“In full flight, there are very few footballers who can excite and entertain like Lallianzuala Chhangte,” anchor and commentator Anant Tyagi once said in an interview with the Hero Indian Super League (ISL), back in December.

Rewind to Mumbai City FC’s home match against Chennaiyin FC in December and you will get an idea what Tyagi was talking about. It was one of those rare games in the season where Mumbai City FC were trailing. And out of nowhere, Chhangte came up with a moment of magic.

Mourtada Fall flicked the ball towards Chhangte after a free-kick delivery from Jahouh. Chhangte, positioned just outside the box, controlled the ball after a sublime first touch before volleying the ball into the top corner with his weaker right foot. Chhangte was a threat to his former side throughout the game and in the end, played a big part in helping in his team record a win.

A season of brilliance

There have been plenty of such brilliant individual moments for Chhangte throughout the course of the Hero ISL 2022-23 season. The Mumbai City FC winger, on Saturday, was awarded the Hero of the League after a stellar season that included 10 goals and six assists, his best season ever in terms of goal contributions. No other Indian player recorded more goal contributions than Chhangte this season.

Chhangte also became the second Indian player after Sunil Chhetri to win the Hero of the League award since the league’s inception. The award has mostly been dominated by foreign players, with Greg Stewart winning it during his time at Jamshedpur FC last season. Besides that Chhangte has also equalled Chhetri’s tally for the most number of goal contributions (16) in a single Hero ISL season. He is also the second Indian player to score 10 or more goals in a single Hero ISL season.

The journey

Given his ability to take on defenders, wreak havoc on the flanks and score from distance, Chhangte has always been one of the exciting wingers in Indian football. The Mizoram-born player had a breakthrough season with Delhi Dynamos FC during the 2016 edition, where they reached the semi-finals. The following season, he netted five goals.

Chhangte signed for Chennaiyin FC ahead of the 2019-20 season and he was an instant hit. The diminutive winger finished as the second highest-scoring Indian that season as CFC reached the final under Owen Coyle. Chennaiyin FC changed their head coaches for two straight seasons following Coyle’s departure and Chhangte struggled.

Making his mark at Mumbai City FC

A loan move to Mumbai City FC followed midway during the 2021-22 season and there was no looking back. Chhangte took time to find his feet, slowly bedding into head coach Des Buckingham’s philosophy. He impressed in the AFC Champions League and Mumbai City FC had seen enough to make him a permanent signing.

By the end of the Durand Cup 2022, Chhangte was a different player. He finished the tournament with the Golden Boot award by scoring seven goals. One could see a different Chhangte. It was not only the goals, but his decision making in the final third that stood out, as compared to the previous seasons.

Chhangte carried on from where he left going into the Hero ISL season. He was among Mumbai City FC’s established himself as one of his side’s prolific players, forming a crucial partnership in attack alongside Jorge Diaz, Greg Stewart and Bipin Singh. Apart from Bipin, who chipped in with seven goals and two assists this season, the trio of Chhangte, Diaz and Stewart tallied double figures in terms of goal contributions.

With an attack firing on all cylinders, Mumbai City FC waltzed their way to the League Shield going unbeaten for a record 18 games, which also included a 11-match winning streak, a new record in the league. Given the exploits by Chhangte and Co in attack, they also netted 54 goals during the league phase - the most by any team in a single Hero ISL season.

The Indian players accounted for 25 of their goals during the league phase, with Chhangte among the seven different players being involved for the Islanders. This was also a new record for the most goals scored by Indian players for a club in a single Hero ISL season. Not only was it Buckingham’s philosophy of playing attacking football, but his confidence in Chhangte that paid dividends.

“He (Buckingham) gives every player an opportunity. I think what makes him different is his style of play. He wants to play from the back and he trusts each and everyone in their own abilities. That makes us confident as players and that gets the best out of us everytime we play,” Chhangte told Hero ISL in an interview earlier during the season.

Chhangte's form this season may come as a surprise, but he already had the ability to make a difference in games. At Mumbai City FC, he has found a club that has got the best out of him and in Buckingham, a head coach who believes in him. And going by what he has achieved this season, he is on the right track.