Ever since its inception in 2014, the Indian Super League has been the carpe diem for the local talent, not just because of the exposure it accords but also due to the presence of top-quality coaches and foreign exports. Thus, it hasn't come as much of a surprise that the Indian footballing ecosystem has benefited as a whole with players evolving into better footballers.
While there was a slight tendency for teams to focus only on their foreign recruits in earlier seasons, that particular trend has changed drastically. Nowadays, the ISL outfits prioritise having a strong Indian core at their disposal, with the overseas players acting as the ideal foil.
To put things into perspective, most of the ISL winners have had a strong Indian contingent to choose from, whether it be ATK (ATK Mohun Bagan now) in 2019-20, Bengaluru FC a campaign prior, or the twin titles Chennaiyin FC garnered.
Hence, sifting through the myriad Indian talent across the country has become imperative for ISL teams as they attempt to establish themselves in the higher echelons of India's premier club football competition.
Naturally, even in the current season, some outfits have aced the aforementioned yardstick and have stitched together a squad replete with prospective Indian superstars. On the other hand, some have failed on that count and have unsurprisingly, found themselves marooned in the lower trenches of the ISL table.
Thus, as the curtains are drawn on the league phase of the 2020-21 ISL season, the time is perhaps ripe to delve deeper into the standout Indian performers from each team and the impact they had on their respective sides' journeys.
Odisha FC " Jerry Mawihmingthanga
Over the past couple of seasons, Jerry has been one of Odisha FC's most consistent performers. In 2019-20, under Josep Gombau, the Indian was entrusted with providing thrust on the right flank and he excelled. However, at the start of the current term, he endured a slightly shoddy start, owing to the change in manager and philosophy.
Yet, as the campaign has progressed, Jerry has regained his composure and has become a dependable option on the wings for the Juggernauts, even as they huffed and puffed to make the net bulge.
Throughout the term, Jerry played 1396 minutes and popped up with five assists and two goals. Though both of his goals came in the Juggernauts' final fixture " a manic 6-5 victory over SC East Bengal, he had previously shown glimpses of his innate ability.
Jerry's pace also allowed Odisha FC to stretch games, meaning that it created more space for the likes of Diego Mauricio and Manuel Onwu. While the aforementioned duo didn't particularly set the ISL ablaze as often as they would've wanted, they certainly looked a lot more potent with Jerry on the flanks.
However, owing to problems elsewhere on the pitch, Odisha FC could only muster 12 points from 20 matches " a tally that fell well short of the heights they achieved in 2019-20. Yet, that perhaps also hints at the enormity of the task on their hands for the upcoming campaign.
Thankfully though, they might still be able to call upon Jerry " something that should ease their headache just a tad.
Kerala Blasters FC " Sahal Abdul Samad
To put things bluntly, Kerala Blasters FC endured a wretched season, wherein they shipped goals for fun and weren't too clinical in the offensive third. Unsurprisingly, they succumbed to a 10th place finish and disposed off another manager.
The only silver lining for them though, mght have been the upturn in form of one Sahal Abdul Samad " someone who has been under the glare ever since winning the ISL Emerging Player accolade in 2018-19.
However, things haven't always panned out as expected, meaning that Sahal also missed a major chunk of games at the start of the 2020-21 season. More worryingly, Kibu Vicuna (the manager then) didn't seem to find a system capable of accommodating the playmaker.
As time passed though, Sahal, through sheer will and bits of silky skill, forced his way back into the eleven. And, for a player boasting his potential, it was refreshing that he competently grew into the tournament.
As far as numbers are concerned, Sahal could only provide three assists during the campaign " again, a statistic that might flatter to deceive. Yet, at times, there were palpable signs that he was enjoying himself. And, he looks as happy as he has ever been, at least in the ISL.
Unfortunately, Kerala Blasters FC capitulated spectacularly, meaning that Sahal's efforts couldn't translate into anything tangible. However, as an Indian football fan, one can't help but wonder the impact the 2020-21 season could have on the midfielder.
If he is able to build on this display, India might have a gem in their midst. Yet, if he is unable to do so, it might prove to be another false dawn. Either way, one can't ignore that Sahal was perhaps the Blasters' best Indian player in 2020-21.
SC East Bengal " Narayan Das
SC East Bengal entered the ISL fray amid an enormous amount of anticipation and fanfare. Unfortunately for their massive fan base, they couldn't live up to the billing, eventually finishing ninth.
