John Gregory: Mindful of workload on Thapa, but youngsters must adapt to demands

After a packed 12 months filled with competitive fixtures across major tournaments, Chennaiyin FC's 'best passer' risks burnout. Coach Gregory however has a bigger game plan in mind.

Anirudh Thapa

Chennaiyin FC's Anirudh Thapa has been thriving despite a year of non-stop football, to become their midfield lynchpin. (File photo)   -  Biswaranjan Rout

When Chennaiyin FC hosted NorthEast United in October last year, Anirudh Thapa was slow to react at the edge of his own box and was punished dearly for it. Rowllin Borges won the ball ahead of Thapa before scoring to condemn the then defending Indian Super League champion to its third straight defeat.

On that evening, Thapa and make-shift midfielder Inigo Calderon struggled to retain possession as NorthEast recovered from 3-1 down to win the game 4-3. His club manager John Gregory, who regards Thapa as the ‘best passer’ in the team, said the 21-year-old would learn from the experience.

In the quarterfinal of the Super Cup on Sunday, Thapa turned the tables on the Highlanders with an all-action midfield display to help Chennaiyin win 2-1. After going a goal down, Thapa provided the assist for Chennaiyin’s equaliser before nicking the ball high up the pitch to score the winner, his first goal of the season.

Thapa had a breakthrough 2017-18 season with both Chennaiyin and the Indian national team. At just 20, he was an ISL champion and also a mainstay in the national set-up, both the junior and the senior team. He was awarded the emerging player of the season by the AIFF.

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However, the recently concluded ISL season has been a learning curve for Thapa, who has been a regular fixture in the starting line-up. Chennaiyin, with just nine points, finished a lowly tenth on the points table.

His form, perhaps, took a hit because of the non-stop football he has played for the past 12 months.

Thapa has been involved in the ISL play-offs and final, Super Cup (2018), Intercontinental Cup, SAFF Cup, ISL (2018-19), AFC Asian Cup, AFC Cup, AFC U-23 Championship qualifiers and now the Super Cup. His season is expected to continue till June, at least until the end of the AFC Cup group stages and the Kings Cup with the national team.

Thapa has started 15 – playing 90 minutes in 14 games – of Chennaiyin’s 23 matches so far and has come off the bench on six occasions. Last season, he had started just six matches in 22, while playing the full 90-minutes just twice.

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Gregory is mindful of managing Thapa's workload but expects the youngster to adapt to the demands.

“He should be proud of the expectations he has to deal with. You can get stale since we are likely to play until June. I would imagine that he hasn’t had a vacation in a long time. That’s why we are being conscious of his workload and we are trying to manage him the best way we can. That’s why we aren’t playing him every single game,” said the Englishman.

Thapa credited the coach for his new-found status as the team’s midfield lynchpin.

“Last year, I was coming off the bench and this year I have started more games and that gives you more confidence. If I am not playing well today, tomorrow he is giving me another chance. When you are starting a game you have the pressure from the start and when you are coming off the bench, you know what the opposition is doing and where the errors can be drawn from,” said Thapa.

He demonstrated that in February when he was introduced early with the scores locked at 0-0 against a Bengaluru FC side which had rested some of its regulars.

Thapa infused more energy and drive into Chennaiyin’s game and played a part in Chennaiyin’s second goal as it won 2-1 to end a five-match losing streak.

Thapa, who has a long-term contract with the Chennai-based franchise, is a much-improved player, according to Gregory.

The former Aston Villa boss said: “He is a better player now than a year ago. He had a very good season last year and he has improved again. He will have to continue to do so and make better decisions, which he has done so this year. He is developing in the right way.”

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