The inability to score goals has been the Indian football team’s Achilles heel for quite some time now. The last time Igor Stimac’s men won a game with a goal off a striker from open play was in June 2023, a 2-0 win against Nepal in the SAFF Championship.

And now, having lost five of its last six games, the morale of the team as well the fans has deteriorated further after a drop in its FIFA World ranking.

At the AFC Asian Cup 2023 in Qatar, India conceded six goals but failed to score a single one. Amongst 24 teams, it was second from bottom in the xG (expected goals) table, just above Kazakhstan.

The most important reason for this goal drought is the lack of Indians playing as centre-forwards in the Indian Super League (ISL), the top division of men’s football in the country.

With Sunil Chhetri — India’s leading goalscorer and the regular striker for the national team — having his playing days numbered at 39 years of age, it becomes imperative to find his replacement sooner rather than later.

Made with Flourish

This is not to say that teams without strikers have never succeeded before. Pep Guardiola did wonders with Barcelona and Manchester City in club football, winning league titles with both sides.

But this structure is hard to replicate in international football, where coaches get their players for a limited time in the national camp and depend primarily on strikers for goals.

So has been the case with India, which has had strikers like Mohammed Rafi, Jeje Lalpekhlua, Robin Singh and Chhetri over the past decade.

Under the previous coach, Stephen Constantine, the Blue Tigers had taken the long-ball approach, playing with a typical British formation of 4-4-2.

Players such as Anirudh Thapa, Pranoy Halder and Eugeneson Lyngdoh delivered floated balls from the midfield, which were then handled by the strikers.

A better showing: India also performed relatively better at the Asian Cup during this period compared to the 2023 edition, winning one game (4-1 against Thailand) with a three-goal margin.

A better showing: India also performed relatively better at the Asian Cup during this period compared to the 2023 edition, winning one game (4-1 against Thailand) with a three-goal margin.
| Photo Credit:
AIFF Media

lightbox-info

A better showing: India also performed relatively better at the Asian Cup during this period compared to the 2023 edition, winning one game (4-1 against Thailand) with a three-goal margin.
| Photo Credit:
AIFF Media

The strategy seemed to have worked well during Constantine’s second stint (2015-2019), as the team scored 72 goals in 42 matches, winning 23 of them. It also won the 2015 SAFF Championship and the 2018 Intercontinental Cup.

India also performed relatively better at the Asian Cup during this period compared to the 2023 edition, winning one game (4-1 against Thailand) with a three-goal margin.

ALSO READ: More questions than answers after India’s poor Asian Cup showing

Under Stimac though, the team shifted to a more modern approach, adopting a 4-2-3-1 shape for most of its games. The build-up of play in this case started at the back, with more dependency on crosses and set-pieces to find a breakthrough.

In both cases, however, the striker’s role as the head of the attack has been paramount. But game-time for Indian strikers in the top division has been very low as compared to that of foreign forwards.

““People are always looking at the question that we all know the answer to. Someone will. When the time comes, we need to see who is the most stable player in that position. How many centre-forwards do we have in India? Hardly any . . .”India coach Igor Stimac said during the Asian Cup

ISL teams have started Indians as one or both strikers in about one-fourth of their games this season (62 of 234 – total games are 117 and two teams in each game gives a sample size of 234 considering each team’s matches individually).

That falls to one-fifth (46) if Chhetri is taken out of the equation. On the contrary, foreign players have started as strikers in over half of the matches (172) in the league.

What makes a striker a proven marksman?

The clubs have a penchant for using experienced foreign strikers because they score more goals and that, in turn, goes a long way in helping teams win matches and titles — the raison d’etre of playing a football match in the first place.

“Many coaches (in ISL) have the tendency of not preferring Indian forwards because of some fake pressure to find results. Most of the teams sign foreign strikers for that,” Ivan Vukomanovic, the head coach of Kerala Blasters, had told reporters on ISL media day last year.

“And because of this fake pressure, most of the coaches are not allowing Indian forwards with good profiles enough minutes on the ground.”

In a 4-3-3 formation or a three-man forward line, the player in the middle is the centre-forward (CF). But in a two-man forward line — as seen in formations such as 4-4-2, 5-3-2 and 3-5-2 — or a single-man-in-the-front shape (4-2-3-1 and 4-1-4-1), the players in the front are termed as strikers (ST).

Made with Flourish

In two-man forward lines, one player plays as a secondary striker (SS) and the other is the ST.

This ISL season, 62 players have started as a CF or a ST, of which only 23 are Indians, while 39 are foreigners.

Among the top 20 players who have started as a CF or ST and have completed the full 90 minutes, there are only two Indians — Chhetri (eight matches) and Lallianzualla Chhangte (three matches).

These two already play in the Indian national team. But the problem seems more acute when you consider that one of them is 39.

In the last two editions, one factor was common for the ISL playoff winning sides — a foreign striker who finished top of the scoring charts.

In 2022, it was Bartholomew Ogbeche (Nigeria) of Hyderabad FC and the last edition saw Australian Dimitri Petratos of ATK Mohun Bagan (now known as Mohun Bagan Super Giant) led their respective clubs to trophies.

