The 2021-22 ISL season kicks off with ATK Mohun Bagan taking on Kerala Blasters in the opening fixture at the Fatorda Stadium. The match will see Amrinder Singh, make his debut for ATK Mohun Bagan after a record transfer from Mumbai City this summer.
Amrinder was the central figure of a massive goalkeeping transfer merry-go-round which saw Mohammad Nawaz join Mumbai City from Goa, Arindam Bhattacharya cross enemy lines to SC East Bengal from ATKMB, and Debjit Majumder move south to Chennaiyin FC from SC East Bengal.
The goalkeeping position has come a long way from the first season of the ISL, with a reduction to a maximum of five foreigners on the pitch abetting a league-wide switch to Indian custodians.
With a further reduction in the foreign quota from the 2021-22 season, the trend is certain to continue. This has given opportunities to a lot of promising young goalkeepers coming through with Nawaz and Dheeraj leading the way for the next generation of custodians.
There was no foreign goalkeeper in the league last season. In the season prior, Francisco Dorronsoro was the only non-Indian to feature in goal and was not first-choice throughout the campaign. It has afforded the Indian national team higher flexibility when it comes to selection.
A keeper’s primary task is to prevent goals. The xG data is only for those shots that were on target and were not blocked.
As we can see, Debjit Majumder of East Bengal, Gurpreet Singh Sandhu of Bengaluru FC and Rehenesh TP of Jamshedpur were among the best shot-stoppers of the league last season. The trio faced more threats to their goals than the league average and still came away with a place in the top quartile of all shot stoppers in the ISL.
No goalkeeper was busier than Arshdeep Singh (by a high margin) which reflects on Odisha FC’s poor season which saw them finish last in the table, five points adrift of Kerala Blasters.
Nawaz and Dheeraj posed an interesting conundrum for FC Goa and the decision to keep one and sell one was not an easy choice. Dheeraj had a worse save percentage, but he also faced a much higher xG per 90 than Nawaz.
Goa were considerably more porous in the second half of the season, especially in the string of high-scoring draws in February and Dheeraj had a far tougher job than Nawaz (or Naveen Kumar who filled in for three matches in the middle). The Under-17 World Cup shot-stopper’s performances convinced Juan Ferrando to stick with the youngster.
The saves to expected saves ratio, calculated by Grey Area Analytics, also shows that Sandhu, Rehenesh and Debjit were among the best shot-stoppers along with Amrinder.
On shot-stopping, a case can be made that Goa should have stuck with Nawaz but the stylistic difference between the two goalkeepers when it comes to being proactive made the choice easy for Juan Ferrando. Dheeraj is the best in the league when it comes to coming off his line which suits Goa’s playing style.
Sandhu is another keeper who comes off his line more pro-actively than his counterparts. Teams in the league tend to play a deeper defensive line which cuts down the scope of proactive goalkeeping but there is a lot of space for improvement amongst Indian goalkeepers when it comes to playing a more modern style.
We can also look at the strengths of goalkeepers coming out to claim crosses and help out their team when under pressure.
It is clear from the above graph that Indian goalkeepers need to improve a lot when it comes to their aerial prowess. There is a clear negative relation between those who come off their line and those who are successful when coming out. Arshdeep was the only goalkeeper to be above average in both quantity and quality of aerial duels.
Dheeraj continues to strive to be proactive but no other goalkeeper in the league has a worse success rate which was visible in Goa’s struggles in dealing with set-pieces. Kattimani, Arindam and Gurmeet Singh are other goalkeepers with a very poor record when dealing with crosses.
The likes of Albino Gomes, Subrata Pal and Subhashish are good at deciding when to come for a cross with a very high success rate but they contest very few duels which is not ideal. Gurpreet’s low aerial duels contested and average success rate is surprising given that he is the tallest keeper in the league and arguably the most physical. The numbers through the league are pretty bleak and this is one aspect where there is a lot of scope to improve.
The technical ability of a goalkeeper with his feet has come under the scanner in recent years as it is the most frequent action they undertake in a match. ISL teams on average do not play a lot from the back and tend to go long in the first phase of buildup which dictates the distribution patterns of the players.
