Over the last 6 months, most people have begun to agree on the fact that Anirudh Thapa should be the first name on the national team sheet. The position alongside him in the centre of the park is still up for grabs. Pronay Halder did an excellent job in the Hero Intercontinental Cup but prior to that Rowlin Borges and Eugenson Lyndoh were the go-to men. Last season saw the emergence of Dhanpal Ganesh and Adil Khan but statistically, who would be the perfect fit?
Unfortunately, I don't have data for the I-League so candidate such as Soosairaj and Lyngdoh are absent but I think I've covered almost all the other names.
Stephen Constantine has preferred hard working and players that are as physically imposing as possible. The Indian national team coach prefers to play with 2 central midfielders that have the physical ability to cover large amounts of ground and thereby provide a solid shield to the defence but also break forward and support the attack. So, the emergence of a crafty player like Anirudh Thapa, who does not fit the usual profile, could upset the balance in the middle.
In this article, we will look at who the likely candidates are, to slot into that role alongside Thapa and provide the right balance in midfield. As mentioned above, we start by looking at players that provide the best defensive output. Something that's not always true but can be take with a pinch of salt is that, it could be interpreted that tacklers are players who are more mobile and press hard to win the ball, whereas, interceptors are players who hold their position and read passes and pounce rather than run around and physically retrieve the ball.
Pronay Halder makes around 4.5 tackles per game and is the standout tackler in midfield but he doesn't make too many interceptions. This means that he may have a tendency to leave his position in he middle. That will leave the space in front of our defence open, and as we've seen time and again, that's never good news for India.
Siam Hanghal, Zakeer Mundampara and Milan Singh are three names that don't get thrown around a lot but their numbers are impressive. It must be noted that Zakeer and Siam played less than 600 minutes of football and I'm still not convinced by either. But, I must also say that Milan Singh is wildly under-rated by the average Indian fan.
Adil Khan is an other name that emerges here. Adil played plenty of games on the right of defence for Pune City and therefore his numbers could be bloated. Either way. him, Dhanpal Ganesh or Rowlin Borges could be interesting options but lack the mobility to free Thapa. Vinit Rai, Lenny Rodrigues (too old?), and my personal favourites, Rohit Kumar and Bikramjit Singh, can provide additional mobility but are yet to prove themselves to be serious contenders.
Now that we shortlisted the names that fit the coach's profile (orange, green in the chart), let's look at how many of these players can match Thapa with their ability on the ball.
Vinit Rai and Pronay Halder look like the best options to play in a double pivot with Thapa in midfield. Zakeer is, once again, popping up unexpectedly and could be somebody the coach might give a little more thought to. Dhanpal Ganesh and Adil Khan look best suited to play as destroyers in a 3 man midfield.
Just one final look at goal contributions from these players,
Pronay Halder has an eye for a shot and scored an absolute banger in the Intercontinental Cup. That clip also illustrates what I was saying about his tendency to hunt the ball down. In this case, it's a decent counter-press but in other situations, it leaves us short in the middle. Siam Hanghal, Milan Singh and Lenny Rodrigues the only other notable names.
There's one factor that I'm yet to cover and that's arguably the most important -age & footballing development. Where each player is in his football lifecycle is very important to consider as well. As I showed in my previous article, the age 24-30 is when a footballer enjoys his best years.
Pronay Halder is basically the perfect fit to play with Anirudh Thapa.
Vinit Rai probably deserves a chance to prove his worth and Bikramjit, Lenny and Borges would be good backups. If the coach decides to change to a more defensive minded formation, Dhanpal Ganesh or Adil Khan would be ideal additions to the base of midfield.
But let's say hypothetically, using all the stats above that we were looking to replace Pronay Halder with another potentially destructive "defensive midfielder" to play alongside Thapa. Based on the above charts, we could shortlist the following criteria,
Indian central midfielder that is 25 or younger
Make at least 2.5 tackles per match
Make at least 1 interception
Pass Accuracy of 60%
40 completed passes per match
We would end up with a list of 3 names, 2 of whom have played alongside Thapa before and the third is box-to-box with plenty of potential.