When Kerala Blasters offered Sahal Abdul Samad a new five-year deal back in 2020, it was the biggest deal in Indian football from a numbers perspective. In a year that saw the Tuskers release a host of players and request others to take a pay cut, this pointed towards how highly rated the 23-year-old is within the club.
Born in Al Ain in the UAE, Sahal moved to Kerala after finishing his schooling and immediately made an impact in the state's university-level tournaments. Soon after that, he joined the district u-21 team and represented the Kerala side between 2016 and 2017 and in the Santosh Trophy. It didn't take long for the youngster to be noticed by Kerala Blasters scouts following which he went on to debut for their senior side in the 2017-18 Indian Super League (ISL) season.
Ever since he burst onto the scene, Sahal's quick feet and passing ability has been a keen topic of discussion amongst fans. When he won the Emerging Player award for his performances in the 2018-19 campaign, the idea that he was going to be the missing creative spark in the national team gathered momentum. However, although he has made his debut for India thereafter, the last two years haven't really been the best for this talented midfielder. While the 2019-20 campaign saw him being played a lot on the wings due to injuries within the side, his own injury kept him from being at his best in the initial weeks of this season. And when he was finally back at full tilt, the team was in shambles.
The Tuskers eventually finished at 10th in the points table, having lost 9 of the 20 games that they played. They won just three all campaign and ended with a paltry 17 points. Under Kibu Vicuna and then Ishfaq Ahmed, they conceded 36 goals, the second highest in the division after Odisha FC who conceded 44. Like the numbers suggest, their inconsistent defending has meant that even in matches where they scored two goals, they ended up on the losing side more often than not.
In the midst of all this, Sahal has been peppered with criticism from all quarters. What was meant to be the breakthrough season for the FC Barcelona fan has turned out to be a series of intermittent false dawns. Many will point out that he has just 3 assists to show in over a thousand minutes of gametime. But look closer and you will realise that Sahal just hasn't been allowed to flourish because of the team's deficiencies in other areas. Agreed that his passing accuracy has dropped a bit from last season and he creates fewer chances every game, but that has a lot to do with how he has been used.
He has mostly been played on the wings this season as well and consequently, has way better defensive numbers than last season. He also tends to cover more distance now and has a better understanding with his full-backs, something that he has learned along the way. We all know that he is probably at his best when he is playing just off the centre-forward in the hole. But in the current Blasters side, the need to accommodate both Jordan Murray and Gary Hooper meant that wasn't an option. This also resulted in reduced final third presence for Sahal who is most lethal when he is carrying the ball towards the opposition goal having bypassed their press. Even then, two of the three assists that he provided this term have both been quality.
While the one for Jeakson Singh against SC East Bengal was a great pick up, the other one for Gary Hooper to toe-poke it home showed just why he is so dangerous in and around the box. The numerical superiority that he always seems to provide on the wings is another aspect of his game that has gotten better with time. As far as goalscoring is concerned, he does need to get better in that respect but for that, he needs a substantial spell down the middle where he is allowed a free role to dovetail with the other attackers either side of him. If that does happen next season, maybe the poise, the balance and the split-second decision-making will all come back in full flow. And just maybe, the hype-train surrounding him will have to be ramped up once again.
For now though, we would like to wish Sahal a very happy 24th birthday. Hopefully, this year he will prove all his detractors wrong.