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ISL: Why ATK Mohun Bagan is the perfect destination for Sandesh Jhingan

ISL: Why ATK Mohun Bagan is the perfect destination for Sandesh Jhingan


Published: 16 Sep 2020 6:33 AM GMT

The early signings of Manvir Singh and Subhasish Bose, even before the sixth season had properly culminated, provided a signal of Sanjiv Goenka’s ambition to build another Indian Super League (ISL) and AFC Cup contender, and now the stars appear to be aligning for ATK Mohun Bagan FC to make a serious run at star Indian defender Sandesh Jhingan.

Truth is, even though the chances of a move abroad were slimmed when the pandemic hit as it did, Jhingan is not short on offers at hand. Odisha FC have publicly expressed their interest and can raise the money to sign him, FC Goa and Mumbai City FC have approached with big money offers, and, word is, Bengaluru FC are still trying hard to convince him. In fact, East Bengal FC, now backed by Shree Cement Ltd., had also reportedly made an offer.

Given his pedigree, it’s not hard to understand why so many clubs have been after him right since the day it became evident that he was leaving Kerala.

Over the past six seasons, Jhingan has established himself, alongside Sunil Chhetri, as one of most coveted and loved footballers in the country. In fact, in an ordinary, pandemic-less transfer window, he would have his pick of European and Asian clubs lining at his doorway. Only the uncertainty caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, and ATK Mohun Bagan’s unwavering willingness to sign him, have given the newly-merged entity a unique chance to move to the front of a very long queue.

But what is it that makes Jhingan and ATK Mohun Bagan the perfect marriage? How exactly is it a win-win for both the player and the club? The Bridge takes a closer look.

jhingan Sandesh Jhingan has anchored himself in the minds of all as the best centre-back in the country (Source: ESPN)

Jhingan’s ISL career is a story of growth, dominance and calmness. He’s a player who has confidently organised Kerala Blasters and the national team’s backline and anchored himself in the minds of all as the best centre-back in the country today. The narrative around the Chandigarh-born defender is usually the same: powerful, strong, quick, tenacious, a leader. But the one thing that has been missing so far is silverware.

At ATK Mohun Bagan, the chances of winning his first ISL trophy increase drastically. One half of the newly-merged entity are the defending ISL champions, the club has one of the strongest teams on paper, and most importantly, they have Antonio Lopes Habas, one of the hungriest coaches in the ISL. There is absolutely no doubt that the management wants to win the title yet again, this time, as ATK Mohun Bagan.

If he puts pen to paper, the Kolkata giants’ defence will become almost impregnable. Imagine the back-4, Pritam Kotal at right back, Subhasish Bose at left, and Tiri and Jhingan as the two centre halves. Then they have Carl McHugh and Sumit Rathi waiting on the bench. Having Jhingan at the heart of defence also means that one foreigner slot is saved which gives more flexibility to Habas.

Usually, clubs prefer to operate with two foreign CBs but when you have Jhingan, you can simply rely on him. Jhingan’s enhanced reading of the game helps him to choose if he should make a move to dispossess the attacker. And if he does make a move, his near perfect timing ensures it’s a ruthless challenge. That’s what makes him equivalent to any foreign CB playing in the country at the moment.

At ATKMB, Jhingan has the potential to evolve even more. Until now, we have seen him being an active front-footed defender. But under Habas, he could be a passive back-footed defender — a transformation that will be a testament to how the intellectual side of his game has also developed in recent seasons.

Jhingan's season heat maps show how he likes to be a front-footed defender (Source: Sofascore)

Earlier, Jhingan would regularly detach from the backline, running forward to intercept a pass midway or pressing the opposing attacker, again indicating that level of aggression in his game. Don’t get me wrong, it was needed at Kerala Blasters, a team that usually enjoys less of the ball. "When your team has less of the ball, you have more opportunities to defend, and vice versa."

With Jhingan, there was a clear trend of front-foot defending at Kerala, but at ATKMB, there’s scope for him to become a more reserved back-foot defender.

Habas likes to play out from the back, a system where his defenders would start any attack with small, small passes, keeping possession whilst also moving up the pitch. Then, one of the defenders would make a marauding run or push the ball forward to one of the attackers in space or out wide to create an opening. The combination of Jhingan and Tiri could potentially excel in this.

Jhingan’s entire style of play could potentially change and while we might see the volume of tackles going down, they are likely to take place in far deeper locations. He could very much be the last line of defence, only called only in times of need.

At the moment, most of the praise around Jhingan is focussed on his physical attributes, but when you look too much at those aspects of his game, you miss out on the other impressive ones — ones that he arguably spends more of his time doing on the pitch. He’s a leader, constantly talking with his teammates, organising from the back, all the time being 100% aware of what’s going on around him.

But for him to do this without any hassle, he has to be concentrated and not expend his energy running around. He needs to spend more time standing around or walking on the pitch and show an appreciation for the value of space he occupies on the field. Everyone knows he is quick and always bursting with energy, but at the same time, he has to be efficient also. Concentration and focus are energy sappers, and over time he has to trade being a proactive defender for a hyper-aware, reactive one.

At ATK Mohun Bagan, he will have the best platform to do that. Maybe, just maybe, the other clubs will come up with an offer one cannot refuse. But there is a compelling body of evidence to suggest Jhingan and ATKMB would be the perfect marriage.

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