When Sahal Abdul Samad takes to a football pitch, all he wants to do is receive the ball before spinning and running at defenders. It need not matter if he is marked by an opposition player, because with a quick drop of a shoulder he has the skill to shake off the attention. And as the attacking midfielder in the Indian side, that’s what his coach Igor Stimac wants him to do.
“I want to receive and turn [and run at players]. That’s what I am asked to do as well,” says Sahal. The ability to run at players with close control on the ball and slaloming his way past defenders are traits that have been with the UAE-born footballer since he was a youngster.
In just over a year since his first full season in the Indian Super League (ISL), Sahal has made an instant impact for both club, Kerala Blasters, and country.
Sahal, who made his international debut in June at the King's Cup, defines his role as the ‘connector’ between the Indian team’s defence and attack. Further explaining his position with the national team, he says, “My role is to be the bridge between defenders and strikers. I will look to receive the ball from the defenders, turn and seek out the attackers.”
He is also open to the possibility of playing as a defensive midfielder, a position which he played in the latter stages of India’s 1-1 draw against Bangladesh in Kolkata, as he can be "close to the defence to receive the ball".
Sahal was the lone bright spark in India’s get-out-of-jail draw at the Salt Lake Stadium in the Group E World Cup qualifiers last month. Stimac pointed out that the defenders took too much time to pass out from the back meant India failed to assert itself in the first half of that game. Sahal, however, doesn’t want to reflect on the negatives from the match.
"We had the plan to play the way we wanted to and did but we couldn't convert our chances. We had an 85 per cent passing accuracy. It's not that we played bad but we couldn't convert our chances,” he says.
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Sahal reveals he likes to keep track of statistics at the end of each game. “To become a better player, I try to look at how I could improve my passing accuracy after each game and see how I can get it over 90 per cent,” says the 22-year-old.
His passing accuracy from his four matches (168 minutes) at Kerala Blasters reads 55.93 per cent, a number which the midfielder will be keen on improving over the course of the season.
At the moment, Sahal is keen on helping his team achieve positive results for the team in the next qualifiers against Afghanistan and Oman, both away encounters.
Placed fourth on the table with two draws and a defeat, India faces a stiff challenge in its pursuit of a first win of the campaign in Dushanbe, Tajikistan against Afghanistan on Thursday.
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