Soosairaj at left wing-back – an expensive problem or solution?

Operating in a 5-3-2 formation under Antonio Lopez Habas, Soosairaj has been starting in the left side of the back defensive line when out of possession.

Michael Soosairaj of ATK gets past the Chennaiyin FC players at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Chennai on Wednesday.   -  Sportzpics / ISL

When ATK activated the reported Rs. 90 lakh release clause to sign winger Michael Soosairaj from Jamshedpur FC in the summer, watching him play at left wing-back may have been a puzzling sight in the opening weeks of the Indian Super League (ISL).

Operating in a 5-3-2 formation under Antonio Lopez Habas, Soosairaj has been starting in the left side of the back defensive line when out of possession. And from evidence on the pitch, the 24-year-old has impressed in his new role. In a counter-attacking set-up, Soosairaj’s pace and dribbling with the ball offer ATK a creative outlet from deep inside its half. He has also played his part in help keep two successive clean-sheets while the team moved to the top of the points table.
 

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Comparing his first three starts at Jamshedpur as a winger and ATK as a wingback, Soosairaj has had fewer touches (109), passes (73) and shots (4) under Habas while having clocked more minutes (32) on the pitch. In his start to life at ATK, he has also made five interceptions and seven clearances while tougher tests await.

The first glimpse of Soosairaj in a back five came in the defeat to Kerala Blasters in the opening game. David Williams won the ball in midfield to release the Tamil Nadu player, who made an unchallenged run from just outside his box before being tumbled over in the opposition penalty area. Unfortunately for him, the referee didn’t award the penalty when his side was leading 1-0.

Soosairaj was at his best in the 5-0 thrashing of Hyderabad FC at the Salt Lake Stadium. When starting with the ball in defence, the makeshift wing-back appears to have enough time and space to generate enough momentum to evade onrushing challenges. He often cut in from the left and unleashed curling efforts from distance, while even striking the post with one instance.

Comparing his first three starts at Jamshedpur FC and ATK, Soosairaj has had fewer touches (109), passes (73) and shots (4) under Habas while having clocked more minutes (32) on the pitch. In his start to life at ATK, he has also made five interceptions and seven clearances while tougher tests await.

On Wednesday night in the 1-0 win over Chennaiyin FC, Soosairaj once again proved an effective threat down the left flank for ATK. He combined well with Javier Hernandez and Williams down the channel which put Chennaiyin on the back foot in the first half. His injury and substitution midway through the second half meant ATK didn’t have the option on the break and was pegged into its own half for the remainder of the game.

After the game, his coach Habas praised his new signing’s ability to adapt into his system. “I am very happy with Soosairaj. He has a very important role and he is growing every match. He has too much confidence. He is now a full-back or a wing-back. With this system, and depending on the number of centre-backs, Soosairaj has to know if he has to defend or attack. He has to attack when the ball is with us and defend when it is with their opponents,” said Habas.

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On the other hand, former India striker Raman Vijayan believes this withdrawn position may not bring the best out of the young forward, who scored four times in his first ISL season at Jamshedpur.

“I think he might lose his attacking instincts which makes him such a dangerous player. He is not a defender. He is more effective when cutting in from the left-wing as he did at Jamshedpur last year. Right now he has to conserve his energy to get back in place to help his defence. He doesn’t expend too much of his energy and hesitates to make runs forward,” said Vijayan.

Habas has stated that Soosairaj’s position will be flexible going forward and that we may not see him play in at wing-back throughout the season. “Maybe in the future, we can make the change [with Soosairaj] for the team. I have prepared another thing for the team for the future,” he said.

For the moment, Habas’ Soosairaj experiment has yielded positive results.

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