The FIFA U-17 World Cup 2017 that India hosted and the preparations associated with that tournament has been instrumental in unearthing some of the best prospects that Indian Football has seen in a long time.
In this 4-part article, we take a look at how the players from the U17 World Cup squad and the other players from the 2000-01 age category have performed in the last season and make a position-wise comparison of the players using a bit of stats and data.
After having a look at the goalkeepers in part 1, we will be now looking at how the defenders have fared.
Anwar Ali was one of the players from the squad that impressed quite a few at the U-17 World Cup. He later cemented his spot at center-back in the India U-19 team and even in the India U-23 team during the AFC U-23 Qualifiers in 2019. Comfortable on the ball and a good tackler, Anwar was expected to play a prominent role for Mumbai City FC in the last edition of the ISL before an unfortunate health condition ruled him out for the season. As he recovers, everyone at SportsKPI wishes him a speedy & complete recovery and hopefully, we will see him back in the foray soon.
Anwar’s CB partners in the tournament were Jitender Singh and Namit Deshpande. While there aren’t many updates on Namit, Jitender has recently been used less often at Centre-back. Standing at just 169cm, he lacks the physicality that most coaches look for in their center-backs. That is why Jamshedpur FC utilized him more in the center of the pitch as a screening midfielder or also at right back on a couple of occasions. However, most often Antonio Iriondo preferred Amarjit Singh alongside Aitor Monroy in a double pivot. Having made 6.97 successful defensive actions per 90 and 3.49 ball recoveries per 90 Jitender did give a decent account in his new role, but having played only 438 minutes in the season he will be hoping to get more playing time next time.
Just like Nawaz in the goalkeeping department, it is a couple of other boys who did not make the final World Cup squad that played more prominent roles for their sides. Already capped at the senior level for India, Narender Gahlot made 11 appearances for Jamshedpur FC and racked up 895 minutes of playing time while the ISL Emerging Player of the year, Sumit Rathi played 1169 minutes from 14 appearances for ATK.
Much of Narender’s 11 appearances came at left-back, as the Tiri- Memo partnership limited his CB appearances to just 2. Despite this, the former CFA lad has continued to impress with his defensive work. He has averaged an impressive 14.08 successful defensive actions per 90 and 5.93 ball recoveries per 90. He has also been very good in the air having attempted 5.03 aerial duels per 90 and has a success rate of 60% from his duels. Narender has had a very good year having made his debut for the Indian senior team and given his good physicality and ball-playing ability, we are all hoping to see him get more minutes under his belt next season and cement his place in the National Team.
Sumit Rathi too has been a revelation this season. After initially starting the season on the bench, injuries to Anas Edathodika and Michael Soosairaj opened the way for Rathi into the starting XI and he took his chance pretty well. Out of his 14 appearances, 9 of them have come as the left-sided center-back in Antonio Habas’ back-3 system. With 12.53 successful defensive actions per 90 and 6.15 ball recoveries per 90, Rathi played an integral part in ATK’s spectacular season. In addition, 4.08 aerial duels per 90 with a 58% success rate meant he was decent in the air as well. Although it is still unclear how he might fare in a back 4, Rathi has clearly given a good account of himself in his first ISL outing.
The pick of the center-backs amongst the 2000-01 born players though was Indian Arrows’ Hormipam Ruivah. With the Arrows defense often coming under immense pressure in most of their games, the Manipuri lad was rock-solid as the right-sided center-back. Ruivah although not the tallest is pretty quick, was good with his ball progression, and was quite impressive in 1v1 situations. He made a whopping 215 defensive challenges with a success rate of 60.93% and also made an amazing 12.22 ball recoveries per 90 during the 1260 minutes he played over 14 fixtures. Pitted against some really physical strikers in the I-League, Ruivah went in for an average of 8.28 aerial duels per 90 and managed to have a 53% success rate. In spite of offers from ISL clubs, Hormipam has decided to go back to his parent club Punjab FC and is expected to play the I-League next season and is likely that he will soon develop into one of India’s best center-backs.
Saurabh Meher also featured for the Arrows at Centre-Back making 7 starts and although not as imposing as Hormipam, he still managed to perform decently. He has now moved to Odisha FC for the next season and will hope to continue his development there.
