FIH Pro League: France expose old weaknesses in Indian hockey

In the space of 20 seconds during the break between the third and fourth quarters against France, Gregg Clark used the word “patience” four times in his address to the players. At first, it was directed against drag-flickers Harmanpreet Singh and Jugraj Singh, who were repeatedly thwarted by French defenders. As the huddle broke up and the team dispersed, Clark, in a stern but calm tone, passed on the same instruction to all the players.

As India’s former junior head coach when managed by Manpreet Singh, Clark – now assistant coach of the senior team managed by Manpreet – is aware of the mindset of the players. And he knows that old habits die hard.

Indian hockey has made leaps and bounds between 2013, when Clark coached the junior team, and now. But a few aspects have remained constant – inconsistency and impatience, especially when playing against teams that maintain proper structure and discipline, as France did in the FIH Pro League game.

India played France twice last week, in addition to playing South Africa twice, at Potchefstroom. They won the first match 5–0 although, as head coach Graham Reid later pointed out, that result came against a team that had landed in South Africa just 48 hours before the game. Saturday’s 5-2 loss, however, gave much more insight into the team looking to build on their bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics.

France, in recent years, has continued to punch above its weight. The 2-2 draw against the Netherlands, who are going through a reconstruction phase, underlined their status as a rising team in world hockey. Yet, they weren’t expected to demolish India like they did last Saturday.

It was the second time in recent games that India conceded five goals against a lower-ranked team; in December, Japan stunned India 5-2 in the Asian Champions Trophy semi-final. In those two defeats, there was a trend.

Turnover issues

Reid, in his brief analysis of the loss to France, said he hoped the team would start a game well and be the first to touch the ball. “It’s a matter of focus and commitment,” he said. During the Asian Champions Trophy, he urged the players to “wake up” as his side were crushed by Japan.

France were aggressive in regaining possession and kept the intensity high on turnovers, opening up the Indian defense with their speed and precise passing. It’s ironic, considering India are known as a mainly counter-attacking team and have used the speed of their movement and passing to open up their defences.

Japan troubled India in the same way, pointing out the fragility of the midfield and the weakness of the defense against counterattacks.

Prodigality in attack

With two French goals coming late in the game, when India had committed plenty of men up front, Reid’s biggest concern would be profligacy inside the attacking third. “We created opportunities, the big word was execution,” admitted Reid.

India entered France’s circle once almost every two minutes but could only find the back of the net twice. Often the final pass was missing and although the forwards, when pushed back from goal, were able to find a foot inside the ‘D’ and earn a penalty corner, the drag-flickers were ineffective because of their a dimensional approach.

Harmanpreet’s drag flicks are often unstoppable and newcomer Jugraj Singh also showed his power with a hat-trick against South Africa. But faced with fast first-rushers ready to throw their bodies into the line of the ball, like Victor Charlet, their angles were quickly closed, rendering the attempts ineffective.

inconsistent, impatient

Unable to get past a solid French defense and with their most powerful weapon, drag-flicks, misfires, the players were left frustrated. And even though Clark urged them to remain patient, the players lost the plot and the match.

Both matches against France captured India’s inconsistency. In the two matches, India netted the French ‘D’ 35 times each. But in one game they scored five while in the other they conceded five.

Such inconsistency was the hallmark of Indian hockey until very recently. Reid had instilled a sense of stability and calm in the team, which was one of the main reasons they finished on the podium in Tokyo.

That calmness was missing in the second game against France and in Sunday’s match against South Africa, when the hosts were able to retain possession and create scoring chances. India looked rushed and tried to force the exit, especially in the final third, which led to mistakes.

Reid will have around 10 days with the team before India play eight home matches – two against Spain, Germany, Argentina and England – in consecutive weekends. And his message will likely be similar to Clark’s instructions during the break shift: stay patient.

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