When Ashique Kuruniyan took his place at left-back for India’s must-win encounter against Oman early last week, it was only keeping with a growing trend in the country. Gone are the days when only specialists filled that position. Kuruniyan himself had replaced Mandar Rao Dessai, a converted winger, in the starting lineup.
The Goan was initially convinced to play that role by Sergio Lobera at FC Goa last season. It immediately paid dividends on the left flank with a marauding Dessai offering far more in attack than then India-international, Narayan Das. It is telling that Das has regressed as a player and lost his place in the national side since. As more progressive football takes root in the country with the influx of continental managers, a source of frustration for them has been the quality emanating from the flanks in forward positions.
Leave alone full-backs, the crossing and link-up play of wingers in India is often terrible. This allows managers to flood the middle of the park with players, secure in the knowledge that their defences will rarely be stretched in the final third. In the absence of any offensive threat from natural full-backs, Lobera and others of his ilk have tried to solve that problem by using forward-minded players at full or wing back. It backfires spectacularly sometimes, as it did for Carles Cuadrat last season when he started Kean Lewis at right-back for Bengaluru against Kerala, but more and more wingers are being asked to take to the role.
This season, Cuadrat started Kuruniyan at left-back before ditching the idea after an error from the Keralite allowed Goa the share of the spoils at the Fatorda. At Odisha, Shubham Sarangi, the talented youngster who played as a centre-forward at times last year, has impressed at right-back. Nikhil Poojary was converted into a wing-back by Phil Brown at Pune and that experiment has continued at Hyderabad. Prabir Das, possibly the full-back with the best attacking end-product in India, started his career as a forward. At ATK this season, he has been given freedom by Antonio López Habas to bomb forward as a wing-back with Michael Soosairaj on the opposite flank.
Offensively, teams do gain a lot from lining up in this manner. For example, Jerry Mawihmingthanga has had a very good season until now and some of that can be attributed to the partnership he has developed with Sarangi. The problems crop up defensively. Players who have been newly introduced to these roles can be got at, especially against better opposition beyond the ISL. Afghanistan exposed Mandar ruthlessly in the World Cup qualifier at Dushanbe as wave after wave of attacks were launched at his end. Ashique was decent enough against Oman but was pegged back into his own half, especially in the first period. This took away from his natural strengths and he could not influence proceedings in the attacking third. Against Goa, it was his defensive game that was not on point.
This is the challenge that managers will face with stop-gap measures. It is difficult for these players to be consistent at both ends of the pitch. The long-term solution lies in identifying full-backs who can excel defensively while offering quality nearer to the opposition box. For all the talk of finding the Sunil Chhetri replacement and ball-playing midfielders, this is an area that the Indian footballing ecosystem desperately need to invest in.