India’s search for the next Sunil Chhetri seems far from reaching its conclusion. The dearth of goalscorers in the Indian national football team has never been more alarmingly evident, and the shrinking Indian goal tally in the Indian Super League only adds to the growing concern.

Will the next generation of Indian football be devoid of a real superstar it so desperately needs? It is a difficult question to answer. It’s natural for fans to find a hero in an attacking player, but the best of players are always spread across the field.

Indian football may have to embrace this change of perspective if it has to find the next Chhetri. Not necessarily in terms of the prolific striker that he is, but in terms of the outstanding role model, leader and hero.

The next Indian football superstar may not be a striker. Not so much because we can no longer produce those kinds of talents, but because it’s much harder for a forward player to make it big in India in the current circumstances.

In the ISL, foreign players take up most of the attacking positions on the pitch, leaving Indian to occupy the remaining defensive and midfield positions.

In the 2019-20 season, there’s no Indian forward in the top ten most featured local players in the division. The list includes four goalkeepers, four defenders and two midfielders.

Top ten most featured Indian is 2019-20 ISL

Rank Player Team Minutes Played Playing position
1 Pritam Kotal ATK 1890 Centre-back/Full-back
2 Arindam Bhattacharja ATK 1800 Goalkeeper
3 Vishal Kaith Chennaiyin FC 1800 Goalkeeper
4 Mohammad Nawaz FC Goa 1800 Goalkeeper
5 Anirudh Thapa Chennaiyin FC 1754 Central Midfielder
6 Mandar Rao Dessai FC Goa 1746 Full-back
7 Lallianzuala Chhangte Chennaiyin FC 1743 Winger/ Attacking midfielder
8 Prabir Das ATK 1728 Full-back
9 Gurpreet Singh Sandhu Bengaluru FC 1710 Goalkeeper
10 Seriton Fernandes FC Goa 1705 Full-back

If one takes a look at the average game-time Indian players had this season, the full-backs have enjoyed the most time out on the field, followed by goalkeepers, wingers and attacking midfielders, central midfielders, central defenders and lastly strikers.

The average game-time for Indian full-backs and goalkeepers this season in the ISL is more than double to that of the Indian striker.

In terms of pure number, full-back position is the most favoured for Indian players, followed by central midfield, wings and central defence. This season, more Indian goalkeepers featured than Indian strikers in the ISL.

Playing positions of Indian players in ISL 2020

Playing position Total minutes played by Indian players Total number of Indian players played Average game-time for Indian players
Goalkeeper 16221 18 901 minutes
Central Defender 14199 26 546 minutes
Full-back 34702 38 913 minutes
Central Midfielder 17798 31 574 minutes
Winger/ Attacking midfielder 19868 30 662 minutes
Centre-forward 5446 13 418 minutes

The statistics should worry India coach Igor Stimac especially with his team struggling for goals in the World Cup qualifiers, but he would also be pleased to see the kind of options at his disposal in the other areas of the pitch.

In the full-back positions, he has Prabir Das, Seriton Fernandes, Laldinliana Renthlei, Rahul Bheke, Jerry Lalrinzuala, Jessel Carneiro and Mandar Rao Dessai to pick from. The likes of Subhasish Bose and Nishu Kumar are also in the mix.

At the same time, the emergence of Sumit Rathi and Pratik Chaudhari have also added to Stimac’s options.

Even if Indians may have struggled to score goals, they have managed to find places in the attacking positions in the teams. Brandon Fernandes, Anirudh Thapa, Jerry Mahwminghthanga and Farukh Choudhary have all got among the assists this season. These players would be in better shape to compete at the international stage having a season’s experience under their belt.

Top ten assist-makers in 2019-20 ISL

Rank Player Team Matches Played Assists
1 Hugo Boumous FC Goa 15 10
2 Rafael Crivellaro Chennaiyin 20 8
3 Brandon Fernandes FC Goa 17 7
4 Nerijus Valskis Chennaiyin 20 6
5 Anirudh Thapa Chennaiyin 20 6
6 Roy Krishna ATK 21 6
7 Erik Paartalu Bengaluru FC 17 5
8 Jerry Mawihmingthanga Odisha FC 17 5
9 David Williams ATK 18 5
10 Jessel Carneiro Kerala Blasters 18 5
Indian players are marked in bold

Stimac called for reducing the number of foreigners in the ISL and adopting AFC’s 3+1 rule for number of foreign players in a team, in order to help India produce top quality attackers.

“We will never find a replacement for him (Chhetri) while the situation is like this,” Stimac said.

“I cannot take someone who has never played as a striker (at the top level) and put him in the national team as a striker. From where am I going to find a striker?” he added.

However, the above numbers suggest the position of center-forward is one where the coaches are least likely to put trust in. Thus, even if there are four overseas players, coaches will make sure the center-forward position is filled with a foreign player.

In that case, ATK coach Antonio Habas’ opinion of maintaining the number of foreign players allowed for an ISL team at least for the next few years seems valid.

It would allow Indian clubs to do more work at the academy level in order to produce strikers that could play in the center-forward position ahead of a foreign striker.

“I believe that the arrival of foreign players and coaches in football has had a major impact on the technical, tactical and professional training of the players of India not just in the teams but also young players at the clubs’ academies,” Habas said.

“Thus, I believe that the number of foreign players must be maintained, at least 3-4 more seasons... keeping the current format,” he added.

India will have to find a way of scoring goals to help ease the burden on Chhetri or to carry the entire load of the task when the Indian captain retires but developing a team to challenge other Asian sides is a long process.

In the current circumstances, it may be harder for India to produce forwards, but there is no reason why the country shouldn’t be improving in other areas.

More playing time for Indian players in the ISL with improved training, tactical and physical regimes will surely give India its next Sunil Chhetri sooner rather than later, but he, at least for the time being is likelier to come from other positions on the pitch.