ISL 2019-20: Major takeaways for national coach Igor Stimac

With Igor Stimac keeping a close eye on the Indian Super League, here are a few pointers from the tournament that can prove useful for the national side.

The Indian head coach has been closely following national team prospects participating in the ISL, in the hope to fine tune India's playing XI for the upcoming FIFA World Cup Qualifier fixtures.   -  Getty Images

Fifteen games down, the Indian Super League has given fans and pundits plenty to think about - from refereeing howlers and goal droughts to player position innovations. More importantly, Indian coach Igor Stimac, who has been travelling between venues to catch as many games as he can, will be keeping an eye on how the national prospects have been faring through the tournament.

Here are a few performances that have stood out and the major talking points from the first sextuple:

Young guns step up

The Indian youngsters have proved to be an integral part of their teams as they are stepping up in their roles this season. From Jerry Mawihmingthanga pulling the strings in Odisha FC’s attack to Manvir Singh rescuing FC Goa at the death — the young guns are slowly but steadily proving to be impactful for their sides.

Young Jerry has three assists to his name, in addition to a goal - which he scored in the team’s first win of the season. His blistering speed combined with skillful play has caught eyeballs as the 22-year-old is a tricky customer on the right flank.

At Jamshedpur FC, Farukh Choudhary is growing into a settled striker. With a goal and an assist to his name, Farukh is flourishing in the forward’s role as he teams up with newly-signed Sergio Castel. The 22-year-old has gone from strength to strength and will be an important member of the Men of Steel, who look dominant this season.

While Manvir Singh does not have numbers like his fellow young guns, he has, more often than not, orchestrated attacks in FC Goa’s free-flowing football. Finding the right space between defenders and picking out his strikers upfront, Manvir has done all the hard work in the center of the park. And in the team’s latest result, a draw with NorthEast United FC, he also showed what a quick impact he can make.

READ : Bengaluru coach Cuadrat: Referees should be accountable for decisions

New roles for attackers

Ashique Kuruniyan, a key member of India's attack at left wing, was deployed in the left-back position in his first three matches for Bengaluru FC. Coach Carles Cuadrat recently explained that injuries to foreign players Erik Paartalu and Albert Serran meant he had to use Ashique in a role which he wasn't experienced in.

The 22-year-old's biggest test came at the home of FC Goa where he conceded a late penalty which cost Bengaluru two points. Cuadrat, however, chose not to castigate the player for his error.

The Spaniard said, "He has played 193 wonderful minutes and made a very big mistake. In football, you learn. Sometimes you have to live through that experience to improve as a player. But I have no doubt that Ashique is going to help us a lot. He is going to play in different positions in the team. He has the conditions to be a great left-back."

Another exciting winger Michael Soosairaj is also having to learn to play in a new position at left wing-back in a 5-3-2 formation by ATK coach Antonio Habas. Soosairaj, who has been a regular in the preparatory camps since Stimac took charge, has managed to impress despite not being the same attacking threat he was at Jamshedpur FC.

It will be interesting to see what Stimac takes away from their performances and whether he chooses to use them in similar roles with the national team.

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

Sahal getting tough love

It must be a worrying sight for Stimac as his young midfielder Sahal Abdul Samad is getting the tough love at Kerala Blasters. Sahal, who had a breakthrough season for club and country over the last year, is finding playing time hard to come by under new Blasters coach Eelco Schattorie.

Schattorie has been vocal about his frustrations over the team's preparations where their three friendly matches in the UAE were cancelled. Sahal was then called up for a two-week national team camp which meant he missed the crucial passage of Blasters' pre-season training in lead up to the new season.

In the ISL 2019-20 campaign, Sahal has so far played just 78 minutes in three matches with two substitute appearances to his name. In his first start of the season against Hyderabad FC, he registered an assist before being hauled off in the 57th minute after conceding the equaliser. Blasters went on to lose the contest 2-1 for its second straight defeat of the season.

Before the game against Hyderabad, Schattorie said he expects more consistency from Sahal before he becomes a regular in the Blasters XI. "I am very happy that I have Sahal in my team. but at the same time, the last year (2018-19 season) was his first year in the ISL. His background is not from competitive football leagues. So, he needs to grow. I will always stimulate talent. I will always give a chance. But you need to bring something to the table. It’s not about giving one or two passes, and four, five balls you give away. It’s a loss of stability," said the Dutchman.

Stimac will be wary of Sahal's confidence when they meet up during the international break and hope the 22-year-old gets another look in during Blasters' match against Odisha FC later this week.

READ : ATK coach Antonio Habas: Balance is the magic word in football

Quick, reliable custodians

The Indian national team’s first-choice goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu has had a mixed season so far. While his team is struggling in its pursuit of the first win, Gurpreet has put up commendable individual performance between the sticks. Having leaked only one goal in three matches, he is a part of the defence which has conceded the least goals so far.

The tall, mighty Gurpreet was put to test in Bengaluru’s face-off with Jamshedpur as the India international pulled off one-handed saves, timely blocks, and impressed with his reflexes. On occasions, Gurpreet has also triggered attacks from the back, thanks to his clever ball distribution.

Amrinder Singh, the Mumbai City goalkeeper and captain, has been a standout performer too. Even though Amrinder has been guilty of letting in more goals than Gurpreet, he singlehandedly bailed out Mumbai from dropping points against Kerala Blasters before the final whistle.

At Mumbai City, Amrinder has never enjoyed the luxury of a firm defensive line in front of him, unlike Gurpreet at Bengaluru, which has reflected in mediocre numbers against his game. But Amrinder’s importance goes beyond those numbers as he continues to lead from the back and is arguably Mumbai City’s best player.

Subrata Paul, aged 32, is yet another 'keeper who has left the audience in awe with his firm hands. Making nine saves in a single game to keep the opposition quiet, Subrata starred in Jamshedpur FC's draw against the defending champion Bengaluru. Guarding the two sticks with utmost solidity, Subrata lived up to his title of ‘Spiderman’.

Although Subrata has entered his 30s and is nearly six years older than Gurpreet and Amrinder, the West Bengal-born goalkeeper still has a lot of fight left in him - enough to remind everyone that the fight for the ‘numero uno’ tag is not just a two-horse race.

(Compiled by Manasi Pathak, Aashin Prasad and Shyam Vasudevan)

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