In a decade of ISL, there have been no Indian Golden Boot winners. Even before that, the I-League — India’s former top division — had foreigners as the highest goalscorers, except for Chhetri in the 2013-14 season.

The I-League was dominated by two Nigerians, Ranti Martins (5 Golden Boots) and Odafe Onyeka Okolie (3 Golden Boots), while the ISL has had Brazilians (Elano, Marcelinho, Diego Mauricio, Cleiton Silva) and Spaniards (Coro, Angulo) leading the table.

“For an Indian striker, it’s difficult to get a chance to play. Every team has overseas strikers and it is hard for an Indian to get into the team,” Jeje had told in an interview with  Goal.

This season, Indians who started as strikers have scored just nine goals while that number for foreigners is a staggering 98. Kerala Blasters’ Dimitrios Diamantakos (below; 13 goals) alone has scored more than all Indians combined.

ALSO READ: ISL 2023-24 Stats updated: Diamantakos leads Golden Boot race, Amrinder in Golden Glove

This might just be the reason that nine of the 12 clubs have chosen to play only foreign strikers in 3/4th of their matches while three clubs — Odisha FC, Punjab FC and FC Goa — have not started an Indian striker at all throughout the season. Two of the three have qualified for the playoffs.

It is also interesting to note the names of the three clubs that have chosen to swim against the current — Bengaluru FC, Hyderabad FC and Chennaiyin FC.

Leading the pack: Vikram Partap Singh is the highest Indian goalscorer in the ISL this season, with seven goals. 

Leading the pack: Vikram Partap Singh is the highest Indian goalscorer in the ISL this season, with seven goals. 
| Photo Credit:
FSDL/ISL Media

lightbox-info

Leading the pack: Vikram Partap Singh is the highest Indian goalscorer in the ISL this season, with seven goals. 
| Photo Credit:
FSDL/ISL Media

Bengaluru FC had 16 of its 19 matches with Chhetri as one of its strikers. Without Chhetri in the equation, the number drops from 16 to just three — a fall of 69%, which only embellishes the mammoth impact the Indian skipper has had, both in terms of consistency and performance.

Hyderabad FC, a club embroiled in financial turmoil, turned to Indian strikers, Aaren D’Silva and Joseph Sunny.

But neither of them has scored in over 883 minutes of play while starting as a CF or ST. With just nine goals in 21 games so far, the club is set to finish at the bottom of the table this season.

Chennaiyin, however, gives a ray of hope for Indian forwards — Rahim Ali and Farukh Choudhary. They have honed their talent well under ISL League Winners Shield-winning manager, Owen Coyle.

While Rahim led India’s attack at the FIFA Under-17 World Cup in 2017, Farukh played primarily as a winger and an attacking midfielder under Coyle at his former club, Jamshedpur FC.

“It is understandable because if you are a coach, you put the better player in the first XI. More often than not, it is the overseas striker. But coaches need to give confidence to Indian strikers. If the coach believes in you, you can invariably do well,” Jeje had added.

“Indian strikers have to work harder than other players. If you don’t score soon, it might be a problem because you will be compared to a foreign striker. The club has to give more opportunities to Indian strikers ultimately. Maybe, then you will see their performances improve.”

Scratching beyond the surface

In the ISL, Indian goalscorers (other than Chhetri) hardly play regularly as a striker. For instance, Vikram Partap Singh, the highest Indian goalscorer in the league this season, with seven goals, has not started as a striker in a single game for Mumbai City FC (MCFC).

In fact, among the league’s top 20 goalscorers, according to the ISL website on April 7, there are three Indians — Vikram, Nandhakumar Sekar and Chhangte — and only one of them has played more than a game as a striker.

Made with Flourish

“People are always looking at the question that we all know the answer to. Someone will. When the time comes, we need to see who is the most stable player in that position. How many centre-forwards do we have in India? Hardly any,” Stimac said during the Asian Cup.

“So, where do you think I’m going to find them from, Croatia? The people need to work on that seriously.”

On having a look at the graph, it is evident that teams with no Indians starting as centre-forwards have still found goals from them, with MCFC leading the list.

Though MCFC has three proven Indian goalscorers — Bipin Singh (three goals), Chhangte (five goals) and Vikram (seven goals) — all have spent most of their match-time playing as wide midfielders or wingers.

An important data point for goalscorers would also be the age of Indian and foreign goalscorers. For overseas players, the average age of goalscorers is 31.34 years while that of Indian goalscorers is 25.13 years. This shows that the ISL has youngsters in India who can score but are not often used as centre-forwards.

“We need to allow young boys to start playing as a centre-forward for us, in the lower leagues, then the ISL and hopefully, in foreign clubs someday,” Stimac had suggested.

“And then hope that someone like Sunil Chhetri will appear to represent the country. But unless people start working seriously on a long-term plan, nothing will happen.”

Stimac has tried to deploy other players as a No. 9 in some of his matches, such as Manvir Singh against Syria in the Asian Cup and even Vikram against Afghanistan in the away game of the FIFA World Cup qualifiers.

