Sandesh Jhingan ended a long period of transfer speculation by joining ATK Mohun Bagan on Saturday. We look to understand the reasoning behind the signing, from both the player and the club's perspectives.
How did ATK do defensively last season?
Very well. They conceded just 16 goals in the 18 league games, the second-best record in the division, behind Bengaluru FC's 13. On the face of it, they weren't really crying out for a defender.
Why go for Jhingan, then?
When fit, Jhingan is the best Indian centre-back, a shoo-in for the starting XI and a good leader at the back. This, on an elemental level, works for a central defence that already has a settled Indian presence in Pritam Kotal and Prabir Das. Add Subhashish Bose on the left, and Tiri as the third centre-back alongside Jhingan and that is -- on paper -- the best defensive lineup in the league.
Jhingan's presence also affords Habas the flexibility of fielding an all-Indian defence (Sumit Rathi in place of Tiri) without compromising on experience and leadership -- and throwing all the remainder of the foreigner quotas into attack.
The quota is a key factor here - in the AFC Cup, teams will be allowed to play only three foreigners (+ one Asian), and this rule will be applied domestically in the ISL from the 2021-22 season onwards. Signing Jhingan ensures that Habas does not need to compromise quite as much as he would have had to in attack.
Another factor is the rotating cast Kotal had alongside him in the middle of that defence last season -- in the league stage, ATK played with the same back three only four times out of 18, with Kotal, Agus, and Anas Edathodika. They played a more consistent backline in the playoffs, but by then the names (and playing style of said names) alongside Kotal were completely different -- John Johnson and Sumit Rathi replacing Agus and Anas.
A fully-fit Jhingan (the question of fitness remains the biggest risk for ATK MB) provides solidity, the kind that can make good defences better.
Why is it a good move for Jhingan?
After a full year out of action, having the top clubs in the land line up for a bumper deal would have been a massive confidence boost, and ATK Mohun Bagan seems a fairly good choice. He would enter a team whose defence is already fairly well sorted and play under a manager who has proven defensive acumen. Habas does not demand his centre-backs to play-make out of the back, either, and that plays to Jhingan's strengths.
Plus, he will train with some of the best forwards in the division, a notch or two above the ones that his previous club have had for the past few seasons. As legendary former cricketer and commentator Sunil Gavaskar remarked recently -- you're (usually) only as good as the people you train against.
Finally, the AFC Cup, which ATK MB will play in this season, will also provide for a sterner test for Jhingan than he would have had he chosen a club outside his new employers, Bengaluru FC, or FC Goa. For Jhingan, this is unquestionably an upwards move, and a challenge he would relish.