“Who is the next Sunil Chhetri?” is the question on many lips and will continue to be until his talismanic influence on and off the pitch is replaced either by a younger clone or by a collection of prospects who establish themselves as shoulders which can be lent on time and time again.
It’s safe to say we’re still a little way off cloning technology, meaning a younger cloned Sunil Chhetri can be chalked off the wish list. There will only be one Sunil Chhetri!
The point of this piece however is not to get to the bottom of who the next Sunil Chhetri is.
Instead, we’d like to pose the question for ourselves to try and answer – “What is the next Sunil Chhetri?”
The 38-year old has reinvented his game time and again over the course of his career to stay amongst the better forwards in the league and has consistently been the best Indian goal scorer. But as he enters the latter stages of his career, what version of Sunil Chhetri are we likely to see?
Since the league dominating ISL season through 2017-18 where Chhetri played as a shadow striker to Venezuelan striker Miku, the Indian captain’s numbers in terms of goals have tailed off gradually.
The above graph shows just that. Note the blue shows the actual goals Chhetri delivered per 90 in the ISL season versus his expected goals (xG) per 90 in orange. The gap between the two lines is fairly even through seasons 2017-18 and 2018-19, but becomes narrower through seasons 2019-20 and 2020-21.
Nevertheless, the four seasons prior to 2021 were ones where Chhetri over-performed on his xG. What this means in simple terms is that Chhetri converted more chances than the average player wouldn’t otherwise for a sustained period of time. The last season (2021-22) under the leadership of Marco Pezzaiouli was one to forget for the Indian captain.
A common characteristic of top goal scorers in leagues across the world is the ability to constantly outperform their xG season in, season out. But for Chhetri, 2021-22 served as a season where that streak was arrested. While the quality and volume of chances served up to the 38-year old remained fairly considerable, he failed to finish his dinner on multiple occasions, sometimes uncharacteristically.
2021-22: A Season to Forget
This chart shows Chhetri’s cumulative xG versus his actual goals return over the course of the 20 game ISL 2021-22 season. Bengaluru’s No. 11 got off the mark in his 12th game, by which point he had accumulated 3.57 xG. Especially costly penalty misses against the likes of Odisha FC and Mumbai City FC in key moments of the game encapsulate Chhetri’s anomalous and underperforming first half of the season which resulted in Pezzaiouli choosing to make him a bench option rather than a guaranteed starter for a good portion of the remaining games.
It’s a feeling that would have no doubt felt alien to one of the greatest players this country has produced, as he visibly struggled for confidence not only in front of goal, but also in his general play off the left.
Here’s a visualization which compares Chhetri xG conversion amongst some of the better forwards in the league (minimum 3 goals). Chhetri’s xG conversion is the worst in this select group whilst his underlying xG per 90 of 0.41 was fairly decent. Quite simply, he failed to convert chances which the average player would have.
Sunil Chhetri’s Shot Maps
Take a look at a small collection of Chhetri’s shot maps created by StatPeekers over three different ISL seasons.
The 2017-18 season was his most prolific goalscoring season. In 2020-21, he managed to hit the back of the net eight times and in the 2021-22 season, he could only muster four.
The 2017-18 shot map, where Chhetri played as a foil to Miku in a front two. Playing with someone with the class and poise of Miku allowed Chhetri to pick up more pockets, especially in the left inside channel which is where he got a lot of shots off.
This season’s shot map should serve as a decent blueprint for the locations he could potentially take shots from in the current season, given the new system of the team to dominate more centrally.
The 2020-21 season shot map. This league season was the worst in Bengaluru FC’s history, but Chhetri still managed to get a decent goal return majorly playing off the left. Note again the sheer volume of shots he lets fly from distance. Most of his goals came between the penalty spot and the inside left channel.
The 2021-22 shot map. The number of shots taken have considerably dried up. Pezzaiouli’s BFC failed to create a high volume of chances from open play and Chhetri was often frozen out on the left. He did have multiple big chances which weren’t converted from his usual shot-taking positions.
The big questions on the back of a season where Chhetri wasn’t Chhetri-ing anymore would be whether there is to be a steady decline in terms of goal contributions or whether we could potentially see a rejuvenated and clinical Chhetri in front of goal. The answer isn’t straightforward.
But using Grey Area Analytics’ forecasting model, it would be worth taking a look at how many goals Chhetri is likely to score this season based on his numbers from his past two seasons in Bengaluru blue.
The model uses xG data for each shot taken both inside and outside the box as a basis to then extrapolate for an entire season of games. With two seasons worth of data plugged into the formula, Sunil Chhetri is going to score about 5 goals in the ISL regular season (5.2056 to be exact).
The caveat we must add to this is the fact that the last couple of seasons have been played without fans and in a bio bubble which would’ve no doubt had an effect on everyone’s game. The other factor we must consider is the addition of quality players to the club and a small change in Chhetri’s position that we’ve seen in his first eight competitive games.
The Indian captain has shown his ability to adapt to different challenges and environments throughout his 20+ year career. If we take his first stretch in Indian Football since his debut at Mohun Bagan as a raw Chhetri 1.0, his time trying to make a name for himself abroad in the US and Portugal as a hungry Chhetri 2.0, then his very successful trophy laden years with Bengaluru FC as peak Chhetri 3.0, could we now call the striker of the past couple of years Chhetri 4.0?
Purely speaking in terms of his mental state and physical abilities, Chhetri looks hungrier and fitter than ever. But having now played for six different coaches in the span of three years (including the national team) and the natural ageing of his body, there are certain noticeable tweaks that he’s had to make to his game.
Take a look at the position he took up in the inaugural game of this season’s ISL. The Blues’ captain is playing a withdrawn role in behind the two strikers in Roy Krishna and Sivasakthi whose strengths lie in stretching the opposition.
Perhaps, Grayson wants to bring out Chhetri’s creative side in a withdrawn central role.
This instance from the Durand Cup serves as a peek into what may be in the works. The Chhetri-Krishna combination up front works a treat here as Chhetri runs into space whilst also making space for Krishna to run into. A neat backheel assist followed by a calm finish rounds off a beautiful move.
Chhetri as a no. 10 against Northeast United meant that he was given the impetus to feed his strikers in situations he might’ve otherwise got a shot off. Also note how much more central his involvement is in the action.
But don’t discount Chhetri continuing to isolate his marker at the far post in an almost trademark spring-and-head motion which is amongst one of his biggest strengths to this day.
Another instance of Chhetri finding himself in a more central position and in between the width of the posts to get his shots away. As we say earlier with the help of the shot maps, a bulk of his goals come from zones 14 and 17 of the pitch. So, getting him to play more centrally and closer to the goal will only play to his strengths.
Chhetri operating in central areas is a welcome move by Grayson to get the talisman more involved in build up play whilst tapping into the inventive part of his game.
It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Chhetri improving the numbers in the ‘assist’ column provided he’s given sufficient supply himself higher up the pitch. His core abilities revolve around his potency in front of goal, but Chhetri as more of a creator and a little less as a finisher could be something to keep your eye out for this season.
Looking at it from another viewpoint, it’s also a good sign for the Indian national team to have their best player playing a position similar to the ones he normally operates in for them.
Ultimately, while there is a question mark as to whether Chhetri can get back to being amongst the more prolific forwards in the league, his knack to find himself in goal scoring positions can’t be dismissed. He will be judged on his goal return like every other season, but his ability to tweak his game to his physical capabilities and the needs of the system will be a fascinating watch as he heads into yet another season where his focus will be to lead his side back to clinching silverware.