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ISL: Front Men Under the Microscope: Target Men and No. 9s [Part I]

Asamoah Gyan, Nerijus Valskis, Raphael Messi Bouli, Sergio Castel
Asamoah Gyan (Northeast United FC), Nerijus Valskis (Chennaiyin FC), Raphael Messi Bouli (Kerala Blasters), Sergio Castel (Jamshedpur FC)

Over the past six odd years, we have seen several strikers grace the Indian Super League. From sons of the soil to journeymen from distant lands, from stars of the future to legends coming out of retirement, there has been no dearth in the amount of hit-men we have seen.

And of course, with great quantity comes great variety. The increasingly structured and lengthened nature of the league demands a proper system for clubs.

Gone are the days where owners would scramble for the signatures of their childhood heroes, hoping they had enough magic left in their feet. Recruitment has become more specific, and coaches try and seek a wide variety of strikers with varied attributes to fit their system/style of play.

In this post, we attempt to analyse the roles of current foreign strikers in the league and how impactful they have been for their teams. Part I of this series will focus on target men and Physical No. 9s operating in the league currently.

Indian Super League (ISL) 2019-20 Strikers and Forwards
As we can see, the graph shows dribbles p90 and aerial duels attempted p90.
The comparison of these two metrics should make it simpler to assess these strikers.
The colour shading has been added on the basis of ‘playing in scoring attacks’.
This serves as a means to show how involved the player has been.
The darker the dot, the more the player has contributed to the team’s goals.
Their contribution ranges from a simple pass in the build-up to scoring a goal.
We must keep in mind that a lighter dot does not necessarily mean that the player is inferior,
it could also mean they are less suited to the system they played in.

Indian Super League (ISL) 2019-20 Strikers and Forwards Expected Goals (xG) and Expected Assists (xA)
We compare xG (the number of goals the player was expected to score)
and xA (the number of assists the player was expected to provide).
Every player’s individual goal and assist record is also added to show where they over-performed
or under-performed with respect to the expected metrics model.
The color shading has been done on basis of effectiveness.

Effectiveness = (actual goals scored – xG) + (actual assists given – xA).
This gives us an idea on the player’s overall attacking output and whether they did better or worse than expected.

Physical No. 9s

First off, we have strikers who attempt a good number of aerial duels and also dribble frequently. For the sake of general understanding, these could be perceived as 9s who run in behind the defence, but also possess the physicality to be considered dangerous in the air.

Looking at No. 9s who got on the score-sheet fairly often, Raphael Messi Bouli and Sergio Castel fit the general description. Yet, they differ from each other.

Raphaël Messi Bouli

Messi Bouli was used as a supporting ‘big man’ in a two striker system with Ogbeche. Unlike a conventional big man, he chased loose balls more often than his counterpart. This played in well with Ogbeche’s preference to receive the ball in front of the defence.

For what Messi Bouli lacked in technical ability and dribbling, he made up for with raw athleticism and an enviable leap. His energy and natural fitness proved to be a great tool as he consistently harried defenders with his pressing. His versatility in holding up the ball as well as his ability to chase down everything led to him being used as a solitary striker in Ogbeche’s absence.

Over-performing slightly in Effectiveness, Messi Bouli was among the better performers for Kerala in the 2019-20 season.

Sergio Castel

Sergio Castel was the crown jewel of Jamshedpur’s attack. Forming a good partnership with the industrious Piti, he quickly established himself as a potent goalscorer.

Defensively, he didn’t contribute much. Once the ball was beyond him, he walked around the pitch to be in the optimal position to counter should he get the ball.

With the Men of Steel relying heavily on wing play, seeing Castel go wide and link up with the winger and full-back was not an uncommon sight. When he received the ball out wide, his first instinct was to cut in and set up a team-mate or to take a shot. However, once the team progressed into the final third, he strictly bound himself to central areas.

This, and the fact that he was the team’s only mode of attack during counters is why he is a high volume dribbler. His hefty 6 foot 2 frame ensured that he found more success in the air than an average striker. Having scored a little less than a third of Jamshedpur‘s goals, his injury was one of the main reasons for the club fading into the lower half of the table after a decent start to the season.

Although Andy Keogh and Bobo also come under this quadrant, their roles differ from those of Raphael Messi Bouli and Sergio Castel. One of the reasons for this pollution of data is the erratic style of play exhibited by Hyderabad FC and Northeast United FC.


Bobo’s arrival in India was celebrated by the Deccan Legion. He was a serial winner who scored goals wherever he went.

Contrary to other strikers in this section, he acted more as a target man. He was static with his positioning and chose to be less involved in his team’s play. This means he pressed less and did not see much of the ball during buildup. He stuck close to defenders in order to gain advantage while challenging for crosses. His movement was largely restricted to the box and his goals show this.

After a slow start due to injury, he hit a run of good form in between where he scored five goals in four games. All four of his open play goals came from crosses.

Unfortunately for Hyderabad, his purple patch was short lived because he failed to score or assist in his final six games. With an xG of 7.21 and xA of 1.36, Bobo is our biggest under-performer with a score of -3.58 in Effectiveness.

Andy Keogh

Another under-performer was Andy Keogh. With an xG of 2.65 and xA of 1.02, the Irishman only ended up scoring one goal.