Sandhu once again comes out on top, playing more longer passes than the average goalkeeper while Amrinder, Nawaz and Kattimani all being amongst the more involved goalkeepers in the league.
Nawaz obviously favours a specific system that builds on his strengths of distribution, like the one favoured by Sergio Lobera. The ex-Gaurs custodian will compete with Phurba for the Islanders’ spot under the sticks. Phurba shot into the spotlight in last season’s semi-final shootout win against Goa and all three keepers (including Vikram Singh) have started one pre-season match each.
The first choice of the two Kolkata clubs last year rank among the least active keepers in the league which could be a major reason for their decision to move for new players. A larger number of passes, however, does not necessarily mean that much value is being added to the team. We take a look at which keepers play the most progressive and forward passes in the league.
Sandhu is once again an outlier, making more passes into the final third and more progressive passes per 90 than any other keeper in the league. Rehenesh and Kattimani are the next most dangerous passers of the ball from the back in the ISL. Dheeraj played the fewest passes into the final third per 90 which is more a reflection of the fact that Goa like to build from the back and route their play through Edu Bedia in midfield as the quarterback.
Debjit and Arindam once again do not reflect too well in their distribution and it will be interesting to see if Antonio Habas plays a more attacking and possession based style now that he has Amrinder to use in goal.
There have been voices over the past year or so that have asked for Amrinder to be given a shot at the India number one jersey but the numbers show that Gurpreet Singh Sandhu is a great all-round keeper. Amrinder has been impressive for Mumbai City, leading them to the double last season, but Sandhu is one of, if not the best in the league across metrics.
Another interesting thing we find is that Arindam and Debjit were not perhaps performing to the standards that are expected at ATK Mohun Bagan and East Bengal respectively, leading to the clubs signing new goalkeepers. Both goalkeepers are on the wrong side of 30 and they need to step their game up if they are to keep their number one spots.
Rehenesh also had an outstanding season last year as Jamshedpur fought until the penultimate match-week for a spot in the playoffs. Owen Coyle’s side had the fourth best defensive record in the league and added firepower up front this time that could see them improve on last season’s strong foundation.
Kerala Blasters might be regretting letting Rehenesh go given that Albino Gomes is an average goalkeeper in the ISL at best. Albino’s performances were a rollercoaster last season, saving three penalties while also making several errors that were decisive and piled on the misery for Kerala.
Despite Odisha’s catastrophic season, Arshdeep Singh stood out as one of the few bright spots. He is still 24 and if his development continues as it has over the last couple of years, then he could be a potential challenger for the number one jersey for India after Sandhu and Amrinder.
He ranks near the top for most of the metrics which could be a function of the fact that he was the busiest keeper in the league, but one can expect that he continues to perform at a high level even if Odisha improve greatly this season.
Dheeraj Singh has received plenty of plaudits deservedly for some outstanding performances in the AFC Champions League for Goa and in the AFC qualifiers for India U23s but his ISL season left a lot to be desired.
The youngster, though, is truly unique when it comes to playing a modern sweeper-keeper style which makes him invaluable. His obvious weakness is a lack of physicality due to which he often struggles with crosses into the box but if he can improve on that then he is amongst the best in the league with a better skill-set than most.
Another aspect that is clear is the decline of Subrata Pal. He switched to East Bengal midway through last season on loan and Hyderabad flourished with Kattimani as first-choice. Pal is 34 now and it is unlikely we will see him at the top for a long time.
However, Hyderabad have also signed 21-year old Gurmeet Singh from North East United to give Kattimani competition. For all his pros, Kattimani remains an error-prone goalkeeper and at 32, is nearing the end of his career. Manolo Marquez may choose this season to blood Gurmeet in as a long-term solution to Hyderabad’s goalkeeping problems.
There are plenty more young promising keepers coming through in the I-League and state leagues such as Dylan Da Silva (Dempo SC), Sayak Barai (Garhwal FC) and Ahaan Prakash (Indian Arrows). The structure of the league has thrown the spotlight on Indian goalkeepers and the men between the sticks will be decisive in the upcoming season as well.