It is easy to forget Anirudh Thapa is just 21-years-old. One of the real breakout domestic stars from the Indian Super League (ISL), Thapa has established himself as a regular for both club and country in the last two years.
A tangible measure of how much his stock has risen was evident last Thursday when Thapa’s unveiling was reserved for last by his club boss John Gregory during Chennaiyin’s grand presentation of its players. There is an air of expectation surrounding him at the moment.
Gregory reckons Thapa is the one ‘who’s got it’ to take him to the next level. “Obviously, the foreigners didn't know Thapa when they came in this year. All these foreigners have gone: ‘Who is this kid?'. Some of them have come up to me and said: 'Oh, I like him! Where is he from?’. Basically saying ‘keep an eye on him’. Players are the best critics,” said the former Aston Villa manager.
Thapa, however, seems oblivious to the pressure and expectations. “When I can do a lot of things at a young age, people's expectations will be high and will want more, which is fair. But if I think all that, then I won't be able to play my game. I just focus on what is next ahead for me. I just want to win the next match,” he says.
Thapa clocked 2,311 minutes, the most by an Indian player last season, for his club. His season didn’t end there. He then featured in the King’s Cup and the Intercontinental Cup getting tuned to new India coach Igor Stimac’s methods before the crucial FIFA World Cup qualifiers. After his pre-season in Ahmedabad with Chennaiyin, Thapa has firmly set his sights on the next qualifier against Bangladesh in Kolkata.
“On the group chat, we keep getting analytics and information on what we need to look out for from managers or coaches. This [Bangladesh game] can be a changing phase in Indian football. So if we do well there, everything can be for the good of Indian football. If I play well there, it will reflect in my game at Chennaiyin, too,” says Thapa, who won the ISL with Chennaiyin in 2017-18 and was voted the emerging AIFF player of the year last year.
“When I can do a lot of things at a young age, people's expectations will be high and will want more, which is fair. But if I think all that, then I won't be able to play my game. I just focus on what is next ahead for me. I just want to win the next match.” — Anirudh Thapa
Adapting to different roles
Although diminutive in stature, under Gregory, Thapa has grown to become an enforcer from the middle of the park, often harrying down opponents and trying to make things happen on the final third of the pitch. He enjoys the free rein afforded by the Englishman to join the attack upfront. Under the Croatian Stimac and in the qualifiers against Oman and Qatar, Thapa has featured predominantly in the No. 8 position, tasked with distributing play and shielding the back four, alongside Rowllin Borges in the pivot.
“The pace is different there. You don't have a free role to attack like you get at the club side,” he explains his role with the national team. “Every minute is crucial there and the defensive side is very important. Even one goal can be our undoing sometimes. So the understanding is very important as to which player goes forward and when. Two players need to be in front of the defence at all times. Like what happened against Oman, they opened us through the middle and that caused us problems. Against Qatar, we made our midfield strong and let them play through our wings. That didn't trouble us so much.”
India eked out its finest result of the century when it held AFC Asian Cup champion Qatar to a goalless draw away from home last month, despite facing 27 shots and conceding 68 per cent possession. However, Stimac is keen to forge a team full of thinking footballers: a philosophy where the players are comfortable embracing the ball and not fear it.
And Thapa is a good example of a young player adapting seamlessly to what is required of him for both club and country.
“If you play the possession game, you think about what steps to take always. If you are chasing the ball, then you only think about one thing: if we get the ball, we move it forward. Because you think that you won't get another opportunity to get the ball. If you have the ball then you are continuously thinking about what to do with it: whether to move it forward or pass it back and getting it back again. So that gives us a more stable midfield.
“We have the calmness and patience to think we will get the chances. We need to move the ball and break down the defence. So I feel that I am getting that calmness. If you keep running then at some point your mind will stop working," he says.
Stimac wants his team to attack Bangladesh from the first whistle to the last and his midfield star Thapa echoes similar sentiments.
“Yes, I hope so (on aggressive mindset) because we are doing well both fitness and ball-wise. So, I hope that in future if we get results we will be more dominating and we are hungry for the wins. We need to keep going up. We don't have anything to lose,” he says.
- Bundesliga: Heidenheim beats Werder Bremen 4-2 to claim first-ever win
- Davis Cup: Britain wins thriller against France to reach quarters
- Romelu Lukaku scores as Roma hammer Empoli 7-0 for first win of Serie A season
- Duplantis, Tsegay topple records at Eugene Diamond League
- Sergio Ramos makes another debut for Sevilla in a 1-0 win over Las Palmas