Let me list out a few names for you.
Akash Mishra and Aniket Jadhav.
Ashish Rai/Nim Dorjee and Rohit Danu/Yasir Shah.
Puitea and Jeakson Singh/Ayush Adhikari.
What do you think connects them? Young Indian footballers in this season's Indian Super League (ISL) final, yes, but apart from that? They play in different positions. The first six play for Hyderabad FC, the last three for the Kerala Blasters. So on the face of it, there's nothing more. Look a bit deeper, though, and you'll find the one thing that binds them together, that makes them special... Trust.
For years, these positions have often been filled with foreigners, whom most managers (all foreigners themselves) seem to trust exponentially more. The (unsaid) rules were simple. If your play flows through the wings, get a foreign winger. If that's not possible, shift play centrally, and use the wings as a peripheral weapon. A distraction even, if you're being unkind. It's even rarer to see a central midfield of two Indian players, especially ones so young, play through the season - and then play their team into the final.
There's a good reason for this, of course. The ISL is one of the most sack-happy leagues on the planet. There were six new managers in charge this season (out of eleven) and all but one of them had come in because of perceived poor performances from their predecessor (Sergio Lobera won the league and cup double and then was shifted onward in the mammoth City Football Group chain). Four managers were then sacked mid-season, and we're still only talking about 2021-22. Despite the incredible safety of non-relegation (for now), managerial attrition is terribly high, general patience levels of team managements nowhere near. This makes trusting young, untested Indians a hard business decision.
And yet, we have Ivan Vukomanovic and Manolo Marquez placing their trust in their Indian youngsters. To appreciate just how much trust is involved, we must first understand how these two teams play.
Manolo Marquez's expansive Indian recipe
Hyderabad heavily depends on their wings. While the midfield is controlled by Joao Victor and Souvik Chakraborty (or Hitesh Sharma) and the goals are scored by Bart Ogbeche (so, so many goals), open play chance creation is almost the exclusive domain of the flanks.
Very often, the set-pieces that Hyderabad have capitalised on this season are created by good work down the flanks. Akash Mishra and Aniket Jadhav are the best fullback-winger combination in the country. Both are direct runners (top 2 in most successful dribbles per game in the club) and equally confident cutting in or hugging the touchline. This makes them extremely hard to stop - you're never quite sure who's going to go which way, and you're never quite sure which one of them is going to deliver the final ball, or take the shot.
The not-so-young Nikhil Poojary is a good stand-in, and the dip in quality (and chemistry) is only marginal when it's him on the left. On the opposite flank, Ashish Rai, right back, is the side's top big chance creator (hello, Trent Alexander-Arnold). He compliments both Rohit Danu and Mohamad Yasir to the T since the two wingers love to cut inside and go at goal while Rai's immense engine makes him the best (and most reliable) overlapper in the league. He's also the league's third-most prolific tackler.
In Rai's absence (he always seems to unfortunately miss the business end of seasons), Nim Dorjee has performed superbly. A slightly less aggressive presence, his solidity is maximised by Yasir's ever-evolving flexibility and improving consistency in front of him. Mishra compensates for Nim's reduced attacking threat by bombing forward down the left even more.
Calling them crucial isn't just a romanticised reading of the situation, the impact of these players is tangible; Mishra, Jadhav, Rai and Yasir are all tied for most assists for the club this season (3).
Vukomanovic's Indian spine
While Hyderabad play wings and employ fullbacks in a modern, pivotal role, the Blasters are a gegenpressing unit that seems to have modelled itself on the traditional Ralf Rangnick 4-2-2-2. This involves two roving strikers ahead of two wide playmakers ahead of the hardest working pair of central midfielders.
That 4-2-2-2 very often morphs into a 4-2-4 in possession, exponentially increasing the load in the middle. When the first high press fails, if the midfield duo cannot contain the opposition long enough for the forwards to fall back in place, the team can get easily overrun. Manning those two positions - Jeakson Singh (he of India's-first-goal-in-a-World-Cup-of-any-kind fame) and Puitea (Lalthathanga Khawlhring). On occasions when one of the two is missing, injured, or needs replacing (to maintain the taxing energy levels their coach demands), Ayush Adhikari steps in. Puitea and Jeakson are top two for the club in terms of successful tackles made per game. Only Adrian Luna and Marko Leskovic have made more passes than them, only those two and Harmanjot Khabra have had more touches of the ball for the club all season.
This is a midfield engine room that destroys and simultaneously creates the platform for the flair players ahead of them by doing the simple things right. Their passing is progressive and rarely boring, while they let their opponents know they are around, and then some.
The ISL's trust in its Indians is paying off
Ultimately, this belief in Hyderabad's chance-creating youngsters on the wings and the Blasters' stabilising midfield is quite pivotal. It means more. Of course, this must be read in the backdrop of the 4 foreigners-only rule, but it does show managements are becoming more patient, and managers who put their trust in young Indians can be rewarded for it.
Interestingly, fellow semifinalists' ATK Mohun Bagan's best player all season, amongst all their galacticos, was Liston Colaco. Oh, and Jamshedpur's league shield winning midfield? Pranoy Halder and Jitendra Singh.
Trust. And ye shall receive.