Though Narayan Das only bagged a solitary assist, his attacking adventure down the left flank allowed Bright Enobakhare and Jacques Maghoma more space in the middle third. Twitter @sc_eastbengal
Throughout the season, there were a few performances that made the rest of the league sit up and take notice. Yet, those were very sporadic, meaning that they became the aberration rather than being the norm.
The most telling aspect though, was SC East Bengal's inability to assemble a decent pool of Indian players " something that kept haunting them throughout the season.
In fact, it is an indictment of their season that Debjit Majumder (a goalkeeper) and Narayan Das (a left back) are being touted as two of their most impressive Indian performers.
The aforementioned often carried the Red and Gold Brigade, although they weren't completely faultless. At the start of the season, Narayan Das looked discernibly shaky at left-back, whereas Debjit was also guilty of a few high-profile errors.
However, as the campaign entered its middle phases, Narayan, in particular, found his feet and became a bankable alternative on the left flank. While there were occasions when his defending was called into question, he fared relatively well when moving in the other direction.
Though the left-back only bagged a solitary assist, his attacking adventure down the left flank allowed Bright Enobakhare and Jacques Maghoma more space in the middle third.
Having said that, if one were to truly classify Narayan's performances throughout the campaign, one might not place it in the top drawer. However, owing to what transpired around him, Narayan was comfortably SC East Bengal's best Indian player.
That really sums up SC East Bengal's season, doesn't it?
Chennaiyin FC " Lallianzuala Chhangte
In 2019-20, Chennaiyin FC stunned the Indian footballing circuit as they stormed their way to the ISL final. Post that though, Owen Coyle and Nerijus Valskis left for Jamshedpur FC, meaning that Csaba Laszlo had an almighty task on his hands. And, it is fair to say that the Hungarian didn't make a great fist of it.
The Marina Machans finished eighth in the league table " 11 points adrift of FC Goa, who landed the final semi-final spot. More alarmingly, throughout the campaign, Chennaiyin FC only scored 17 goals, which was, by far, the worst tally in the competition. Lallianzuala Chhangte contributed nearly a third of those, with four goals and a solitary assist, thereby emphasizing his importance to the Marina Machans.
Apart from the above, Chhangte also looked a lot more composed in the final third, with him regularly making the right decision. Over the years, he has been accused of being a shade hurried when in possession " a trait that has led to promising situations being passed up.
However, in 2020-21, he propelled his game several notches and was the Marina Machans' most belligerent attacking option. However, those around Chhangte could not replicate the latter's levels of performance, meaning that Chennaiyin FC's season, which had begun with a sparkling 2-1 victory against Jamshedpur FC, meandered into a damp squib.
Bengaluru FC " Suresh Singh Wangjam
For the first time in their ISL history, Bengaluru FC failed to make the semi-final during the 2020-21 season. As far as the Blues were concerned, there were plenty of ailments that plagued them throughout the campaign, with the lack of contributions from their overseas imports being a sticky point.
However, just like their foreign counterparts, the Indian footballers also failed to get going as much as they would've wanted, meaning that a seventh-place finish wasn't too dumbfounded.
Among all the debris though, Suresh Singh Wangjam stood out, much like last season. Back then, he was treated as an unknown commodity, with teams still working out on methods to tackle him. In 2020-21, he looked more mature and even pulled the strings in midfield, at times.
Most impressively, the Indian, despite being asked to deputize in several different positions, never baulked at that prospect. In fact, he even embraced it and served up an irresistible blend of energy and dexterity.
Even in 2019-20, Suresh had showcased his attributes of covering every inch of grass. However, in the current campaign, he also seemed to understand the game a lot more as he judiciously chose his time to bomb forward, whereas he retreated on other occasions.
While Sunil Chhetri also performed admirably, especially once Carles Cuadrat was given the boot, he couldn't scale the astronomical heights that he has become accustomed to. In turn, one just couldn't look past Suresh Singh Wangjam as Bengaluru FC's most impressive Indian performer.
As a matter of fact, one shouldn't be surprised if he keeps collecting that accolade more regularly.
Jamshedpur FC " Laldinliana Renthlei
Prior to the season, Jamshedpur FC had attracted plenty of eyeballs, courtesy the acquisitions of Nerijus Valskis and Owen Coyle " individuals that were paramount to Chennaiyin FC's miraculous run in 2019-20. However, that was where all the optimism ended as the Red Miners stuttered and stumbled their way to 27 points from 20 matches.
Though the tally fell just four points shy of what FC Goa could manage, it wasn't a fair reflection of Jamshedpur FC's season, for they were highly inconsistent and struggled for goals " again, something that one might not have envisioned with Owen Coyle at the helm and Nerijus Valskis leading the line.
