We’re not too far away from the mid-point of the Shillong Premier League 2019 and Bhogtoram Mawroh has some thoughts on the teams taking part and what they need to do to win the title…

Unlike in previous seasons, in this season’s SPL no team has yet given a performance which would confer upon them the title of favourites for the trophy. Rangdajied United and Shillong Lajong both won handsomely against Laban, but it was not the same Laban that won last year’s First Division title and the Bodoland Gallants Gold Cup for two years running.

Suffice it to say Laban are poised for relegation unless something changes drastically. In the game against Langsning they did defend well but were completely ineffective otherwise. They need to play their best team but the coach for some reason seems oblivious to what is clear to all. Except for Nitesh Monde none of the players who didn’t start against Yarkhok United in the Bodoland final should be in the first XI. Laban, with their best players, are capable of more than just playing for a draw. If the coach does not reconsider his choices, relegation awaits Laban at the end of the season.

While Laban need a complete overhaul of their first XI Lajong and Rangdajied have to solve different problems if they want to win the trophy. Having drawn the game against Rangdajied, Lajong still hold top spot in the points table. In terms of performance, however, they have been far from convincing. In the game against Rangdajied, Lajong should have been at least two to three goals down before they got a decent chance of their own. In the second half Lajong looked a little more threatening but were still unable to breach Rangdajied’s defence. In spite of some good combination play down the wings, both right and left, the attack looked listless. Phrangki Buam was anonymous for most of the match while the attacking trio of Samuel Lyngdoh Kynshi, Donboklang Lyngdoh and Naorem Mahesh Singh have not been effective up till now.

Of the three attackers only Naorem has had some success. He can play on either wing. But from time to time he likes drifting inside and overloading the middle of the pitch. He has a wonderful free-kick and can score goals from outside the box. His only weakness is the weaker right foot. Especially when he is playing as an inverted winger, defenders can contain him by pushing him to the sideline where his weaker right foot makes him less of a threat. Still, he is completely suited to the role that the coach has given him in this team. I am not so sure about Donbok and Samuel, though.

Lajong have been playing with a 4-1-2-3 with Phrangki just behind either Donbok or Samuel. In the match against Rangdajied it was Donbok who started as the central striker but exchanged the position with Samuel later in the match. Curiously Naorem has not been used as a central striker until now and has always stuck to the wings. Neither Donbok nor Samuel have big statures and clearly their role in the centre, whoever plays, is not to hold the ball and lay it for others. It is about occupying the space between the opposition’s defence and the midfield, trying to pull defenders out of position so that Phrangki or the wide attackers can run behind the defence. This tactic might work against an inexperienced team with naive defenders but against well-coached teams like the ones in the SPL the chances of success are very low. The simplest reason why the tactic doesn’t work is because neither Donbok nor Samuel is a number 9, either pure or false. A plan B is needed and although they have been reluctant to use it they already have one.

In this Lajong squad, apart from Amon Lepcha who is a little inexperienced, Parvaj Bhuiya is the only pure striker they have. Though not the most prolific, Parvaj can hold the ball and bring others into the game. But, for me, Parvaj’s best quality is that he is very annoying. With the ability to get under people’s skin, he puts defences under pressure by forcing them to commit fouls against him. This is very useful for getting free-kicks in dangerous areas or getting someone sent off. It was the same against Langsning as well. For me Parvaj should start games for Lajong. Donbok and Samuel should be asked to stick to the wide areas. Lajong were lucky to get a point against Rangdajied. They are top of the table but unless they solve the problem they have upfront they may come unstuck soon. And in this short league that might be very crucial in the title race.

Rangdajied, on the other hand, have lacked goals since the last season. Apart from the Laban game they have not scored a lot of goals. On Wednesday they got a lot of chances to score, some from less than a foot away from goal. But they fluffed all those chances with the one missed by Samson Nongrum after some good work by Donlad Diengdoh being the most incredible. It is not that Rangdajied do not realise the problem. It was for this reason they brought Samson, Donlad and Ronaldkydon Lyngdoh Nonglait into the team. Samson has always been a prolific striker and one of my favourite players. To be fair, he has scored some goals but has not been as effective as was expected. Coming on mostly as a substitute he has failed to provide the spark that was required.

Ronald, on the other hand, gained prominence for being a goal-scoring midfielder with a penchant for long-range strikes. In the game against Laban he did get a goal. In the game against Lajong, however, he missed very easy chances, couldn’t release any long-range shots and gave away the ball far too easily. On many occasions he almost proved himself to be a liability for the team. His midfield partners, Raikutshisha Buam and Belton Lartang, are not as flashy as Ronald but are efficient players. These two have been regular under Khlain Pyrkhat Syiemlieh in this team. The problem is that they are not as creative or dangerous in front of goal as Ronald. Raikutshisha did score a few goals last season but is more suited to a role in a far less advanced position. Ronald has to raise his game if he wants his team to succeed. If he doesn’t there is another player who can take his position if he slips up (I will come to him a little later).

