The Indian Super League has elevated the standard of Indian football in terms of professionalism in the sport, but question marks remain over the league’s ability to improve the technical quality of Indian players.

While plenty of players who have emerged from the ISL have made the cut to the Indian national team, it is debatable whether the addition of those players has drastically improved the overall standard of the team.

One of the criticisms of the ISL in its initial years has been its extra emphasis on foreign players that led to a lack of playing opportunities for Indians. Till the 2017-’18 season, teams could sign 11 foreign players and six of them were allowed to be part of the starting eleven at a time.

That number is now down to five and will be reduced to four from the 2021-’22 campaign, but teams’ success still depends largely on the performances of its foreign players.

The other complaint has been the lack of playing time for Indian players in certain areas of the pitch, especially the centre-forward position. National team coach Igor Stimac complained that he had a lack of quality options in that area as ISL teams preferred foreign players in those positions.

Only one Indian featured in ISL’s top ten goalscorers in the 2019-’20 campaign.

The average game time for Indian players for the 2019-’20 season showed that Indian strikers spent less than half the time on the pitch as compared to Indian full-backs.

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

More of the same in 2020-’21?

A look at the overseas recruits by ISL teams ahead of the 2020-’21 campaign indicates that Indian strikers are set to suffer a similar predicament and it could get even worse this year.

The proportion of foreign strikers in ISL this season has gone up by 4%. It means that coaches have decided to further secure their scoring department with foreign options rather than Indian ones.

Only two ISL teams have less than two foreign strikers, while five teams have more than two foreign centre-forwards in their team.

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With the high number of Spanish coaches in the league, most of whom like to play a possession-based game, there has also been an increase in the percentage of foreigners in the central midfield area, a position on the pitch that is crucial for achieving positional superiority. That figure has gone up by 3% this season.

However, this means good news for Indian central defenders. There has been a 3% drop in the number of foreign central defenders in the league, meaning more Indian centre-backs are likely get playing time.

Similarly, Indian attacking midfielders and wingers could also be afforded more minutes this season as there has been a 4% decrease in the foreigners recruited for those positions.

This number isn’t too surprising considering Indian players fared better on the creative index. There were four Indian players among the league’s top ten assist-makers in the division in 2019-’20.

Top ISL assist-makers in 2019-’20

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

As for the full-back position, ISL teams have recruited three foreign full-backs this season in comparison to two last term, but that is unlikely to change the Indian dominance in this position.

In addition, for the first time in the competition’s history, no team has recruited a foreign goalkeeper, meaning all positions between the sticks this season will be filled by Indian custodians.

Comparison of composition of foreign players

Positions 2019-'20 season 2020-'21 season % change
Centre-forward 23% 27% +4%
Attaking midfielder/ Winger 23% 19% -4%
Central Midfielder 23% 26% +3%
Central defence 26% 23% -3%
Full-back 3% 4% +1%
Goalkeepers 2% 0 -2%
* %change is used for comparison in place of absolute figures as number of teams increased from 10 to 11 leading to increase in absolute number of foreign players

The changes from last season aren’t drastic but even the small shifts in percentage show what the coaches think of Indian players. Stimac won’t be too pleased with ISL teams signing more foreign strikers this season even if it’s only a 4% rise.

The presence of these extra strikers could mean drastically fewer minutes for Indian forwards who could now be devoid of even cameo appearances as a substitute.

Sandesh Jhingan’s acquisition by ATK Mohun Bagan, that reportedly made him the highest-paid Indian footballer along with Nishu Kumar’s big-money move to Kerala Blasters also show which positions ISL clubs are spending for on Indian players.

With teams set to be allowed only four foreigners from next season, things may look a bit bright for Indian forwards, but till then more frustration is likely to come their way.