. Apostolos Giannou and Ivan Kaliuzhnyi have replaced the duo.

Sahal Abdul Samad received the Emerging Player of the League award in the 2018/19 season. (Courtesy: Kerala Blasters Media)

Sahal will have to gel quickly with the new recruits to transcend last season’s success. Given the fickle transfer market in Indian Football, the 25-year-old will have to focus on his own strengths and execute accordingly.

3. Creating more chances

While he did pick up six goals in the 2021/22 ISL season, he only assisted once. The attacking quartet was very fluid so Sahal found himself as a false striker on many occasions. His creative play took a backseat as Adrian Luna and Alvaro Vasquez took over the role.

However, for the Indian national team, Sahal generally operates as an attacking or a central midfielder. Here, his passing and chance creation will determine how useful he is to the Blue Tigers. Thus, he will have to work on his creative ability and put it to the test against some of the best foreign defenders playing in India.

2. Helping out holding midfielders

In his quest to become one of the best players in the country, Sahal will have to improve all aspects of his game. When KBFC’s 4-4-2 system transitions to a 4-2-4 with the ball, it often leaves their holding midfielders exposed. Although Jeakson Singh and Puitea had brilliant individual campaigns, they sometimes felt intimidated under pressure.

Sahal’s incessant work rate will allow him to track back and help out his holding midfielders. This ensures that the team remains compact on and off the ball.

1. Getting more consistent with his output

Since Ivan Vukomanovic has opted for foreigners with different profiles this year, a lot of attention will be on Sahal and his deliverables. The Keralite will be expected to spearhead the attack with Adrian Luna, the club captain. Sahal will have to be more consistent in terms of racking up the numbers.

The players will feel the pressure of the fans who will throng the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium this year. Adored by millions in India and abroad, Sahal’s improvement in performance promises to bode well for both the Yellow Army and the national team.

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