I-League clubs are required to have at least 1 U-23 player in the starting line-up and 2 in the squad. While this may be perceived as a bane by club managers who would rather focus on playing their strongest XI, it ensures an emphasis on acquisition and development of India’s young footballers. This week’s edition focuses on Shankar Sampingiraj, Rupert Nongrum, and Joseph Lalfakzuala.
Shankar Sampingiraj | Bengaluru FC | 20 | Right-Back/Centre-Back
With continental football to contend with, rotation of players has become key for Bengaluru FC with fitness levels also coming under more pressure than ever before since the club’s inception. This has called for previously peripheral squad members to step up in the absence of the more established stars, with 20-year-old Shankar Sampingiraj proving to be the epitome for his fellow youngsters.
The ex-Pailan Arrows man made his first team debut for the defending I-League champions, putting in a stellar performance and impressing the home support, while possibly being slightly disappointed he didn’t walk away with the man of the match award. Deployed at full-back in Rino Anto’s absence, the youngster was seen marauding down the right flank, constantly getting into attacking positions while dismembering Lajong’s defence with the neat triangles being formed with Beikhokhei Beingaichho and club top-scorer Eugeneson Lyngdoh. It was a tactic we were hoping to see more of until Curtis Osano’s red-card interrupted the system.
But it was one of those lung-bursting runs down the right that saw Bengaluru FC take the lead, Shankar making an overlapping run and crossing it perfectly for Robin Singh to open the scoring. And while one may have been quick to criticise Shankar’s attacking intent having a negative impact on the Bengaluru FC defensive line, the full-back had the energy to get back when not in possession, maintaining the organisation at the back.
His defensive capabilities were more crucial in the second half as Ashley Westwood was forced into a reshuffle at half-time having lost one half of his defensive pairing. The home side shifted to a three man back line with wing backs on either side. Shankar Sampingiraj put in a solid shift in this role as well, mirroring the work of the midfield in front as defensive Bengaluru FC formed two lines of three while Keegan Pereira and Sunil Chhetri flanked the system until the second goal.
Coach Ashley Westwood was full of praise for the 20-year-old Shankar, clearly pleased with the versatile player. He told Outside of the Boot: “We knew Shankar was a good player when he came, [but] it was unfortunate that he joined us December-January time, missed a lot of pre-season and so wasn’t fit enough. This season he went away for the India camp and came back doubly worse again.”
The greatest asset the player has to his game is the versatility he provides the side, something not too many others possess in the side. “He can play right-back as you’ve seen today, he can play centre half if he learns & listens, and he can play in midfield if needed”, Westwood continued when quizzed about his primary position. “He’s athletic, composed on the ball, can play one-touch when he needs to and he’s got a competitive edge to him too”.
Despite the solid performance, Shankar Sampinigiraj may need to show more consistency before convincing the gaffer, but he’s certainly laid a solid foundation in that regard.
Rupert Nongrum | Shillong Lajong FC | 18 | Right-Back
The 18 year old Nongrum made his senior debut for the club against Bengaluru FC. The youngster had the unenviable task of marking Bengaluru FC and Indian national team captain Sunil Chhetri in front of a hostile crowd at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium. All things considered, Nongrum held his own over the course of the game and repaid the faith of his manager with a solid performance.
Full-backs are expected to contribute in both attacking and defensive aspects of the game and Nongrum showed that he was more than willing to get forward. The timing of his forward runs were largely on the money as he chose the right moment to join Lajong’s attacks and more often than not provided an option to the winger in front of him.
On the ball, the youngster preferred to keep it simple. He generally took the option of a short pass even at times he ventured forward. He was caught dallying on the ball on one occasion by Robin Singh but thankfully for the youngster, there was no damage done. In the attacking third, Nongrum’s crossing left something to be desired as he either over-hit or under-hit most of them. Certainly an area of his game that he can work on.
Coming to the defensive aspect of the game, Nongrum did a decent job of containing the attacking threat of Chhetri preferring to ensure that he always remained goal-side of the Bengaluru FC captain. The right-back was caught out of position for the first goal as Bengaluru FC transitioned quickly and Nongrum struggled to make up the ground as Robin Singh headed home.
Joseph Lalfakzuala | Shillong Lajong FC | 19 | Central Midfield
Lalfakzuala has represented India at the U-19 level and has been drafted straight into the Lajong midfield this season. The 19 year-old played as a deep lying playmaker and featured for 67′ before being substituted. Like his teammate Nongrum, Lalfakzuala kept things relatively simple on the ball often providing a passing option for his defenders.
The 19 year-old preferred to hang back rather than participate in the attacks before Curtis Osano’s red card reduced Bengaluru FC to 10 men. Shillong understandably pushed up-field as a team and this gave Lalfakzuala a little more freedom to venture forward. The midfielder’s most notable contribution came on the stroke of half time as he let fly from distance. The effort may have gone just wide but he managed to generate good power in the shot.
Lalfakzuala needs to improve the defensive side of his game though especially if he’s going to play as the deepest midfielder. Bengaluru FC’s main source of goals this season has been their midfielders and it was imperative that Shillong picked up runners from midfield and close down any space in their own half. Unfortunately the youngster lacked that discipline.
Shillong and Lalfakzuala were dealt a warning early on in the game when the 19 year-old found himself face to face with Eugeneson Lyngdoh in the 10th minute. The ex-Chanmari man failed to either close Lyngdoh down or block off the obvious passing lane which led to the latter bypassing him with an easy one-two courtesy Robin Singh. While Lyngdoh’s shot went wide, it was a precursor of things to come and it was no coincidence that the 2nd goal was a result of 2 un-tracked runners from midfield, Lyngdoh, the provider, and goalscorer Thoi Singh.
Co-written by Arnab Ray and Sami Faizullah