Champions Trophy Hockey 2018: Coach Harendra Singh's tactics in focus as PR Sreejesh-led India hope to improve dismal record
In 15 attempts, India have two medals, silver (2016) and a bronze (1982). For coach Harendra Singh, the six matches in Breda are all about matching expectations in a year when hope and expectancy from the team are extremely high.
Getting off the block for the Champions Trophy, the 37th edition and India’s 16th, the team and its newly-appointed hockey coach Harendra Singh would be hoping the display is not akin to a lit matchstick thrown across a dark room. Rather at the Hockey Club BH & BC, India would be wishing to light up the Champions Trophy — in its last edition — with some exemplary display that not only brings back the verve and confidence, but also clearly defines the path for the remaining two big-ticket tournaments — Asian Games and the 2018 World Cup.
It couldn’t have been a better setting for the Champions Trophy. Breda, a small town of just under two lakh inhabitants breathes history with its stunning castles and even a well-preserved 18th century city hall and a Church of our Lady in Gothic style. India, in contrast, have been struggling to preserve its history in the sport that once made them Olympic giants. In desperation to try and speed up a process of once again being counted among the top teams, over the years, a menu prepared by different chefs has led to calamitous results. There have been positive outcomes too, such as the 2016 Champions Trophy in London when India reached the final, their first ever in 15 attempts. London gave a glimpse of attacking, aggressive but fluid and graceful hockey. But such displays are like rain in the Atacama Desert.
Even though the Champions Trophy is a stop on the journey to the Asian Games and World Cup, the importance of the tournament is not lost on Harendra. In 15 attempts, India have two medals, silver (2016) and a bronze (1982). Compare it to Australia’s 14 gold, 10 silver and 5 bronze in 35 appearances!
“It’s not fair to compare at the moment,” Harendra said. “For us, this year is about reaching the podium and the journey begins at Breda. I have not come here to make up the numbers. Yes, most teams will be experimenting, working out combinations but to stand on the podium is also giving the team that boost which should help later in the year.”
Whatever plots and sub-plots that Harendra would have built for the Champions would have been slightly upset by the late injuries to Akashdeep and Sumit Kumar. That the team decided to rest Akashdeep, a vital cog in India’s aspirations, also gives credence to the belief that winning the Asian Games is crucial; qualifying for the 2020 Olympics top priority.
"We will rest Akashdeep who has an injury scare but though he has recovered, we did not want to risk him ahead of the Asian Games,” said Harendra.
With three players holding the experience of 200 internationals — Manpreet Singh (216), Sardar Singh (298) and SV Sunil (234) — there is well-acquired knowledge in the ranks to hold this Indian team together in attack, midfield and defence. It is in the processes and tactical play that Harendra would be scrutinised. Coming on the heels of the fourth-place show at the Commonwealth Games, it is not only the players, but how Harendra copes with top-level international hockey that would define the way forward.
Harendra will be under pressure, but it’s time the players soak that in and ensure they give their hundred percent as results are equally important than just the dominant statistical bit of ‘shots on goal’. Even after Sjoerd Marijne was removed after the Gold Coast debacle, there were murmurs of players not building momentum together or acknowledging that it’s not just up to the coach to turn around results.
Manpreet Singh, who lost his captaincy after the CWG, does surprisingly say that change in the coach’s structure doesn’t affect the players.
“It doesn’t matter, if the coach gets changed because the players' main focus is on the ground. We have to perform well. We take lessons from every coach. Personally, I don’t feel anything if a coach gets changed.” With 34 coach substitutions since 1980, it is understandably difficult to be emotional about it.
On the tactical bits employed by Harendra in the training sessions, Manpreet said, “Harendra sir’s philosophy is to give less of a chance to the opponent. It will be best for the team if a man-to-man defence is employed. We are also focusing on attack. Our performance was not good at the Commonwealth Games. We are also focusing on scoring otherwise; we will try and make penalty corners for the team.”
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp once said, “The best moment to win the ball is immediately after your team just lost it. The opponent is still looking for orientation where to pass the ball. He will have taken his eyes off the game to make his tackle or interception and he will have expended energy. Both make him vulnerable.”
Harendra believes in Klopp’s theory. “Disruption yields results,” says Harendra. “And the switching of momentum throws the other team off balance. There is a lot we learn from football and other sport. Look up, I tell the midfielders when you have space in front, make the pass count. Don’t waste the moment.”
India have played 85 matches in the Champions Trophy, winning 25 and losing 48. For these stats to change, India needs to win more matches at Breda starting with the one against Pakistan and then Olympic champions Argentina, World Champions Australia, Olympic silver medallists Belgium and hosts The Netherlands. There are no easy games for the Indians, and Manpreet insists the team is looking forward to it. “There is no pressure on me or the players. We enjoy every challenge. And at the Champion’s Trophy, the top six teams are there. This will be one of the good tournaments. We are going to enjoy ourselves.”
India have a potentially podium-finishing team that plays with style, offensive manoeuvres, good defensive structure and some solid goalkeeping at the back. One may say that penalty corners need to be improved and with Rupinder Pal Singh being dropped, the PC cupboard may look slightly bare. Yet the team believes that they have Harmanpreet Singh, Varun Kumar and Amit Rohidas, the last two being part of the team that Harendra coached to gold at the 2016 Junior World Cup. But it’s the midfield that will be the soul of the team with Manpreet Singh, Sardar Singh, Vivek Prasad and a constantly overlapping Chinglensana. There is solidity in the defensive lines with the comeback of Birendra Lakra and Surendra Kumar.
Jarmanpreet Singh makes his debut and reports suggest he is a player making his way up from the domestic circuit. Eyes will be on Dilpreet Singh too, the young forward who has always impressed and also on how Mandeep Singh converts the chances with Ramandeep Singh hoping to prove to his detractors that dropping him from the CWG was a rash decision.
The Champions Trophy will also see deep defenders converting themselves into midfield players. With movement so fast now and rapid pressing happening from the midfield, seeing Lakra moving forward from the right and transforming himself into an attacking winger, for example, will be a sight. Or for that matter, Harmanpreet Singh, like he did at the Rio Olympics, constantly using his skills to dodge, dribble and move into the opponents half. With Lalit Upadhyay coming into the team as Sumit was injured, Harendra will have an extra option even though in the original selection, Lalit was not the automatic choice. But the man’s finesse, dexterity and the craft that he employs could be a surprise against teams like Pakistan, Belgium and Argentina. Harendra, of course, would keep an eye on Lalit’s, at times, over-emphasizing the dribble.
Sardar’s comeback into the team after missing the Hockey World League Semi-finals, the Four-Nation Tour to New Zealand and the CWG also gives options in the midfield and defence. His subtle skills and vision when releasing the ball makes him a better free-man or a midfielder, the perfect foil to a younger Manpreet and a mentor to the precociously talented 18-year-old Vivek Prasad. Sardar also plays his 300th match against Argentina on 24 June, an opportunity for the former Indian captain to make his presence and try and claim a place for the year-ending World Cup.
For India, the six matches in Breda are all about matching expectations in a year when hope and expectancy from the team are extremely high. More than just pointing fingers to a bewildered past, it’s time for the players to build off each other, seamlessly melting the three zones of attack, midfield and defence into one singular unit. Call it what you may, India’s presence at Breda is a redemption mission.
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