ISL in a league of its own!
Some of the most famous leagues around the world are known for their specialised styles of play. In England, the Premier League is identified on the basis of speed, physicality and counterattacking. Spain’s La Liga is known for teams excelling at ball retention, passing and player movement; and Serie A in Italy is renowned for being extremely difficult with regards to their defensive mindset. In that respect, the ISL has its own unique style, which has not quite discovered a defined ‘identity’ yet – but it is definitely in a league of its own!
Let’s take Atlético de Kolkata, for example. We see them defending as a unit. And when they do defend, they defend in their own half. They give you your half and you can play in there as long as you like, but as soon as you get into Kolkata’s half you have to break them down. They are solid, with three lines of defense, and it gets difficult to break those guys down. How do you solve that problem – if you can solve that problem? And if you do, they exploit you and the spaces you leave in behind.
Look at Chennaiyin. They have a very experienced defense in Silvestre and Mendy; in front of them, they have good holding players, and you bring Elano and his goals into the equation and they are a good team that score a lot of goals on the counter. There is not a lot of intricate passing in the final third but look at the goals. And why do we turn up to watch football? Because we want to see goals! It is exciting and it is the reason we all turn up to watch the game. The best way to win is to score more goals. We are not too fussed about how they are scored, but there has to be some intelligence to it, and the play definitely has that.
You will see that teams have gone up the field on a high press to try and win possession back very close to the opponent’s goal. There is some logic in that, as well. Why not win possession in the opponent’s 18-yard box instead of your own 18-yard box? And you can see variations of that. You see a high defensive line, which in turn pushes everybody else further forward up the pitch and allows you to play that pressing game, like Barcelona a couple of years ago in their heyday.
You also have teams that have do not have a star striker like Nicolas Anelka or Elano in their ranks to score those goals, but nevertheless are still a threat all over. Look at NorthEast United. They have an amazing team spirit and are very competitive as a unit. They have a go at you. Tactically, they are well-organised and well-disciplined. Some of the young Indian players who have come into the team have gelled very well, too.
Look at the players in Kerala. I have been particularly impressed with Sandesh Jhingan as a defender. He’s played at left back, right back and centre back, he has athleticism, he’s comfortable on the ball, and he’s strong. If you are looking at these 20-, 21-, 22-year-olds playing in such an environment of high pressure, and performing well and still playing their natural game, it adds to their confidence and belief. These Indian players are not bit-part players and this is the right platform for such players to come into and play. They have every right to play in a league that is happening in their country. There is a future for Indian footballers, which is exciting, and the ISL is here to give them exactly that, a league of their own.