Sunil-Jeje: A Partnership India Deserved

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The last time Indian national football team won a match was in June’19; almost 250 days back. The Team is in a transition as well as in turmoil since the appointment of the new Croatian manager Igor Stimac. His experimentation with the combination play and his system has costed the team in some way. The inexplicable attitude of players on the pitch hasn’t helped the cause either. Despite all these, there is another factor which is stinging the Indian team like a persistent bee, and that’s Goalscoring. Sunil Chhetri, who tops the nation’s list in goalscoring, is ageing and he needs a striking partner upfront, along with him to deliver the goalscoring output, which he used to deliver alone in his prime.

Someone who has previously partnered him successfully, Jeje Lalpekhlua, has been unavailable for more than a year now and that has caused a lot of problems for India and Igor Stimac, in the attacking third. After missing out for a year and a half, the Mizo Sniper, is finally called back in the national camp, and is all set to play when footballing action resumes.

But questions can arise, why Jeje? Why pick someone who hasn’t laid foot on the ball over the past twelve months?

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Why not someone else?

Though it is a very legit question, the answer lies in the history of the success Sunil and Jeje share in their past, both statistically and tactically. Today we will discuss about the tactical and technical reasons of why Sunil-Jeje is the ultimate strike partnership for India.

1. Positional Liberty

Since his debut, for the last 17 years, Sunil Chettri has played in all positions starting from forward to midfield. He played as withdrawn forward or a no.10, inside forward or as an out and out centre forward. But the position where he thrived the most is in the holes i.e the area between the defense and the midfield; or as we can say as a number 10. From the hole, with his technical superiority he can position himself between the lines and dictate the play from there; helping in build up and playmaking.
Jeje on the other hand, has played in a lot of positions like Sunil, including number 10; but is more of a modern day positive number 9. The Mizo sniper generally lurks in the 6 yard box, looking for opportunities to shoot but wont hesitate to drop for a link up play if he is not getting enough supply.
He is someone who positions himself near the shoulder of the last defender and looks for inbehind runs.
Sunil and Jeje, both, ironically, have found the positions they like in the Indian National team, unlike their clubs, and this has surely boosted their individual play, eventually contributing to their breath-taking partnership.

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Both Sunil and Jeje got their favoured positions in the national team

2. Complementary Traits

For a partnership to be successful in modern day football, analyzing the traits of individual players is pretty necessary. It is the combined traits of the players that creates a weapon to exploit opposition.

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Before his trip to Europe, Sunil was a fast, explosive forward with a particular skillset and hunger for goals. But with his return he added technical ability with ball in his armoury.
Jeje, with a bit of bulk in his lower body lacks the explosive pace of Sunil, but has a sudden burst of pace which, coupled with his excellent timing, makes him beat the defence line for a 50-50 duel for the ball.
They have a lot of things in common such as sharp shooting and heading abilities, lethal finishing and an excellent passing range. This results in their breathtaking cohesive play which is further lifted by both of their instincts of Romdeuters or space invaders. They spot space like no one else and makes space for one another with dummy runs- another the reason they are so successful together.

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Jeje said in an interview, “We share a telepathic understanding on the pitch “

3. Combination Play

Be it Henry-Bergkamp, Rooney-Ronaldo, Dele-Kane, Benzema-Ronaldo or De Bruyne-Aguero,the greatest strike partnerships of modern era of football are built on the platform of trust, faith and friendship. Sunil and Jeje are no alien to that concept! Both having a north east connection, understands each others cultures and social comfort. Sunil guides Jeje as his younger brother. This gentle relationship shows sparks on the field whenever they are put together. Sunil and Jeje share a fantastic telepathic connection on the pitch based on the trust they have on each other. That’s why they show extreme cohesiveness while playing together. Its more like, they know each other’s movements, and predicts them, way before opposition anticipates.
An example comes from the home match of India in the AFC Asian Cup qualifiers against Kyrgyzstan. Sunil Chhetri received the ball deep and broke past two Kyrghyz midfielders and passed the ball to Jeje who already offered himself in a free pocket of space. Sunil continued his run and drove the ball past the keeper when Jeje lobbed the ball onto his path with exquisite timing. They just knew everything about each other!

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A graphical representation of the move against Kyrghyz Republic

4. Fullfillment of Tactical Demands

When Sunil Chhetri returned from his short term of foreign tour and took the deeper role of the two strikers, the one to partner him was none other than his then Bengaluru FC teammate Robin Singh.
Since the Bob Houghton era, India idolized the philosophy of route one football with some modern tweaks. Wim Covermans didn’t change too much either. Robin Singh was the ideal person with his long stature and body mass to thrive on the long balls thumped from the deep or crosses from the flanks. He would try to chest them down or flick on to Sunil, or try to finish himself. As much as it was a system suited to his characteristics, Robin had his limitations. He was too static with a rather poor passing range added with inconsistent finishing- sometimes making him a liability for the team.
When Constantine came and the culture of quick counters and transitional play established within the team, Jeje slowly replaced Robin and the other forwards to become the talisman for the team. Being more mobile and having a better understanding of the game, he combined with Sunil to be mediators of lethal counter attacks. His lower body strength helped him to hold up and shield the ball, up the field until Chhetri joined him in the break. Additionally, he used to convert half chances inside the box thanks to his deft close control of the ball. Sunil and Jeje complemented the system and tactical demands of Constantine more than anyone.

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Jeje was the perfect fit to the demands of the system

5. Fitness and Focus

To bring out 100% of your game, you need to be at 200% of your fitness level. Sunil is someone who trains himself like a military personnel and has set a benchmark of extreme fitness. But Jeje, inspite of his recent big injury can boast of a consistent wellbeing of his health and fitness. Something that optimized his performance both for club and country.
Something that drove them into this position is their added focus and concentration both on and off the field. Making right choices, correct decisions and having the perfect knowledge of the game has brought the best out of them in terns of reading the game and further pushed beyond when both of them plays with each other.

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Sunil has always been an epitome of fitness and focus

Takeaway

India has seen some excellent goalscorers across the last two decades, be it IM Vijayan, Bhaichung Bhutia or Sunil Chetri. Sunil is the last one who responsibly carried the torch of goalscoring with him. But with him racing against the time, it is becoming more and more difficult everyday to score goals. It is not possible to replicate Sunil’s versatility, technicality or the plethora of talent he posseses, but Jeje can be the one who can still provide that little extra bit of support he needs, to utilise his last few years, if not months; to the fullest!

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Let us know your opinion on who you think can partner our Captain, Leader, Legend in the final lap of his career!

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