Former Bengaluru FC (BFC) coach Ashley Westwood has said that Sunil Chhetri was a "luxury No. 10" who had "never been told of his responsibilities" when he first signed for the club in 2013-14. He revealed that Chhetri's fitness levels weren't good enough to start in his first eligible game for the club and he came on only as a substitute.
Speaking on the Injury Time podcast, Westwood felt that when Chhetri came to BFC from Sporting Clube de Portugal B, his physical condition wasn't good enough. "He had 12-14 per cent body fat. He was quite pudgy," said Westwood, who coached the club between 2013 and 2016, leading them to two I-League titles and one Federation Cup victory. "He'd been a footballer who had never been told of his responsibilities, about how hard you have to work and how hard you to defend and you have to be a team player."
Westwood felt Chhetri - whom he called "probably the best Indian footballer there ever will be" - was accustomed to playing as a centre forward in 4-2-3-1, but his own preferred formation was 4-3-3 when he took charge of BFC. This, and Chhetri's fitness right at the start, led to him being benched for the first professional I-League game that BFC played, at home against Mohun Bagan in September 2013.
"He wasn't in the right condition at the start of the season, and so we dropped him. Everybody was amazed, including the owners, because he was our big star and on the bench," said Westwood. "I think it was Malem [Malemngamba] Meitei who played instead of him, who was nowhere near as good as Sunil, but at that stage he had better work rate and he was better for what we were looking for, for a defensive role as well as attacking."
Westwood revealed that Chhetri, who came on as a second-half substitute in that game, wouldn't have started the following game either but for an illness that ruled Meitei out. "He [Chhetri] had a bit of a barren spell, and that was probably because he hadn't played left of a three, and didn't really understand the role too much. We just had regular meetings with him -- what we were looking for, what positions to get into.
"You only have to look at a team like Manchester City, and someone like Raheem Sterling on the left. [Marcus] Rashford for Manchester United on the left-hand side. You can score 15-20 goals from that position, as long as you get taught correctly. It was always emphasised on getting inside the full back when the crosses come in, and he does that a lot now. And the penny clicked with Sunil. His attitude was fantastic. He wanted to achieve," said Westwood.
Chhetri would go on to finish as joint top scorer for the I-League with 14 goals, alongside Cornell Glen of Shillong Lajong and Salgaocar's Darryl Duffy. It was the first time since 1997-98 that an Indian had top scored in the national league, as BFC won the title in their debut season.
"When he finally did score, he never looked back. The rest is down to him. He's very clever, very intelligent and a credit to Indian football," said Westwood. "His application, his attitude, and everything he does off the field. He has gone on to be India's best player ever, and probably best there ever will be.
"It's going to take a lot to knock that off him -- to score the number of goals he has scored for the national team in the amount of games played. Out there, week in, week out, hardly ever gets injured because he looks after himself correctly. He's definitely a role model for every Indian footballer. If everyone in the team had the same attitude as him, India wouldn't be sat at 100 in the world."