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ISL 2019-20: From the Vanguard to the Bulwark – Four Players who made the Transition

Michael Soosairaj, Mandar Rao Dessai, Shubham Sarangi and Ashique Kuruniyan
Michael Soosairaj, Mandar Rao Dessai, Shubham Sarangi and Ashique Kuruniyan

Time and again in the Indian Super League, we see Indian players being played out of position. Be it due to the hegemony of foreign players, or a coach’s requirements from a certain role.

While such gambles are often made when a team is plagued with injuries, there exist a few cases where managers try to tinker with their resources, hoping for a moment of illumination. Although, position changes are in abundance in the league, we will focus and dissect forward to full-back conversions from the 2019-20 ISL season to understand if certain trends exist.

ISL 2019-20 Attacking Stats of Fullbacks
On the x-axis we have the number of successful crosses by a player per 90, and on the y axis we have the number of successful dribbles p90. The color of the dots darkens as a player’s pass % increases.
For example, Seriton Fernandes has the darkest dot as he has the highest pass completion rate among full-backs.
ISL 2019-20 Defensive Stats of Fullbacks
All stats are measured per 90 minutes. The tackles and interception stats are possession adjusted to give us clarity with analysis.

Mandar Rao Dessai

Mandar Rao Dessai
Picture Credit: ISL Media

Without a shadow of a doubt, the man from Margao had to lead this list. Dessai plied his trade as a left winger up until 2018, but found his feet as an attacking left-back under Lobera following the departure of Narayan Das.

Within two years, he turned into one of the top fullbacks in the league and his performances earned him five starts for the National Team. He had his most productive season in 2019-20, where he racked up four assists.

His role in the league winning FC Goa side was to bomb forward and stretch out defenses or to serve as an extra option for passes. He was able to draw a man towards him enabling Brandon and Boumous to find space between the centre-back and the full-back.

What keeps him from perfection is his deficiency in defensive attributes, managing a meager 2.96 Successful Defensive Challenges p90 and 2.47 Interceptions p90.

Fortunately, a system like Lobera’s allowed him to play to the best of his abilities without worrying much about his shortcomings. He boasts a passing rate of 85.56%, which is only second to his fellow Gaur – Seriton Fernandes.

While his low crossing numbers may leave room for improvement, we must remember that Goa prefer low crosses when they attack in the opposition half.

Ashique Kuruniyan

Ashique Kuruniyan
Picture Credit: BFC Media

Ashique had all the makings to be called “the next big thing” – quick, deft with his feet, and a stint with a European academy. A bittersweet season with two goals and three assists at a struggling FC Pune City attested to the same. Needless to say, his move to Bengaluru was celebrated, and whispers of an Indian trident did the rounds.

However, many eyebrows were raised when Carles Cuadrat chose to start him at left-back in the first game of the season. His initial deployment in the Blues’ defense could be attributed to Serran being unavailable for the first game of the season. Yet, he continued playing at left-back even after the Spaniard was subbed in their home game against Goa.

Although, his tenure in BFC’s bastion was short-lived, he was excellent at bursting forward from deeper areas of the pitch. He completed an astounding 3.36 Dribbles p90, the highest in the league for a full-back. His experience as a forward can also be seen in his crossing numbers, attempting the most (3.77) and completing the second most (0.99) number of Crosses per 90.

Ashique’s interception numbers look promising as they surpass the average (4.94). Though, like other players on this list, his successful defensive challenges p90 lie low at 3.950.

One interesting thing to note here is that Nishu Kumar stands at a marginally higher 4.03. A reason for this could be BFC’s hefty midfield which takes up more defensive responsibilities than other midfield setups in the ISL.

While we may not see Ashique at left-back often, it certainly makes for an interesting tactical option which could be used to break low-blocks or even provide better service to target men. Perhaps, under the right training and system, the winger could become an enigma at left-back.

Shubham Sarangi

Shubham Sarangi
Picture Credit: Odisha FC

Although some may consider this a surprise entry, Sarangi has undergone the most diverse positional changes of all. As a product of the reputed AIFF Elite academy, he sought to make his name as a forward. Unfortunately, his exclusion from the U-17 World Cup squad reduced his chances of prosperity up top.

Soon after, he was sent to Aspire academy for five months of training and development. Upon returning for the 2018-19 season, he was deployed alongside Vinit Rai in a double pivot or sometimes as an attacking midfielder. Much to the fans’ dismay, his performances in midfield were sub-par and inconsistent game time made it tougher for him to settle in.

As Rohan Sharma’s location changed, so did Sarangi’s.

Given an opportunity at right-back, he made it his own. Only 19, the youngster has played a vital role in Odisha FC’s backline and has 17 starts to his name. Sarangi shows good composure on the ball, completing 2.34 Dribbles per 90, the third highest among full-backs. Although, he completes only 0.36 Crosses p90, this could be because he attempts a low number of crosses (1.2).

Apart from his occasional tendency to give away penalties, his defensive numbers are colossal. He completes 5.84 Interceptions p90 (2nd highest in the league among full-backs), 3.19 Tackles p90 (3rd highest) and 7.04 Successful Defensive Challenges p90 (2nd highest).

Unlike other players, Sarangi has not been granted the freedom to go forward often, but, as far as quality goes, he has gone above and beyond to succeed in almost every department. A contract extension till 2023 should give Odisha fans much reason to smile, for they have potentially the most well-rounded Indian full-back in their side.

Michael Soosairaj

Michael Soosairaj
Picture Credit: ISL Media

After lighting up the Furnace in Season 5, Michael Soosairaj was a name on every club’s wishlist. The football fervor in the City of Joy and Habas’s promises of success lured the prodigious Tamil lad to ATK, but soon questions were being asked about his lack of playing time.

Big foreign names such as Roy Krishna, David Williams and Edu Garcia were forerunners for forward positions, with Balwant Singh, Jobby Justin and Komal Thatal scavenging over leftover minutes.

Still, Soosairaj managed to shine and dominate at the left wing-back position. Unlike Prabir, Soosairaj’s role required him to cut in and attack the box, rather than dispatch crosses (Prabir attempted twice the number of crosses Soosairaj did). His objective was to be an extra man up front and worm past tight defenses. His finishing from wide areas was an added positive and he contributed with three goals for ATK. The fact that he is second to Ashique in terms of Dribbles Completed by a margin of 0.2 proves that they fulfill similar purposes.

Being a wing-back, his defensive stats are bound to be lower than the league average. Although he only manages a modest 2.54 Interceptions and 0.71 Tackles, his Successful Defensive Challenges (4.04) are higher than Ashique and Mandar.

With Subhasish Bose arriving at the home the champions, it would be interesting to see what the future holds for Michael Soosairaj. Will he contest Bose for the wing-back spot, or would they play in the same XI with Bose slotting into a three-man defense?

Only time will tell. All we know is that a consistent and fruitful title campaign ensures a strong case for him and his new position.

Conclusion

As we inspect the graph and contemplate over the examples above, we can understand that this sea change of position can be very beneficial if used correctly.

While foreigners make up a club’s frontline, the enhanced technical understanding of Indian forwards such as reading space and using the ball effectively can be brought to use in the full-back positions.

Unfortunately, with this revelation comes a damning reality – Indian defenders need better training. Kicking a ball away from danger can and should no longer be held as the prime criteria for a full-back. If holistic training isn’t provided from in grassroots soon, the anomalies we see today may turn into norms a few years down the line.

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