Kerala Blasters’ Sahal Abdul Samad finally converting potential into performances

Kerala Blasters FC’s 2021-22 Hero Indian Super League campaign got off to an inauspicious start as ATK Mohun Bagan thrashed them 4-2. On that evening, their midfield was overrun, the Mariners put the Blasters’ rear-guard to the sword and thrived on the freedom accorded to them.  

However, that game did see Kerala Blasters FC score two impressive goals – goals that had displayed their sharpness and hinted that a brighter horizon might only be round the corner.

More importantly, one of those goals was scored by Sahal Abdul Samad – a player who has been touted for greatness since his breakthrough campaign in 2018-19 but hasn’t been able to live up to his reputation for a variety of reasons.

Thus, when his goal against the Mariners was followed by a couple of indifferent performances, many felt that this would prove to be another false dawn. The initial optimism evaporated and it gave way to moans and groans of discontent. The fact that Kerala Blasters FC weren’t at their best didn’t help matters either.

Against Mumbai City FC, though, Sahal rose to the occasion again – this time, showing that he had made visible improvements and that he was, nearly three years after breaking onto the scene, completely primed to take the Hero ISL by storm again.

The strike against the Islanders was eerily similar to the one he conjured against ATK Mohun Bagan. He found himself in space inside the box and pulled the trigger, rifling the ball past the keeper in the process.

That situation, however, only came about because Sahal was brave enough to get into the box – something former Indian midfielder Darren Caldeira and former English footballer Paul Masefield agreed upon. 

“He (Sahal) is making much better runs, whether it is coming inside from a wide area or tucking in a little bit more when the ball is on the other side. His runs all round have contributed to him stepping up his levels this season. Now he just needs to combine the whole lot together to get the final end product correct. And, then, that is the Sahal we all know,” Masefield opined.

“He is definitely getting into better positions and playing intelligently. The coach has given him freedom to move around the pitch. You can see him drifting into the centre at times and he’s picking up the ball in the spaces behind the defence too. He could have had a couple of more goals had he finished them better and is looking a lot more lethal,” Caldeira added.

From Sahal’s perspective, there has also been an increased emphasis on putting in the hard yards defensively. In seasons gone by, his work off the ball had been cast under the scanner. This campaign, though, he has ensured that he has been at the forefront of the pressure Kerala Blasters FC have applied.

“Sahal has improved his work off the ball. He is winning a lot more tackles, is putting the opposition under pressure and is playing with a lot more confidence,” Caldeira remarked.

“The most notable change for Sahal has been the ability to track back and do more teamwork as part of the team. I think defensively he helps his side a lot more,” Masefield said.  

In the past couple of seasons, especially after Sahal bagged the Hero ISL Emerging Player award in 2018-19, the pressure has mounted on the midfielder to perform. So much so that he has often been harshly criticized for his outings.

To that end, he has perhaps been helped by the presence of Adrian Luna, Alvaro Vazquez and Jorge Pereyra Diaz – players who’ve not just shouldered a chunk of the responsibility but have gotten along with Sahal and have helped the Indian improve.

“When you have got people like Vazquez, Pereyra Diaz and Luna playing in the same side as you, you are going to become a much better player. It’s taken the burden off his shoulders – particularly Luna. I think Sahal is learning a lot from Luna – defensively and going forward as well. All three along with Sahal, it’s a combined threat and they also rotate. It has enhanced Sahal’s confidence,” Masefield commented.

“It always helps when you have foreign attacking players in front of you. The trio are helping out by making clever runs. I have been hearing that they combine very well in training too so you can see there is a lot of camaraderie off the pitch and that is translating onto the pitch,” Caldeira chimed in.

The most telling bit, though, has been that Sahal has exuded the sort of enthusiasm and exuberance that is emblematic of a flair player of his ilk. Before this campaign, there had been occasions where Sahal looked lost and seemed to lack a bit of confidence – something that didn’t just detrimentally affect his performances but also made people question what the hype around him was all about.

Now, he seems to be enjoying every moment he is spending on the pitch. The glint in the eye (that was prevalent in 2018-19) has returned and he is quietly confident of showcasing his entire repertoire to the rest of the Hero ISL.  

“I think that’s what has been lacking in his game in the past 2 seasons – that little bit of confidence. He (Ivan Vukomanovic) has found a shape where Sahal can slot in and produce for the team. He is the only coach to get the best out of him in the past few seasons. That is vitally important if the Kerala Blasters are to finish in the top four,” Masefield elaborated.

“He got his first goal in his first game itself and you can see he is playing with more confidence. Earlier, you could sometimes see his shoulders dropping during the game but now, even if he makes a mistake, he is playing with confidence. He is flying at the moment. He needed those couple of goals to get his career back on track. He has always had potential. It was just about being more consistent and he is doing that right now,” Caldeira quipped.

Over the few years, not many Indian footballers have generated as much excitement as Sahal. That, though, has also come with a caveat, for people have also been immensely disappointed when he hasn’t lived up to the expectations.    

Before the current iteration of the Hero ISL, there were only fleeting glimpses of what Sahal could be and the peaks that he could scale. However, they were followed by spells of inconsistency.

This time, it feels a little different. Not just because his goal output has increased substantially (he didn’t score in the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons at all), but also because he seems to have fallen back to his 2018-19 roots and has garnished it with more maturity.  

In the past couple of years, Sahal has always been viewed as a footballer with incredible potential. Now, it seems that that promise is on the verge of morphing into something more substantial – something Sahal has always seemed destined for.  

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