To paraphrase a quote from one of my favourite films, the greatest trick a goalkeeper can pull is in convincing the world that he doesn't exist.
Now, you wouldn't necessarily say that Arindam Bhattacharya in the ATK Mohun Bagan goal is a figure easy to miss -- his hairline, receding rapidly for someone just 31, together with his mirthless expression, often give one the impression of an irritated customer held up at a bank because of lunch hour. But be honest... how many top saves by Bhattacharya do you typically remember in a season? And when you type in the words "Indian Super League top saves" on to a search bar how much more likely are you to see images of Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, Amrinder Singh, Vishal Kaith and perhaps even TP Rehenesh, Albino Gomes and Arshdeep Singh flash by?
Yet, Bhattacharya has 19 clean sheets across the last two ISL seasons, four more than nearest competitor Sandhu, and will have an opportunity to claim an 11th for this season on Sunday against Mumbai City FC. It will be the last league match of this pandemic-affected season, where rest between games has been scarce for teams. The equation is a simple one -- Sergio Lobera's Mumbai City simply have to win to pick up the league stage shield ahead of ATKMB. They have a sizzling star cast of attacking players.
The man standing in their way is Bhattacharya.
The teenage prodigy who faded away
It's been a decade and a half since a teenaged Bhattacharya first made news in Indian football, his height and temperament during the Subroto Cup matches in Delhi impressing coaches enough to earn him a place at Tata Football Academy (TFA) and a stint with the India Under-19 team soon after. It was an era in Indian football where Sandip Nandy was gradually giving his first team place away to a precocious Subrata Pal, and in Bhattacharya and Subhasish Roy Chowdhury, India appeared to have a talented second line.
Bhattacharya would have hoped his playing a key role in Churchill Brothers winning their first I-League in 2009 would have tilted the national team scales in his favour, but not long after, came an upstart from the north in the shape of Sandhu, setting Bhattacharya back by a few years after four appearances for India in 2008. The task has gotten tougher in subsequent years, as first Amrinder and then Kaith established themselves as top goalkeepers. Bhattacharya's cause wasn't helped by his constant chopping and changing of teams, especially in the I-League, where he went back to Churchill from Mohun Bagan, before spells at Bharat FC, Sporting Clube de Goa and even Bengaluru FC. His early years at ISL were forgettable too, rarely getting a start at FC Pune City and then Mumbai City FC.
The second coming
For a man who is 6'2", Bhattacharya is remarkably light on his feet. That in itself is not a major surprise for a goalkeeper, but when you ally that with a great sense of positioning, and a natural ability to guard the lower portions around his posts, you know why ATKMB continue to remain the stingiest defence in the league.
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This season, their 13 goals are the fewest conceded of any team, the next on the list, Mumbai, have conceded five more. Every team this season has suffered at least one poor defensive performance through the season, but ATKMB have conceded more than one goal in just four matches. Even in those four games, one was drawn 2-2 and they beat Kerala Blasters 3-2 in another.
A goalkeeper who has evolved with the times
Indian goalkeepers have always had the reputation of being excellent shot-stoppers, but it is only recently, with Sandhu's emergence, that distribution and collection off dead balls are also becoming valuable prerequisites for those gunning for the national team spot. Bhattacharya has played every minute of all ATKMB games this season, yet is quite low on the list of saves. Despite the low save numbers, his save percentage is just shy of 80 percent, with an average of 22 touches per game, passing at an accuracy of 47 percent.
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Like with all goalkeepers, that points to someone at the top of his game as he ticks over into his 30s. Bhattacharya won't often be seen pulling off breathtaking saves, or charging off his line to beat the opposition attacker to a through ball. One yellow card all season also indicates he's not much for time-wasting, as a team with Habas' 1-0 win template could be forgiven for leaning back on.
So the question now is -- is Bhattacharya in a discussion for being the best in the country at the moment? And if ATKMB do one better than Habas' ATK last year and ensure AFC Champions League football for themselves next year, will it be time for us to give the overlooked man in goal his due?