After the Baby Jet took off from Guwahati, the Highlanders were in desperate need of a striker who could carry the team’s attack. Having signed Simon Lundevall in place of the maverick Triadis, the onus was on Keogh more than ever. Being a former player in the Premier League, the experience was all there. Yet, his inability to settle only piled on to Northeast United FC‘s headaches. Agreed, seven games is not a desirable sample space, but the Irishman should have scored more than a maiden goal.

Instead of running in behind the defence, he was used to holding up play. He would often come close to the half-way line and link up with Federico Gallego or another midfielder, who would then seek out a third man making a run. The third man would usually be a winger like Ninthoinganba Meetei or Redeem Tlang.

Keogh was deprived of support at times due to the midfield sitting too deep. This left only Gallego around him who too was having a patchy season. On rare occasions where he was not tasked with linking up play, he would be close to the shoulder of the defender – waiting to burst in and chase a through ball.

Target Men

Moving over to the next quadrant, the style of strikers here is far more consistent. These are primarily target men who knock down lofted balls to wingers and link up well with the rest of the team (with the exception of Gyan who was more of a goalscorer.)

Both Valskis and Aridane contributed in over one scoring attack p90 which only goes to show their contributions. Gyan on the other hand was great at scoring, but managed only 0.43 attacking and key passes p90 (the lowest among all by quite some distance.) Irrespective of their differences, all three players were some of the finest at holding up play and ripping up the net.

Aridane Santana

Aridane had a very effective routine. He was a well-thought out signing for Gombau’s system.

He often drifted in very deep and tried to get his head or foot on every ball that was in his general direction. His robust build allowed him to win a decent amount of aerial duels and shield the ball from his markers. He then played it out to wingers (Jerry or Nandha) who were making runs behind him. Xisco was in close proximity in order to get the ball out of tight spaces and serve as a short-pass option.

This tendency to drift into midfield proved to be very problematic for opposition teams. It left defenders with a perplexing question. Should they follow him and run the risk of leaving spaces for the onrushing wingers? Or should they stay put and allow Aridane the time and space to set his sights?

Another peculiarity of Aridane’s play-style was his late running into the box. Though it is an unusual sight to see a striker running behind three other teammates, this worked out very well in his favour.

He waited long enough for the defensive line to retreat so that he wouldn’t pick up a marker. He then began an inconspicuous run into the final third. Depending on the situation, he would either float around the edge of the box (with enough space to fire in a well-placed shot) or arrive into the box late after having identified the gaps in defence.

His eye for goal made him unplayable on certain days, but these days were too generously spaced for him to be called a consistent striker. Nevertheless, had it not been for his untimely injury, he would have definitely crossed the 10 goal mark.

Asamoah Gyan

Being the only marquee signing in the league, much was expected from Asamoah Gyan. He was a key element behind Northeast United’s bright form early on. He took the league by storm and gave the Highlanders reason to believe.

As mentioned earlier, Gyan was not as mobile or supportive as Aridane or Valskis. He preferred cutting passing lanes and pressed occasionally. When his team had possession, he would act as a focal point by leading the line; when they didn’t, he stayed up as a medium for counters. His control and powerful shooting punished teams that gave him too much space to run into.

Unlike Aridane, he tended to drift towards the left wing. He displayed good chemistry with Triadis, often knocking the ball down to him or releasing him in empty space. The former World Cup star was also a huge threat in set-piece situations. He won 57% of his aerial duels and scored a header from a corner.

He performed on par with the expected metrics and was sorely missed at Northeast United following his season ending injury in December.

Nerijus Valskis

If there was one man to describe the enigma that was Coyle’s Chennaiyin FC, it would be Nerijus Valskis.

And nothing encapsulates him more than his celebration. After seeing him adopt the ‘Siuuu’ from a certain Cristiano Ronaldo, you start to realize that the players share more than just a celebration. A cannon for a right foot, and an incredible leap are characteristics that both men have bedazzled their respective leagues with. Respectfully ending the comparisons here, each has been influential in their own ways for their teams.

To say that Valskis ended Chennai’s hunger for a top striker is an understatement. He did far more than score goals. He helped unlock Chhangte’s true potential, which led to the youngster go up the charts and become the joint second highest scoring Indian player. And importantly, he made Chennaiyin fans forget that there existed a Rafael/Raphael before Crivellaro arrived.

Apart from his ability to score at will, his anticipation and reading of the game is what lifted the team. He repeatedly got into great shooting positions and with his ability, he made it count.

Overall, Valskis was an extremely mobile player. He would often double team on full-backs during the press or would block out passing lanes to deep midfielders. His imposing build made him difficult to get past or lob the ball over. In possession, he would constantly drift over to the left flank. This had two functions.

One was to vacate space in between to allow Chhangte to run into. This movement often shepherded away defenders from the half-space which Chhangte could exploit. If the defenders did not step out to follow Valskis, they would be overrun on the flanks and Chennai would be able to put in easy crosses.

The second functionality was to give space to Crivellaro. If Chhangte was unavailable for a run in the middle, Crivellaro would have space and time to attack the penalty box. This worked well in wide spaces as well owing to the Brazilian’s ability to get out of tight situations.

Having over-shot his xG and xA by a total of 7.77 points, Valskis is the biggest over-performer of the league and has a Golden Boot to show for it.


After comparing the first two quadrants, it seems that target men are the most viable type of forwards in the league. However, we are not done yet!


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