Champions Trophy Hockey: Five takeaways from India's silver-medal winning performance
The Indian men’s hockey team created history on Friday by winning the silver medal at the 2016 FIH Champions Trophy. Here are the biggest takeaways from the series.
The Indian men’s hockey team created history on Friday by winning the silver medal at the 2016 FIH Champions Trophy held in London. This was India's first medal at the prestigious tournament since the bronze in 1982 as well as their best finish in any major tournament since the gold medal at the Olympics back in 1980.
Coach Roelant Oltmans’ side's brilliant display of both measured and attacking hockey throughout the week has has certainly raised Olympic medal-winning hopes back home. While India’s campaign was decorated with tremendous individual performers – SV Sunil, Harmanpreet Singh, PR Sreejesh, Manpreet Singh to name a few – all of them were overshadowed by the collective.
Keeping that in mind, here are five takeaways from India’s performance.
Performing without key seniors
If the events in London are anything to go by, this Indian team remains a formidable unit, even without its skipper and main man Sardar Singh. That’s refreshing to learn. Over the past few years, the team had been heavily dependent on senior individuals like Sardar and Sandeep Singh. In a way, the Champions Trophy saw the emergence of a new India, with emphasis on team over individuals (although the over-reliance on goalkeeper PR Sreejesh continues to exist).
Sardar, the skipper of the team, and Rupinder Pal Singh, a drag-flicker, were among the regulars who were rested for the tournament with a view towards the Olympics. Birendra Lakra, a major defensive stalwart, has been out with injury since February. But India rarely felt their absence, with the likes of Sunil, Manpreet and youngsters Harmanpreet and Mandeep Singh stepping up to the plate. The squad will only be stronger in Rio, as will likely be the case with all other teams.
Solid defensive structure
India’s traditional strength lies in defending relatively deep and hitting the opponents via swift counter-attacks. During the tournament, the team displayed a largely solid and impressive defensive structure, impressing experts and opposition coaches. It was characterised by tight marking at the back and pressure from forwards upfront who diligently closed down spaces.
Consistency, though, remains elusive. A good defensive performance, such as the one in the 3-3 draw versus Germany or another in the 1-2 defeat to Belgium, was often let down by individual errors and cheaply conceded goals. Against the top teams, unless you’re hogging possession, you’re likely to concede several shots on goal and penalty corners. And the ability to defend these shots, often control your destiny.
In this regard at least, India has the comfort of Sreejesh, one of the game’s best shot stoppers, in the goal. It’s a tag he justified with an incredible performance in the final against Australia, thwarting the world champions over and over again. India were ranked third, behind Australia and Great Britain, in denying teams from penalty corners – opponents had a mere 13 percent conversion rate against Sreejesh and Co.
Resilience and character
The Champions Trophy performance also showed how the mental side of India’s game has improved by leaps and bounds. It ended with a stunning and unexpected dominance of Australia, a team for which India had become cannon fodder over the last decade, and came only a day after suffering a comprehensive 2-4 defeat at the hands of the same opponent.
Even in that earlier loss, when India were abysmal in the first half – which Oltmans called their worst display in two years – they did not fall apart. A few months ago, India may have capitulated and ended up with a six-nil, or worse, defeat. But on this occasion, the players regrouped, made a fist of things and narrowed the margin of defeat. Those second-half goals proved to be decisive too as they left Belgium with an uphill task to qualify for the final.
Against Great Britain, India held firm in the face of immense pressure to protect a 2-1 lead. Against South Korea, the team showed maturity in sticking to its game plan before finally breaking the opposition down in the third quarter. When the Koreans equalised against the run of play with only four minutes left on the clock, India did not panic. Instead, the team responded with a goal of its own a few seconds later to seal an important win.
India conceded the most number of penalty corners – 39, same as Great Britain. There is no doubt that coach Oltmans will pay special attention to this figure. It’s a troubling statistic for a team currently thriving on its defensive structure.
Soft fouls and careless errors lie at the heart of this concern. In two of India’s opening three matches, the team conceded soft and avoidable penalty corners within only 90 seconds of the push back and were immediately on the back foot. In the first match against Germany, for instance, when the team was 3-1 up, silly fouls by midfielders Manpreet Singh and Harjeet Singh gifted the Germans the penalty corners from which they earned a 3-3 draw.
If you put aside the match against Korea, the only team ranked lower than India in the competition, India conceded an average of nearly eight penalty corners per match while it earned a little over three per game – a difference Oltmans would want to reduce before Rio.
It was heartening to see India finish matches on a strong note. In the past, the Indian players wouldn’t always be able to cope with the fitness levels of higher-ranked opponents. They would tire and gradually fade away by the fourth quarter. In London, however, the final two quarters proved to be the most productive. Most notably, India finished on the front foot against the Aussies twice, who in the past have edged ahead in the first half of matches against India before running away with big-margin wins in the latter half.
This is backed up by numbers. On virtually all major statistical parameters, i.e. possession, shots on goal, penalty corners, circle entries and goals, India’s best figures – both offensively and defensively – were achieved either in the third or the fourth quarter.
It certainly helps that before taking over as the coach of the national team last year, Oltmans was the team’s High Performance Director for two years, specialising in planning the calendar and training programmes of junior and senior teams. In SV Sunil’s recent column for Sports Illustrated India, the forward mentioned how the fitness levels of players “are constantly monitored to ensure we are peaking at the right time”. He also revealed that during their off-time, players monitor their fitness and form based on charts which are especially prepared for them. It certainly appears to be paying off for the team at the moment.
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