Shillong Lajong have been the torchbearers of football in the North-East. In 2009, they became the first club from the region to qualify for I-League and were regulars in the same after that. At the start of this season they grabbed the headlines when the team management decided to field a squad comprising mostly of academy talents and without any foreign recruitment.
While the decision itself was bold and deserved praise, the management could have strengthened the squad during the course of the league when it was apparent that the current crop of players had not yet matured enough to produce results at the top tier.
It must be noted that Indian Arrows have been fielding a young all-Indian squad in the I-League for two years now. But it has to be noted that they were given extensive exposure tours and despite that, they finished last in the 2017-18 season. But, this time around, with experience gained from the previous season, they have done extremely well. Arrows also had a Portuguese coach in Luis Norton de Matos last season, which makes the decision of the Lajong management even more baffling.
Coach Alison Kharsyntiew must also be held equally accountable for the dismal performance of the Reds. His team has conceded 53 goals in 19 matches and 90 per cent (40) of them have been scored from inside the box.
Usually, when a team is struggling to cope with the quality of other sides the tactician resorts to perfect his defensive organisation and rely on counter attacks for scoring the goals. But Lajong chose to throw caution to the winds and often left themselves wide open at the back. Which naturally led to lopsided scorelines in their opponents' favour.
The quick passing and one-touch football of Lajong is a delight to watch but it requires monumental skill and technique to execute it while under pressure. On many occasions, they have lost possession on crucial areas on the pitch.
Most battles are won and lost in midfield and the absence of a player who can be the anchor at the centre of the park has severely affected their results. Lalrohlua did show promise as a defensive midfielder but the youngster needs a couple of more seasons under his belt to gain the experience that is required to perform at the top level.
Rays of hope
Amidst the debacle of getting relegated with a match in hand, there have been a few players who have looked promising. Mahesh Singh's left-footed piledriver against Aizawl remains one of the top goals this season. With four goals and three assists to his name, the 19-year old has been the best layer in a Lajong shirt this season.
The Manipuri played fearless football and looked to take on defenders in one-on-one situations. With 22 key passes this season, he is second on the list and bettered only by Chennai City FC's Nestor Gordillo (44).
Phrangki Buam is another player who has shone for Lajong. The young lad first came to prominence when he scored a stellar free-kick in the I-League U-18 final against East Bengal. He was promoted to the first team this season and the academy graduate has not disappointed.
He has the ability to make the right decisions and a 79 per cent passing accuracy is a testimony to it. He also has an eye for goals and with four strikes this season, he is the joint top-scorer of Lajong alongside Mahesh. With proper guidance, both the players have the potential to make it big at the domestic level.
As far as Lajong are concerned, the club can definitely claw its way back in the top tier, provided they find the right balance between youth and experience. It is heartening to see that an outfit is promoting young Indian talent but at the same time in a professional set up, it is equally important to ensure that there has to be a balance between development and performance in a professional setup.