Strike force: Parthib Gogoi has nine goals and an assist in all competitions this season for NorthEast United FC (NEUFC). 

Strike force: Parthib Gogoi has nine goals and an assist in all competitions this season for NorthEast United FC (NEUFC). 
| Photo Credit:
FSDL/ISL Media

lightbox-info

Strike force: Parthib Gogoi has nine goals and an assist in all competitions this season for NorthEast United FC (NEUFC). 
| Photo Credit:
FSDL/ISL Media

But both these players haven’t started a single game as a striker for their respective clubs.

Manvir plays as a winger or a wing-back for Mohun Bagan.

The way forward

Stimac has admitted that he follows the ISL while India’s assistant coach, Mahesh Gawli, looks after players from lower leagues.

Unless the ISL clubs deploy Indians as strikers, it becomes an uphill task for a national team head coach to identify a striker and expect goals from him.

An option on the cards: Igor Stimac (right) celebrates winning the SAFF Championship with Chhangte, one of the forwards in the National team, who has also impressed in the ISL.

An option on the cards: Igor Stimac (right) celebrates winning the SAFF Championship with Chhangte, one of the forwards in the National team, who has also impressed in the ISL.
| Photo Credit:
AIFF Media

lightbox-info

An option on the cards: Igor Stimac (right) celebrates winning the SAFF Championship with Chhangte, one of the forwards in the National team, who has also impressed in the ISL.
| Photo Credit:
AIFF Media

But for club coaches to do so, they would need the right balance between giving local talent opportunities to shine and having players who can play full games and score goals.

Though the list of Indian midfielders and wingers scoring in ISL is a long one, if the goalscorers alone, who are already conventional forwards, are compared for the sake of the problem statement of finding strikers, a few names pop up.

Chhetri and Chhangte dominate understandably, leading the national team’s attack regularly under Stimac, but five other names make it to the list as well, considering the goal-scoring ability.

Bipin, though being a menace along the wings, is 29, while Sivasakthi Narayanan, once touted as the next No. 9 of India, is “no longer the player he used to be”, according to Stimac, after his injury in the ISL final last year.

Made with Flourish

While Rahim has found the net a few times in the league, his poor finishing and inconsistency have often put his selection in jeopardy.

On the other hand, two new names, Irfan Yadwad and Parthib Gogoi, have turned heads in the league this season.

Irfan had scored 36 goals in 34 games for I-League 2 side, Bengaluru United, before moving to Chennaiyin last summer.

Despite getting limited game time this season, he had his moment in the sun when he scored the winner against defending champion Mohun Bagan on March 31.

“He’s a young Indian No. 9 who has got a lot to learn. He scored in the Super Cup. He’s had five or six chances before in the Indian Super League to score. So to get his goal (winner) and what it meant and the quality showed, that will stand him in good stead,” Coyle said.

Gogoi, on the other hand, has nine goals and an assist in all competitions this season for NorthEast United FC (NEUFC).

“We’re lucky to have him. And he needs to grow slowly. He needs a lot of experience. He needs to work more. Yes, he scores, but he needs to participate more in the game,” Juan Pedro Benali, the head coach of NEUFC, said about Gogoi.

Irfan is 22. Parthib, a year younger. Neither has played under Stimac in the senior team yet. Their proper grooming and opportunities would only help the Blue Tigers.

Beyond the gamut of ISL

Though ISL houses the best senior talents in the country, there are youngsters in the I-League — the second division of Indian football — who have impressed with their attacking prowess.

On the charge: Aizawl’s 23-year-old striker, Lalrinzuala Lalbiaknia, recently scored 15 goals in 20 matches, breaking a decade-old joint record of Chhetri and Rafi of most goals by an Indian in an I-League season. 

On the charge: Aizawl’s 23-year-old striker, Lalrinzuala Lalbiaknia, recently scored 15 goals in 20 matches, breaking a decade-old joint record of Chhetri and Rafi of most goals by an Indian in an I-League season. 
| Photo Credit:
AIFF Media

lightbox-info

On the charge: Aizawl’s 23-year-old striker, Lalrinzuala Lalbiaknia, recently scored 15 goals in 20 matches, breaking a decade-old joint record of Chhetri and Rafi of most goals by an Indian in an I-League season. 
| Photo Credit:
AIFF Media

Aizawl’s 23-year-old striker, Lalrinzuala Lalbiaknia, recently scored 15 goals in 20 matches, breaking a decade-old joint record of Chhetri and Rafi of most goals by an Indian in an I-League season.

RELATED: Can I-League record goalscorer Lalrinzuala Lalbiaknia be the solution to Igor Stimac’s problems?

David Lalhlansanga, 22, has been another sensation, scoring 11 goals and assisting three more (in all competitions) for Mohammedan Sporting, eventually helping his side win its maiden I-League title and secure ISL promotion.

For Stimac, these will be probable avenues to explore.

Just like the discovery of diamonds in South Africa, a rightful heir to Chhetri might just be found in the most unpredictable of places, like a transparent rock on a river bed.


source