IM Vijayan, Joe Paul Ancheri, Bhaichung Bhutia and then Sunil Chhetri, India has produced a few top-notch strikers in the past couple of decades. With the Indian skipper at the dusk of his career, we are yet to identify a suitable successor and this might be the biggest concern in Indian football.
Keeping aside the steep rise in the FIFA rankings, India boasts of nurturing some top-quality homegrown talents in the past few years. Sandesh Jhingan is a household name nowadays, while Gurpreet Singh Sandhu won hearts with his shield-like blocking under the sticks. Playmakers like Anirudh Thapa, dual wingers Udanta Singh and Ashique Kuruniyan have all hogged the limelight as per their potential. But, if we peep at the column of proper goal scorers, the list is barren, apart from, of course, the man himself - Sunil Chhetri. With the maestro at the dusk of his career, there’s no one even close to filling his shoes once he hangs up his boots - a real concern for Indian football.
If we go by stats in the recent past, the revelation is shocking with India faring miserably in the final third. The root cause of Blue Tigers’ dismal run in the 2022 World Cup qualifiers is India’s over-dependence on the talismanic striker. In the last 10 matches, the Igor Stimac led team has managed to score 10 goals, out of which five were netted by Sunil Chhetri, while others were scored by either defenders or midfielders, which proves the sorry state of affairs as far as the attack is concerned. To pile on the misery, six of the goals were scored from set-piece movements.
The most shocking inference lies in the fact that India have crossed paths with weaker teams in qualifiers - the likes of Bangladesh and Afghanistan and still malfunctioned to squeeze out a win so far. It was a late strike from centre-back Adil Khan that India saved itself from blushes against Bangladesh in front of packed home support in Kolkata. The tale was similar in Dushanbe against Afghanistan, where Seminlen Doungel’s equalizer helped India salvage a point after they huffed and puffed throughout the game. Laidback attitude in the first game against Oman at home allowed the Gulf nation to log full points even after the hosts were leading by a goal till the last quarter of the game.
Statistically, apart from the Bangladesh game, India have always taken fewer shots than their opponents and the numbers are not even neck-to-neck, it’s agonisingly one-sided. In the five matches, the number of shots taken on target were 6, 0, 7, 3, and 1 respectively. India’s historic away draw against Qatar was the only match where the Indians failed to shoot even once inside the woodwork, while the hosts hurled in 13 shots for the same. Interestingly, Sunil Chhetri missed out on the match due to injury. India produced a great result against the Asian champions due to the excellent skills at the back, but it was far away from a good performance.
With the absence of Sunil Chhetri in the team, showing the swayed nature of India’s attacks, we surely can sense what’s coming our way. The question lies whether we have enough talent on the domestic scene to field a proper replacement, leave aside filling up the Indian skipper’s shoes with matching competency. Three of the deemed upcoming Indian centre-forwards in the domestic circuit - Manvir Singh, Sumit Passi, Jobby Justin have all been bang average so far. Even in the 2019/20 Indian Super League, the above mentioned three have scored only four goals combined. Veterans Balwant Singh and Jeje Lalpekhlua are also not getting younger by the day and would not be the most viable long-term option for the national squad.
As far as the records are concerned, only three Indians have made it to the list of top 25 goal scorers in the last season of the Indian Super League, which includes Sunil Chhetri with nine strikes. FC Goa’s Jakichand Singh and Chennaiyin FC’s Lallianzuala Chhangte follow behind with five goals each. But, both of the above-mentioned footballers are wingers and we do not expect them to score in every match, maybe one in five games at the best. With Indian strikers misfiring big time, the clubs have enough reasons to overlook them, field-tested foreigners and win matches in a jiffy. That’s how modern Indian football works - in a no-nonsense manner.
Sturdy defenders, crafty playmakers, flying gloveman and speedy defenders are sure to help the overall game, but unfortunately, goals win matches. It’s high time we look at the bigger picture. Croat coach Igor Stimac has brought in a change in the playing style where India now plays possession-based football with a lone striker up-front. The setup is a defensive one, compared to the 4-4-2 which his predecessor Stephen Constantine adopted with the striker bestowed a massive responsibility to keep the scores ticking. It’s just painful to imagine what we are braced up for in the absence of India’s most prolific striker, who, so far has scored 72 times donning the blue jersey.
Proper scouting remains the only solution to the problem. It would be a lie to concur with the fact of not having at least three players across the country to take up the number 9 position for the Blue Tigers. With a proper youth structure in place for each of the ISL sides and even the I-League clubs, there’s no scope for complacency. Even though the ecosystems have sprung up talents here and there, the biggest concern is that we haven’t had quality strikers in the ranks. The process needs to speed up, or else we could well see a doomed future in Indian football, with no one to shoot the ball past the goalkeeper into the net.