Donlad’s case is a little different. In his time with Langsning he was not the prolific striker but a hardworking centre forward whose game allowed others to score goals. In the match against Lajong he was my man-of-the-match. Working really hard again he tormented Lajong’s defence, especially Aman Ahlawat. The reason he doesn’t score many goals is because he is hardly in the box, always fighting for the ball so that others can do the scoring. I, however, believe that he can score a lot. Last season, when Lajong defeated a second-string Langsning side, Donlad released a powerful shot which whizzed past the crossbar. That was one time when he looked hungry for goals. I would like to see him do something similar in future matches where he tries to score goals for himself. That selfishness may end up helping a team which is struggling to find a way to put the ball into the back of the net.

Like last year Rangdajied seem to be a team that lacks a spark which can propel them to the trophy. There is, though, a player who might just change that. Oresterwell Langshiang is one of the most naturally talented players I have seen. He scored a lot of goals in the U-18 SPL but I thought he was not played in the right position, especially in the final. He has a good free-kick, can beat defenders with his quick feet and play an accurate long ball from one end of the pitch to another. The complete package, he is the kind of spark this team need. He is very young but when you have talent age is not a factor. I, however, do not want to see him play in the wings but want him as part of a double pivot or the number 10 where he can have most of the ball. This way he will always be involved in the game. If things don’t change soon or certain players don’t raise their game, he should be given an opportunity.

Apart from Lajong and Rangdajied there are other teams who are contenders, but with weaker cases. Ryntih hhave not been able to live up to their potential. The lack of goals upfront is not a surprise. They bought a lot of players for different positions but they didn’t buy a proper striker. Also they don’t have a number 10. The loss against Nangkiew Irat has further dented their chances. And then there is the situation with the defending champions, Langsning.

There are a couple of problems with Langsning this season. The first one is that players are being played out of position. The biggest casualty Langsning suffered even before the season began was the loss of their experienced defenders: Restom Khriam, Milancy Khongstia, Brolington Warlarpih and Dibinroy Nongspung. In their stead Batskhem Tariang, Ksankupar Khongmalai and Donborlang Nongkynrih are the regular defenders. In the match against Laban Banteilang Lyngdoh played in the centre of defence. Batskhem’s penchant for playing like a midfielder always makes me nervous while Ksankupar is more suited to the role of a fullback.

The game against Laban was highly one-sided with Langsning pouring wave upon wave of attacks, which dashed against a very well-organised defence. In a situation like this balls from wide areas are an option. In the second half Donborlang’s crosses from the right created panic in Laban’s defence. The left side came alive when Ksankupar drifted into the left back’s position from where he delivered some dangerous crosses. These options are taken away with Ksankupar playing in the centre of defence. Ksankupar is the most experienced defender in the team, having played for Rangdajied in previous years. Having him play as a centre back does make sense due to paucity of choices but it means that a tactical option is lost to the team.

The other problem that Langsning face is that Bah Hering Shangpliang does not yet know his best midfield combination. In the match against Lajong Iakmenlang Khongjee played as the fullback. But in the match against Laban he played in the midfield. When Arnesius Marwein came as a substitute he was deployed as part of the midfield, though he is more suited for a wide position. What this has done is put the onus of creating on the shoulders of the front three, Kynsaibor Lhuid, Figo Syndai and Kitboklang Pale.

As it was in the game against Lajong, Kitbok was the one who was tasked with creating chances as well as finishing them. To be fair, the trio of Kynsaibor, Figo and Kitbok have combined very well and created a lot of chances. If some of those chances had been put away they would be at the top of the table. But they haven’t and some of that has to do with the fact that instead of being inside the box, both Kynsaibor and Kitbok are always going deep into the midfield or to wide areas to get hold of the ball. In the game against Laban, Kitbok dropped too deep in order to create opportunities and the only way he was going to score was through a magic strike, not unlike the goal against Nangkiew Irat last season. His goal drought might have to do with the fact that he has been asked to perform multiple roles. The same can be said of Kynsaibor as well. To rectify this situation there are two solutions.

The first is to ask the midfield to share the responsibility of creating chances. This means they have to look at their midfield options and find those who can provide the creative outlet. The other is to play Kitbok more central, in the number 10 role and get Banteilang Shylla to play upfront with Kynsaibor and Figo from wide areas. This will bring more balance to the team and maintain the pressure upfront. With a brand new team Langsning were supposed to be in a transition phase, building for the future and not competing for the trophy. But with the kind of performance that this team has delivered it gives me hope that something more is possible. The key for that lies in the midfield.

Apart from these four teams, Nangkiew Irat have been quietly going about its business. They suffered a shock loss against Laban but came back strongly to beat Ryntih. Will that be enough to challenge for the trophy? Time will tell.

Lajong are the front-runners for winning the SPL. However, they have their issues. To be fair, every team have their own issues. Those who can sort them out quicker will come out winners at the end. It’s an intriguing 2019 SPL and I am so glad for it.

(TSR photo)

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