We’re less than one-third of the way through the I-League 2018-19 season, but super fan Bhogtoram Mawroh is already worried about Shillong Lajong’s prospects…

It is still early days in the season but the writing is beginning to appear on the wall.

Only a single win coming in the opening game against Aizawl, with losses and a draw from winning positions in the following fixtures has put Lajong in a very tricky situation. With Aizawl winning their match against East Bengal, Lajong are now in the relegation zone, only ahead of relegation exempted Indian Arrows.

Such a scenario was, however, inevitable. With no senior players or foreigners the team was always going to struggle. In fact the way the team squandered their two-goal lead against a 10-man Minerva is a perfect example of the team’s inexperience.

To understand this unfolding catastrophe we must go back to the decision taken by the management of not signing any senior local or foreign players. The management claims that the decision was taken in order to give young players more opportunities so that they can become the backbone of the team in the years to come. This is, however, an entirely false claim for two reasons.

First of all, if concern for the future was genuine they wouldn’t have sold many of their young players to the ISL teams for profit. They would have kept them for at least a few more seasons to guide other younger players coming through the system. Of course, the young players would also want to leave for bigger clubs but if the future was really important Lajong would have done their best to hold on to those players. Assured game time and a good contract could have enticed some to stay back. Who is to say that if Lajong survive this season the same will not happen to some of the players from this team as well?

The whole process will be then repeated again with the “future” Lajong talks about continuously receding into the horizon. This brings me to my second point. The claim of building for the future is not a new one from Lajong. They have been making this argument for so many seasons that it now sounds like a broken tape recorder going on and on. When was the last time Lajong was not building for the future? First the team decided not to buy any senior domestic players anymore but use players from their youth set-up. Players like Aiborlang Khongjee and Rocus Lamare were brought in but were sidelined and not given game time. Seeing Rocus on the bench or not even in the match squad was, to say the least, highly infuriating. He was an India international, had won the I-League with Salgaocar and was one of the best midfielders in the country. I don’t know what Rocus thinks about his time with Lajong but I believe he should have been treated better.

So, Lajong bought senior players but didn’t play them and this year they decided not to buy any at all. In all this they have forgotten that in crucial moments it was the senior players, foreigners and locals, who made sure they survived in the I-League: the goal from Sho Kamimura during Thangboi Singto’s first season against United Sikkim that ensured survival for Lajong; Minchol Son’s heroics at the back season after season; Johnny Menyongar’s leadership in the middle; and Cornell Glen’s and Aser Dipanda’s prolific strike rate at the top.

These are the players who kept Lajong alive in the I-League. And now there are none. Is it a surprise then that Lajong are struggling this season? The decision to go with an all-Indian side with only a couple of players who are above 22 raises many other questions.

In the recent past there have been a few instances when relegated teams that should have faced the drop were spared relegation. The first one saw Churchill Brothers return after a court ruled in their favour. Then there was the case of Aizawl being brought back because some teams decided to drop out citing lack of clarity about the future road map of the league. Churchill Brothers were recalled again after being relegated because of lack of representation from Goa. Are Lajong hoping for such a favour from the AIFF? I’ll be surprised if it happens because it will raise some very uncomfortable questions.

If Lajong get relegated will they make the argument that without them there will not be a representative from Meghalaya? I don’t think that’s a strong argument. The rest of India does not look at individual North East states. For them all these states are the same (which is not true) and with NEROCA and Aizawl already in the I-League the region already has two teams. In the past Lajong claimed to represent the North East. So, if one team can represent the entire region, two is more than enough.

What if Lajong is saved from relegation because the AIFF is restructuring the whole footballing set-up in the country? If that is the case, it will mean that there is some insider information that Lajong have which no other team does. Other teams have strengthened themselves in order to avoid relegation. But the one team which did not is not relegated in spite of finishing at the bottom. Is that fair?

But, of course, this is just speculation and only time will reveal the truth.

Right now, the fact is that Lajong have to start winning immediately. The teams around them are already improving. Lajong are running short of time and options. If the news is true, it seems Lajong have brought Kitboklang Pale on a loan deal from Langsning to help their faltering season. Will Kitbok save Lajong from relegation? I don’t know. But what I know is that he will improve the team in all departments of the game.

With Kitbok there are now more tactical options available to Alison Kharsyntiew should he choose to use them. Till now Lajong have played with a very narrow shape: 4-1-3-2 or 3-4-2-1 formations. One of the problems with this current Lajong squad is that they don’t have a proper winger, someone who can beat people with pace and trickery and put dangerous crosses into the box. They instead have good technical players who are more adept at playing through the middle. Kitbok is a more complete player and with him the formation can change to a more balanced 4-4-1-1 or a 4-3-3. His inclusion brings multiple dimensions to the team’s play: ability to play quick counterattacks (the second goal against Minerva being an example), tracking back to help with defence, calmness in the heat of the game and the possibility of the spectacular (his magic strikes from anywhere on the pitch).

Kitbok is a player Lajong should have had from the beginning of the season but there is another player they need more right now. Kitbok is a special player but inexperienced like the rest of the team. What the team desperately need is a senior figure who not only fills the gaps in the team but who can also provide leadership to the players. The fact that Lajong has been conceding so many goals points to the defensive frailties of the team. But here it would be a mistake to look only at the defenders. I am more concerned about the midfield. Are there any holding midfielders in this Lajong team because so far it seems they are non-existent.

The holding midfielders are supposed to snuff out any attack before it begins but judging by what has happened so far they have failed miserably in it. In spite of their failures Alison has stuck with the same midfield combination and that means two things: either he thinks the backup midfielders are not good enough or he has instructions to keep playing the same players irrespective of their performances. If it is the latter, good luck with that at the end of the season, but if it is the former they need reinforcement.

Kitbok was bought because he was a former youth player and there is one right now who can bring defensive solidity to the team: Marlangki Suting. Marlangki can play either as a defensive midfielder or as part of the three-man defence if the need arises. His physicality is also something that the team can use in set-piece situations either defending or attacking. But of utmost importance is his experience, which would prove invaluable for the team.

Marlangki is the player Lajong need right now. With Lajong signing Kitbok it seems that the management has realised the difficulty they are in. But if they don’t want this new-found realisation to be half-hearted they need to sign Marlangki as well.

The players that are playing right now are trying their best but sometimes you need help and there is no shame in asking for it. But if the management wants to remain arrogant they should remember “pride comes before the fall”.

Whatever Lajong choose to do they have to do it fast. Otherwise it will be too late and what will be left at the end of the season are only regrets. Let’s hope that that is not the case.

(TSR photo)

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