Unsurprisingly, two of the Red Miners' best Indian players were Laldinliana Renthlei (a defender) and Mohammad Mobashir (a midfielder). Yet, one can't take anything away from the quality of their outings, for they held together a relatively porous outfit.
Laldinliana was solid at the back for the Red Miners and was also a constant fixture in the side, accumulating 1237 minutes throughout the season. The right-back also forayed forward when called upon and though he could not come up with an assist, he provided the width Jamshedpur FC craved.
Defensively, Laldinliana made 50 tackles, 33 clearances, 32 interceptions and 26 blocks " numbers that illustrate his importance to the Red Miners' rearguard. Apart from that, he was also adept in his decision making and was often on hand to repel counter attacks " a ploy that other teams incessantly used against Jamshedpur FC.
As the league phase drew to a close, Owen Coyle remarked that he was proud of the way his squad had developed. And, one reckons none might have impressed him as much as Laldinliana Renthlei.
Hyderabad FC " Akash Mishra
In the off-season, Hyderabad FC were rocked when Albert Roca decided to leave for FC Barcelona. At that juncture, Manuel Marquez had the unenviable job of trying to rebuild Hyderabad FC, while also getting them to challenge for top honours " all without having time to imprint his philosophy.
To add to those issues, the Nizams also had to deal with a string of injuries, meaning that at one point, Marquez was forced to field only two foreigners in his starting line-up. While it felt that he had been short-handed, as the season progressed, it portrayed the trust the Spaniard had in his Indian troops.
Throughout the campaign, plenty of Indian footballers stood up to be counted for the Nizams, whether it be Akash Mishra, Ashish Rai, Chinglensana Singh, Halicharan Narzary or Mohammad Yasir. Yet, one feels that none looked as accomplished as Akash Mishra, who lest one forgets, was making his ISL debut.
The left-back manned the flanks diligently and was compact defensively. If numbers are taken into consideration, Akash topped the Hyderabad FC charts on four counts " interceptions, passes, tackles and touches. As far as league standings are concerned, he stood second, 10th, 13th and third, respectively.
Moreover, it never looked as if Akash was making his ISL bow. For large swathes, he seemed a seasoned defender and one that possessed the wherewithal to hold his own against illustrious opponents. Further ahead, he displayed the athleticism, the creativity and the zeal to cause problems.
Thus, it is a pity that Indian football fans won't be able to watch Akash during the ISL play-offs. However, if he keeps playing at such an intensity, one reckons they might not have to wait too long.
FC Goa " Alexander Romario Jesuraj
FC Goa underwent an overwhelming transition between the end of the 2019-20 season and the start of the current term. Sergio Lobera, who was sacked mid-way through the previous campaign, poached the likes of Ahmed Jahouh, Hugo Boumous, Mandar Rao Dessai and Mourtada Fall from the Gaurs. And, to top it off, Carlos Pena and Ferran Corominas " two vital cogs in the Goan wheel, bid adieu to the ISL.
Thus, when Juan Ferrando was installed at the helm, he had to keep FC Goa among the ISL elite, while also ensuring that he brought through young talent " an aspect that is non-negotiable at the club. Fortunately for the Spaniard, he had the luxury of calling upon a slew of talented individuals, with none being as impactful as Alexander Romario Jesuraj.
The winger wasn't an assured starter at the beginning of the season and was restricted to appearances off the bench. However, even then, he indicated that he had the quality to become a regular fixture at FC Goa.
Blessed with the ability to waltz past defenders, Jesuraj tied plenty of defenders in knots courtesy his direct running. More vitally, he was able to marry it with an end product, meaning that he finished the season with four assists and one goal. In fact, his tally was only bettered by Alberto Noguera, who popped up with eight assists.
Jesuraj was also a handful defensively and was willing to put in the hard yards to help out his teammates. Through the course of the tournament, he made 56 tackles, 12 interceptions, 8 clearances and 16 blocks " numbers that highlight his immense work rate.
With FC Goa set to clash swords with Mumbai City FC in the semi-final, one feels that Jesuraj might have a massive role to play at both ends of the pitch. And, owing to his excellent performances this season, he might even be quietly confident of leading the Gaurs to victory.
NorthEast United FC " Lalengmawia (popularly known as Apuia)
In 2020-21, NorthEast United FC defied all odds to enroll themselves for the ISL play-offs. Throughout their campaign, they relied heavily on their overseas imports, with Benjamin Lambot, Deshorn Brown, Dylan Fox, Federico Gallego, Khassa Camara and Luis Machado distinguishing themselves. However, it was perhaps their Indian complement that catapulted them to the next level.
