Bhogtoram Mawroh was happy to watch a big local match again but not too happy about the venue. He was impressed by Laitkor but feels there will be to be several improvements for when then play in next season’s First Division…

It was nice to be back in Polo again after a long gap, especially for the final of the Second Division, which was played between Laitkor and Mylliem.

I would have preferred if the match, had been played in the JN Stadium where there was the option to rest my back against a chair. However, that was not to be and I had to make sure not to leave my standing spot along the fence of Third Ground for fear of losing the vantage point to other enthusiastic supporters. Luckily in the second half there was not much pushing and shoving and I was able to enjoy the game in relative ease.

I was told that the JN Stadium and First Ground are getting repaired, which should make future games more comfortable. Eugeneson Lyngdoh, who was the chief guest on the occasion, had declared that, if elected in the by-election last October (which he was), he would complete the renovation work of the SSA Stadium at First Ground. I hope he lives up to his promise.

One of the best football players to have emerged from the state, Eugene is a role model for every player who wants to make it big. He was not just the best from Meghalaya but also of India,with many foreign players who came to play in the Indian Super League remarking that he could have played in Europe. That indeed is very big praise. One thing which I hope Eugene can bring to the sports scenario in Meghalaya is a professional mentality. My friend who was his classmate told me how even when he was young one could already feel that he was different from other people. While others would get into fights after getting tackled during a match, Eugene would simply get up and get on with the game. I hope he can bring that same professionalism to all sports in Meghalaya, not just football. If that happens, we can hope for big things from the state.

Coming back to the final, it was a pleasant surprise to see Laitkor line up with a back three. Tyllilang Nongsiej, Eric B Kharmih and Moonstar Nongsiej were the three central defenders with the captain Dailystar Wanshong playing as the left wingback and Risuklang Malngiang as the right wingback. The only other time I remember a back three being played by a team in Shillong was the 2018 Langsning team, which became SPL champions by defeating Shillong Lajong with the same formation in the final. They started playing it to counter the midfield diamond and the narrow formation that Lajong had implemented that season. It worked for them in the final and it did the same for Laitkor as well.

In this match Mylliem played the standard 4-3-3 formation. In this formation the width usually comes from the fullbacks. But because of Laitkor’s attacking wingbacks, especially Dailystar who was bombing forward whenever the opportunity provided itself, Mylliem’s fullbacks, Wanraplang Rynjah and Banskhem Kurkalang, were not allowed to venture forward. Both the fullbacks played deep and close to their central defenders, viz Babysunday Marngar and Sambor Rapsang.

The game started well for both teams. Initially Mylliem looked a better team, looking to switch flanks with long diagonal balls whenever the opportunity arrived. Gilbertstar Kharmujai playing as the central striker was holding the ball quite well upfront and was trying to get the wide attackers into the game. However, as the game went away, he was pulled further and further into the midfield while his attacking partners Tirotbornson Kharbangar and Shembhalang Lambnang and Libestar Nongkynrih were not able to contribute much to the attack. On the other hand, Laitkor began to gain control of the contest with Rikmenlang Nongrum playing a stellar game in the middle of the pitch.

For me, Rikmenlang was the standout player of the match. If I remember correctly, he was playing as one of the two strikers during the 2019 Langsning U-18 SPL campaign. He did very well initially but later begin to fade. He moved into the field but did seem to improve his fortunes. In this match he was playing in the midfield in a different role. Playing just in front of the back three, he fulfilled his role as the holding midfielder with absolute efficiency. He won his headers, got his tackles, gathered the loose balls and circulated the ball very expertly. Right now, one of the best (maybe the best) holding midfielders in the world is N’Golo Kante. If you go to Chelsea’s  Twitter handle you will find a post about Kante which goes something like this: About 71% of the Earth’s surface is water-covered, the rest is covered by N’Golo Kante.

While there is an enormous difference in level between Rikmenlang and Kante, the style is very similar. While most of the time Rikmenlang was keeping the team solid, he would also be found in the opposition’s final third, pinching off the loose balls from his opponents. And when he got the ball, he would get others into the game. Whenever his team mates were under pressure, he was again present to support them. The forward through balls can be improved upon but it was still a masterful display from a player who seems to have found his position and maybe a path to greater excellence. I wish him all the best for the future.

But while Rikmenlang and his team were in the ascendancy, Mylliem began to slip very badly. Of course, Laitkor played well but they were helped by their opponents lack of a clear gameplan and the will to fight. To come to the first, the lack of clarity was very much visible in how Mylliem decided to affect the game not by changing tactics but by changing players’ positions. Initially, Gilbertstar played as the central striker but, as the first half wore on, he began playing in the midfield alongside the captain Donboklang Nongsteng and Nathan Benezer Majaw. In the second half, Shembhalang Langbnang, who replaced Gilbertstar as the central striker, also began to play in the midfield with a different striker being deployed. Similar things happened during Lawmali’s match against Assam Rifles during the final of the 2021 Assam Rifles Invitational Cup in which he started to play as the deep lying midfielder after having played most of the match as a striker. Moves like this, in my opinion, highlight the lack of tactical flexibility of a team where they know to play in only one way. When that plan A fails there is no plan B.

This again showed when in spite of Mylliem chasing the game, their fullbacks still played very deep. Even when Laitkor’s wingbacks had gone into the midfield and the wide areas were completely free, Wanraplang and Banskhem did not move forward. This was a big opportunity lost which, among others, cost Mylliem the game. But maybe the biggest weakness of Mylliem was their lack of aggressiveness.

While players from Laitkor were playing with great energy, players from Mylliem were quite cautious. They were hesitant in the challenges they made and were always second to the ball whether it was in attack or defence. The passing was very tentative and as a result was wayward. It was as if they were afraid to make a mistake. But mistakes they did make and it was those mistakes which led to the two goals scored by Laitkor. The first goal was a mix between the goalkeeper Richmanbornson Khongwar and his defender from a cross from Dailystar. The second goal was also due to a mistake by a defender which was pounced on by Sandy Felix Kharkongor to score the second goal. While the team was showing a lack of energy it was important for Donboklang to rally the team. While he did show some good technical skills, he will have to improve as a leader when the team plays in the First Division next season.

The score of 2-0 in favour of Laitkor was a fair reflection of how the game panned out. But the fact that, despite dominating the game, Mylliem lost by only two goals also indicates that while Laitkor played with great organization and flair they lack a little bit of creativity, something which players like Oresterwell Langshiang and Sangti Janai Shianglong bring to their respective teams. In the second half, Tyllilang and Moonstar began playing as attacking fullbacks, getting forward multiple times from their respective centre back positions but still Mylliem could not do anything about it. The fact that the score was only 2-0 means Laitkor have to improve a lot next season when they play in the First Division. Hopefully then games will be played in a stadium where I can sit and hopefully sip tea while watching the game (one can only hope).

(TSR photo)

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