Updated: May 13, 2018
With the Indian Football domestic season coming to a standstill, we are left with a herd of new cult heroes. While this may create anticipation amongst the fans, it calls for just as difficult a task for the National Team Head Coach as these heroes have asked all the right questions to be in the running for a seat on the plane to the UAE.
One very familiar name seems to be Rahul Bheke, the 27 year old defender that can play across the back line has been a revelation this season at Bengaluru FC. Born in Maharashtra, Bheke has struggled to establish himself at a club since his formative years at Mahindra United’s youth team. Juggling between teams every season without major domestic success is not an unheard story in Indian Football but someone with the caliber of Bheke it seemed more like an underachievement. An article dating back to 2015 in the Hindustan Times compares Rahul Bheke to Rory Delap for his throw-in capabilities, stands as a tribute to his outstanding abilities, while the 990 minutes he featured in the ISL 2015 with Kerala Blasters made him the most featured Indian outfield player in the Indian Super League’s second season.
The Indian Super League draft saw Bengaluru FC pick up Rahul Bheke as early as Round 4 having only entered the draft in Round 3. Bheke has a lethal weapon very few in Indian Football possess: the long throw-in. However, this is not the only reason Bheke has had tremendous success this season at Bengaluru FC. Bheke has featured for a staggering 1638 minutes across 19 matches for Bengaluru FC in the ISL, largely at right back but he has also impressed when asked to fill in at centre-back in the absence of either John Johnson or Juanan. The Indian defender has also made cameos at left back every now and then, particularly in the AFC cup. So, the question is does the versatility of Rahul Bheke coupled with his unique throw in capabilities make him India’s most complete defender?
Rahul Bheke has played as a right back for the majority of his career; both of his Calcutta Football League success with East Bengal has come at that position. It is extraordinary that a player who had never regularly played at centre-back until about 12 months ago might now be considered as one of the better defenders in the country; even the statistics underline his success at his new found role.
Only Dimas Delgado (72.67) and Erik Paartalu (53.74) have averaged more passes per 90 minutes for Bengaluru in the Indian Super League this season than Rahul Bheke (45.38). The likes of Juanan and Johnson both have significantly low passes per 90 minutes as compared to Bheke; this holds much significance for a style of football employed by Albert Roca’s men which relies on building from the back, Rahul Bheke has adjusted to Albert Roca’s Spanish brand of football with ease just like he did while adapting to each of the new positions he has featured in the past season. He is smart, understands the game well and looks composed with and without the ball. In fact Bheke has one of the best passing stats among defenders in the Indian Super League this season. For the purpose of comparison the players taken in the sample are Jerry Lalrinzuala, Inigo Calderon, Lalruatthara and Sandesh Jhingan.
This metric for defenders can be slightly skewed and often largely depend on the brand of football employed by the respective football clubs however, it does give a vague idea of the capability of the player on the ball.
Back to the basics
Bheke has been immense and at times looks like a foundation worthy to support a thriving front line. The Bengaluru back line was made the headlines with the signing of Gurpreet Singh Sandhu from Stabæk while it derived solidity from the introduction of Rahul Bheke and Subhasish Bose. Rahul Bheke has been absolutely immense at the back. Bheke makes 4 tackles/interceptions per 90 minutes, while his 4.6 blocks/clearances per 90 minutes is one of the highest in the league. Bheke’s ‘front foot rating’ which is a ratio of the number of tackles and interceptions a player makes to his number of blocks and clearances is 0.86. The Indian is an intelligent football player who makes calculated defensive actions and knows when to soak pressure by sitting back, blocking shots and booting the ball clear as opposed to more headless chicken method of defending. However he is not afraid to stick a foot in as well, as his 4 tackles/interceptions per 90 minutes suggests. Kerala’s Lalruatthara, on the other hand, is an explosive defender always ready to win tackles and making those crucial interceptions to initiate a fast break with a rating of 1.22, while maintaining one of the highest tackle/interception per 90 minutes amongst defenders. Undoubtedly Lalruatthara was adjusted as the Emerging Player of the Season.
Rahul Bheke concedes fouls aplenty - 1.37 per 90 minutes, however he usually gets away without a caution except for the ATK match where his only two yellow cards of the season saw him receiving his marching orders. Defenders committing fouls can be seen in two very different spectrum, the first would make the defender clumsy while it could also mean that the defender is not afraid to put in a tackle when needed and conceding smart fouls when necessary, in my opinion, Bheke’s is mostly the latter. Bheke has a respectable aerial presence as well recording 84 aerial challenges in the Indian Super League. Standing at 1.79 m tall he can be an aerial threat in the opposition as well as the defending box - most notably when the defender arrowed one beyond the East Bengal keeper in the cup final.
Watch Rahul Bheke’s Hero Super Cup final equalizer against East Bengal here.
In a country where not many players are fortunate enough to sign a multi-year deal, Bengaluru FC were quick to reward Bheke for a fantastic season with a new three year deal keeping him at the club till 2021. While he does have some obvious weaknesses like his sub-par Expected Assists, xA at 0.05, and unacceptable frequency of crosses while playing as a full back are areas he can definitely improve upon. At the end of the day Rahul Bheke does have some special characteristics and plenty of room to improve his weaknesses, come Asian Cup in UAE he will definitely be giving the current set of Indian internationals a run for their money.
At times Rahul Bheke’s characteristics remind me of a familiar Spanish international, Cesar Azpilicueta. No one typifies those special characteristics quite like Cesar Azpilicueta, similar physique, typical versatility and a fantastic attitude having played as a full back on the right then moving to the left and now employed as a centre back in a system which relies on playing out from the back. In the past year we have witnessed a transformation in Rahul Bheke, similar to what Cesar Azpilicueta underwent under Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte. Cesar Azpilicueta is regarded as one of the most complete defenders in the Premier League. Now India may have its own Cesar Azpilicueta – Rahul Bheke.
Quick note: While Mark Thompson’s ‘Front Foot’ original calculation involves dividing the number of tackles and interceptions a player makes by his/her tally of blocks and ball recoveries, in this model clearances was used instead of ball recoveries.
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