At right-back, the highly-rated Boris Singh had a disastrous season, not even making it to the final 25 man squad for ATK. The speedy full-back should have thrived in the right wing-back role in the ATK system, but the presence of a certain Prabir Das in red hot form ensured that Boris didn’t even get to feature on the bench. It is unclear whether there was any other reason why such a promising young player was not even considered for a squad role but next season, Boris is likely to make a move to some other club to ensure he gets playing time.
Leaving Boris aside, there was a 4-way battle for the right-back position with the likes of Mohamed Rakip, Hendry Antony, Ajin Tom, and Shubham Sarangi.
Carrying on the impressive form from the 2018-19 season, Rakip racked up 15 appearances for the Kerala Blasters under Eelco Schattorie. With much of the attacking duty vested on Jessel Carneiro on the left, Rakip had a bit more defensive role to play this season. Although he was quite solid, his overall defensive numbers seemed to have gone down compared to the previous season.
However much of this is because the Blasters under Schattorie were possessing the ball more compared to last season and therefore had to perform fewer defensive actions. The success rate of his defensive actions hints at yet another good season for the young lad.
Indian Arrows’ 20-year old right back Hendry was a part of the U17 World Cup team squad but did not play a single minute. Last season, the Bengaluru boy moved from Chennaiyin FC’s reserve team and featured in 12 matches for the Arrows under S.Venkatesh. Initially, he started most of the games on the right, but in the latter stages of the season, he also played as a left-back or left wing-back in a back 3 system. With 9.85 defensive challenges per 90 at a 60% success rate, Hendry was solid with his defensive work. However, like Rakip, Hendry also struggled to provide much of an attacking output with only 0.62 crosses per 90 and 2.4 successful attacking duels per 90.
Sharing the right-back spot for the Arrows alongside Hendry was Ajin Tom, who featured in 10 games overall. The Kerala lad was mostly on the bench at the start of the season but later became a mainstay in the right-back spot. With the Arrows struggling as a unit up front, Ajin too had little to offer from an attacking perspective even when compared to Hendry. However defensively, with 10.28 defensive challenges per 90 at a success rate of 70%, 7.82 ball recoveries per 90, and 3.67 successful tackles per 90, Ajin was much more assured.
The pick of the 4 though was Shubham Sarangi who had a breakthrough season with Odisha FC. The striker-turned-fullback started 17 games for his club and only missed a single game for the newly formed side. Sarangi was pushing up way more and contributing a lot more in attack with 1.3 crosses per 90 and 3.4 successful attacking duels per 90. At the same time, he was quite impressive at the back too with 11.88 successful defensive actions per 90 and 6.39 ball recoveries per 90. The one area he will hope to improve next season is the number of fouls he concedes- on average, he conceded 2.9 fouls per 90 and was ranked 2nd highest for the total number of fouls in the season (45).
Sanjeev Stalin was an undisputed presence at left-back during the U17 World Cup. After featuring heavily for the Arrows in the subsequent seasons, he has now moved to the U23 side of Portuguese club, CD Aves.
With Sanjeev moving abroad and Ashish Rai making a switch to the ISL, it has been Akash Mishra who has stepped into the left-back role for the Arrows. After making a handful of appearances last season, Akash has gone onto become an integral part of the Arrows setup, captaining the side on a couple of occasions and is the only player in the Arrows side to have played every minute of the campaign. Composed on the ball and confident to drive forward, Akash has contributed a lot more offensively unlike his compatriots on the opposite flank. In the I League, Akash averaged 5.69 attacking duels per 90 and 2.13 dribbles per 90. Akash was second amongst the Arrows players for total crosses and passes completed. Occasionally deployed at center-back too, he excelled with his defensive work as well. He averaged 7.69 ball recoveries per 90 and 11.81 defensive challenges per 90 with a success rate of 59%.
Akash has now made a switch to ISL club Hyderabad FC but with the likes of Sahil Panwar, Ashish Rai, and Mohammed Yasir already in the mix, there will be strong competition for the left-back position and it is to be seen where Akash will fit in.
With that, Part -2 of the series is now in the books and stay tuned as we cover the young midfield maestros in the country in Part -3!
Analysis by our Football Expert Analyst – Mishal Thanveer