With their draw against Mumbai City on Saturday, Hyderabad FC became only the third side to take points off the table toppers in this season’s Indian Super League (ISL). However, unlike NorthEast United and Jamshedpur FC who largely rode on their luck, and in NorthEast’s case an Ahmed Jahouh red card, Hyderabad’s stubborn resistance and offensive adventure was largely down to their two full-backs, 19-year-old Akash Mishra and 21-year-old Asish Rai.
While Asish has missed just 23 minutes of game-time this term, Akash has played every single minute for his team. At the start of the season, eyebrows had been raised at Hyderabad’s defensive recruitment. Although the Nizams did bring in Odei Onaindia, he was the only foreign centre-back in a defensive unit that comprised mostly youngsters. This was all the more baffling considering the fact that they had finished bottom of the table last season, conceding 39 goals in 18 games.
In the first month of the new season, all of those doubts had been put to rest. Manuel Marquez’s side made a steady start to the campaign staying unbeaten in the first five games. What was fascinating though was the fact that the full-back duo had come good not just in terms of their defensive stability, but also their attacking impetus. Eleven games into the season, both of them have been extremely impressive in terms of their ball progression.
As a result, they have the most progressive runs in the attacking third as well as the highest dribble completion rates in the side. With 34 interceptions already, Asish leads all of his teammates with Akash next on the list with 29. When it comes to tackles, the roles are reversed with Akash making 43 tackles, many of them goal-saving ones like the one on Adam Le Fondre last night. Asish is close behind with 39 and he too made an absolutely impeccable block on Bipin Singh’s shot in the same match when the latter was through on goal in the first half.
Extremely nimble and quick-footed, both these youngsters are extremely aware of spaces opening up behind opposition defences. Although their starting positions may be that of conventional full backs, their ability on the ball has meant that Marquez has used them as overlapping wingers during attacking transitions to great effect. A combined 50 crosses is proof enough of that.
Furthermore, be it the number of passes or touches, the duo trump everyone else in those departments as well. Asish has recorded 470 passes till now while Akash has 461. The Sikkimese right back also has 716 touches so far, the highest in the team and there are no prizes for guessing who’s close behind. Another important feature of their game is their discipline. While Akash has committed 14 fouls in 11 games, Asish has committed just 10.
Both these players have come through the Indian Arrows’ developmental set-up before making their mark in the biggest stage this campaign. At a time when the I-League is derided for its lack of quality and low competitive level, it is the emergence of such talents that lay down a marker regarding where Indian football can reach if we can give our youngsters the correct footballing education.