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Rene's Men: The Indian Players Who Could Start For Kerala Blasters

Tuesday, 25 July 2017|Vineeth Krishnan

As fans of European football wait impatiently for their clubs to make waves in the summer transfer window, at the other end of the spectrum, the Indian Super League player draft, in a matter of hours, set in place the backbone of how the 10 teams will turn out in the 2017-18 season. Given that the ISL, for all its glitz, glamour and fan following, is for the first time an actual League and not merely a tournament for this coming season, the draft for Indian players took on even more value. Six Indian players need to be on the pitch at any given time in the upcoming season and here is a look at who those six are likely to be for two-time runners-up, Kerala Blasters.

This is, of course, a giant shot in the dark considering the team has not even assembled for a training session, the foreign contingent of players are yet to be named, and with a managerial change, even a preferred formation is unknown. However, given the wholesale changes, this is the best estimate put forward for eager fans curious to see how the men in Yellow could possibly line up under the new gaffer, Rene Meulensteen.

Formation: With an education in Dutch football, coupled with being Sir Alex Ferguson's assistant at Manchester United, the expectation would be for Meulensteen's men to be an aggressive outfit. Indeed, such an approach led to his downfall at Fulham as the Cottagers suspect defence saw Meulensteen booted out. However, in times when three at the back is becoming a trend, it would still be a surprise if Meulensteen drifted from the straight back four system. Whether the modern 4-2-3-1, a robust 4-3-3 or a conventional 4-4-2 is his preferred choice for the Blasters can only be decided once the full team with the foreign players are known. However, with Assistant coach Thangboi Singto also having preferred a 4-4-2 during his time at Shillong Lajong, for now, the classic formation (with perhaps a deeper-lying second forward) is considered.

Grouping the picks: The ISL auction, more akin to an NBA style player draft than an IPL bidding process, took place over 15 rounds. Just like the NBA draft groups players into first and second rounds, an effort is made here to split those chosen in earlier rounds from those in later ones. The intention is to suggest that teams would try and select their most sought after players with earlier picks but this is no hard and fast rule. Indeed, continuing the basketball parallel, late picks can turn out to hold many a gem, best exemplified by the Boston Celtics' Isaiah Thomas (selected 60th and last), a current All-Star.

Still, the Blasters picks showcased a trend of picking up experienced stars in early rounds (hence placed in group 1) and young, up and coming players later on (group 2). In this way, Rino Anto, Lalruatthara, Milan Singh, Arata Izumi, Subhashish Roy Chowdhury and Jackichand Singh (picks 1 to 6 in that order), along with the two retained players, CK Vineeth and Sandesh Jhingan are placed in group 1.

Later picks Siam Hanghal, Lalthakima, Pritam Kumar Singh, Samuel Shadap, Loken Meitei, Karan Sawhney and Ajith Sivan, fall into group 2. Most of these players have played for Singto at Lajong and with the coach also being in charge of youth development, these players are likely to feature as understudies. The average age of group 2 is just above 22 years. However, with two coaches in Meulensteen and Singto who are known for their work with young stars, the lads in group 2 can expect to improve their individual game by leaps and bounds, and the likes of Hanghal, Lalthakima and Meitei should get a few chances.

The Starters: With only five foreign players allowed, most teams are likely to field an Indian goalkeeper in the coming season. However, the Blasters should be an exception. In Subhashish they do have a veteran, former India international, between the sticks. However, having not picked up a backup, the team management are more than likely to bring in a foreign keeper, which should generally mean the latter gets the nod to start. The other noticeable thing about the Blasters' picks is a generous splatter of defenders and few out and out attackers. Meulensteen, is hence likely to go with a largely Indian backline, supporting foreign flair further up the pitch. Lack of goalscoring has been a historic issue with the Blasters and this could be the reason for relying heavily on foreign players who can make the difference in front of goal.

Local boy Vineeth should be the one player to buck this trend and along with Jhingan at the back, should be two automatic starters. Milan Singh, while only 25, has over seven years of top flight experience behind him. I remember watching him play for the Pailan Arrows against Chirag United Kerala in the I-League years back. Even then he looked a man among (quite literally) boys, for the AIFF's developmental team. The holding midfield role vacated by Mehtab Hossain should be Milan's for the taking. Jackichand Singh is an exciting winger and along with Rino Anto's marauding runs from deep, makes for a promising right-sided combination.

While Arata Izumi is a sensational player, gut instinct dictates that he could feature more in a super sub role, capable of filling in for Vineeth in case of suspension or injury. This leaves, Lalruatthara and Lalthakima fighting it out for the final starting spot, with the former, having been taken with Kerala's second pick, potentially, getting the nod.

Possible Blasters first XI: (F-foreign) F GK; Rino, Jhingan, Lalruatthara, F LB (Josu?); Jackichand, Milan, F ACM, Vineeth; F ST, F CF.

Subs: Subhashish, Arata, Lalthakima, Hanghal, Pritam, Shadap, Meitei, Sawhney, Sivan.