Editor’s note: This article was originally published after MCFC’s Durand Cup campaign. In the Indian Super League, he is the leading Indian goalscorer midway through the season.
It is the 90th minute of the Durand Cup semifinal between Mohammedan Sporting Club and Mumbai City FC. Greg Stewart finds Lalianzualla Chhangte on the right wing with a beautiful dinked pass. The Mizo winger sprints into the box and comes up against the onrushing keeper Zothanmawia.
With angles towards the goal narrowed down, the Chhangte of old would have tried to blast the ball at goal or try to curl one in into the bottom corner. This time around, however, the 25-year-old held back.
Spotting the run of fellow winger Bipin Singh at the far post, Chhangte dissected the two Mohammedan centre backs with a perfectly weighted ball to allow Bipin to slot in the winner into an empty net and take MCFC to the final.
Mumbai City FC finished as runners-up as Bengaluru FC won the final on Sunday.
Chhangte has always been one of India’s brightest talents. Blessed with the ability to run at defenders with the ball and score from the wings, Chhangte burst onto the Indian football scene when as an 18-year-old, he became one of India’s youngest goalscorers in a SAFF Cup match against Nepal in the 2015.
After establishing himself at the erstwhile Delhi Dynamos, Chhangte joined Chennaiyin FC ahead of the 2019-20. In his best return in the Indian Super League, Chhangte was the second-highest scoring Indian in the league with seven goals as Chennaiyin finished runners-up.
Although his form and the team’s form dipped in the next season, Chhangte’s performances caught the eye of the Mumbai City management.
“We brought Chhangte to the club in January because we have a way we want to play and within that we have player profiles,” ,” Mumbai City coach Des Buckingham said at a recent press conference.
“If we haven’t got a player at the club already, we try and target players who we feel will be able to play in that role. And when we looked at the work that Chhangte did in Chennai, the way he could hold the ball, the way he could link up. We felt that he could add a really important component to our final third game.”
As evidenced by his performances at the recently concluded Durand Cup where he won the golden boot for the being the top scorer with seven goals, Chhangte has improved in the final third with his finishing.
However, it’s not just goals he’s added to his game, but also the ability to make the right choice when in front of goal as he did in the Durand Cup semifinal.
And it is that key decision making ability that Chhangte has worked on since joining Mumbai. Playing for a club that is part of the global City Football Group has its advantages as Chhangte has come to realise.
“Mumbai City FC, since they are linking up with the City group, I think the things we do are more specific compared to the other clubs. It’s about not only in the training pitch and not only in the match, but also analysing the game individually outside the pitch and that is a very, very important thing that improves you,” Chhangte told Scroll.in.
“They’ve been tracking all our training sessions and we use it to analyse it almost every week with the coaches. Where I need to improve and where can I get better and where my strong point and my weaknesses is so I can see it on the video and analyse it. That helps me a lot to know that I am going in the right direction.
“There are many things to learn and of course, even if you have a great game or a great training session, there is always room for improvement. But mostly, since the last three or four years, I have been struggling a bit with my decision making and in the final third. This season, I think I am improving a little bit. And as you can see in the Durand Cup, I think I have improved a lot and I hope I will continue to do so in the ISL and never go back,” he added with a chuckle.
Chhangte’s role in the attacking third is what Buckingham and his coaching staff have been working on in the Mizo player’s eight-month stay. The assist against Mohammedan is just one sign that Chhangte is maturing as a footballer.
“The one message that we have certainly given to him this year is that we now know what he can do because he has shown that in not just the ISL, but also the ACL. Now it’s about that final third, it’s about the end product. And in his case that’s obviously goals, assists and creating goal scoring moments,” said Buckingham.
“To say that he is in form right now, he is been wonderful to watch. The confidence he’s showing with the ball in the final third now, he’s added that layer. But it’s important that he continues to do that now into the season.
“What really pleased me the other night was the selflessness of the goal that won us the semifinal. It’s not just about scoring goals, it’s about making the right decisions in the important times and some of the link up play that allowed us to get into that opportunity for that final goal, a lot of players could and probably would have shot in the final minute there. But he had the calmness and the composure to pick out a pass, which was very difficult, to find Bipin at the back post.
“I think when you have a player that’s taking his link up play on but also now adding that final third, which is what we want him to do, he’s showing that not only can he score goals but he can create them and do that in important times for us,” the coach added.
Unlike his second season at Chennaiyin which ended with a low, Chhangte has a strong and experienced core of players at Mumbai to rely on going into the new season of the ISL.
After finishing as runners-up in the 2019-’20 season, Chennaiyin lost coach Owen Coyle and star striker Nerijus Valskis. With a new coach and a new system in place, Chennaiyin finished outside the playoff spots. Chhangte’s performances also dipped as he scored only four times in the season.
“I think the main reason that we were in the top and then struggling a bit the next year was that we were recruiting many players and it took a lot of time to know each other and get along. Because most of the players, like foreigners, are new and they came from different countries. Even the Indian players were young and coming up the system. And I think it took time (to gel together) and when we realised that, it was almost late and that was one of the main reasons we couldn’t perform consistently,” Chhangte said of his second year in Chennai.
Now, donning the sky blue of Mumbai, Chhangte has a host of seasoned ISL players to share the dressing room with including captain Mourtada Fall, Ahmed Jahouh, Rahul Bheke and Mandar Rao Desai.
“When you are playing with players with experience, especially when they are in the ISL for 2-3 years, it’s very, very good. Getting their experience here, it helps us a lot, especially the Indian players, to be better and they help us on and off the pitch.
“I want to mention our foreign players. They are very very good on and off the pitch. They help us how to read the game, how to play, how we can have good combinations on the pitch. It’s not only about getting outside and training together, it’s important you get along very well even outside the pitch,” he said.
The disappointment of losing the Durand Cup final notwithstanding, Chhangte has begun to justify the talent that prompted Buckingham and Mumbai to come calling for his services. With a strong core of teammates to rely on, the 25-year-old is primed to take his game to the next level. And that is good news for Indian football.