Unsurprisingly, Apuia was at the forefront of the Highlanders' revolution as he controlled games in midfield. The youngster did so effortlessly and formed an exceptional partnership with Khassa Camara. Apuia also used the ball beautifully and acted as the ideal link between attack and defence.
Throughout the season, Apuia averaged 35.75 passes per game at a pass completion rate of 75.38. He also had 916 touches in the entirety of the campaign. As far as defensive contributions are concerned, he made 90 tackles (2nd in the NorthEast charts and 10th overall), 42 interceptions, 22 clearances and 21 blocks.
Most tellingly though, Apuia showcased the character to stand strong in the face of adversity " a trait that has endeared him to the Highlanders' faithful even more. Thus, it was perhaps fitting that the youngster scored the goal that confirmed NorthEast United's place in the ISL play-offs.
Over the past couple of years, Apuia has, rightfully too, generated plenty of hype courtesy his proclivity to blend calculation and creativity. And, if this season was any indicator, Apuia only seems intent on charting a steeper upward trajectory henceforth.
ATK Mohun Bagan " Manvir Singh
At the start of 2020, ATK rechristened itself into a new identity, becoming ATK Mohun Bagan. Thus, the outfit, which already had a humongous fan base, had amassed an even larger share. Expectations, meanwhile, had reached a crescendo.
To that end, ATK Mohun Bagan began the season in slightly patchy fashion, although they kept racking up victories. However, a lack of a cutting-edge sans Roy Krishna, became a quandary that caused more than a furrowed brow or two. At that juncture, plenty felt that the Mariners would struggle in front of goal, especially if the Fijian was not at the peak of his powers.
However, that is exactly when Manvir Singh entered the fray and started justifying the hefty transfer fee ATK Mohun Bagan had paid, months ago. To put things into perspective, the striker was procured from FC Goa in the summer for approximately Rs 80 lakhs.
At FC Goa, Manvir Singh often represented a capable option off the bench, with Hugo Boumous and Ferran Corominas leading the line. However, since his move to ATK Mohun Bagan, the Indian forward has looked a man possessed and seems to be worth every penny.
In 1216 minutes of football, Manvir has made the net ripple on five occasions and has provided three assists too. Moreover, his goals have come at crucial stages and have regularly ensured that the Mariners have gotten over the line. That those have come in utterly incredible fashion, only casts light on his innate natural ability.
Manvir has also played in a variety of positions recently, with Antonio Lopez Habas using him as a wing-back, in addition to his primary role as a wide forward. The striker's versatility has been key to the Mariners' ascent, for it has allowed them to play different systems with similar personnel.
Over the past couple of seasons, people felt that Manvir Singh wasn't optimally utilizing his potential. However, in 2020-21, he has shown that he can do so and perhaps that might be the biggest Indian takeaway from the entire campaign.
Mumbai City FC " Bipin Singh
For much of 2020-21, Mumbai City FC have had a galaxy of stars to rummage through. After all, that is simply what happens when a squad consists of Adam le Fondre, Ahmed Jahouh, Bartholomew Ogbeche, Hernan Santana, Hugo Boumous, Rowllin Borges and Mourtada Fall. Yet, the biggest splash has arguably been made by one of the more unheralded stars aka Bipin Singh.
In 2019-20, the Islanders were content to use foreign players on the flanks " a tactic that meant that they were forced to use Indian defenders. Under Sergio Lobera though, they've flipped that modus operandi around, opting for dynamic Indian wingers to fill the aforementioned void.
Bipin Singh, unsurprisingly, has been a beneficiary and he has grabbed his opportunities with both hands. The winger played 19 matches during the league phase and hit the back of the net five times. Apart from the above, he also set up his teammates on four other occasions, thereby underlining his magnificent end product.
In fact, it is a testament to his perseverance that he has morphed into one of the Islanders' most crucial components, just a year after he was dubbed a fringe player. Back then, he frequently offered glimpses of his flair without ever really seeming capable of jumping up a rung.
Now though, he seems to have blended his unquestionable potential with something more substantial " an element, which coupled with his searing pace, has made him indispensable to Sergio Lobera's plans.
Despite such a stellar season, Bipin might not receive as many plaudits as some of his storied teammates. Yet, if outings such as these keep stacking up, one reckons that neither he, nor Sergio Lobera would particularly mind it.