Women’s Hockey World Cup 2018: India expose England's defensive vulnerability and porousness in hard-fought draw

Irrespective of what you might feel as an Indian hockey fan after the 1-1 draw against Olympic Champions England, more importantly hosts and No 2 in the world, India did expose their vulnerability and porousness at the back. All stats point towards the home team, but sometimes numbers are not enough to realise the depth of the opposition, in this case, India. They had a bunch of players who could fire from the hip, but after some initial bursts they chose to switch off the safety lock and play a highly defensive game. Tactically it makes sense to defend in numbers against a team which can play some wonderful hockey in the midfield and on the right flank. But what also did India in was the lack of a freewheeling poacher inside the English striking circle waiting for a throughball or an aerial. England relaxed at the back and the possession stats in the 3rd quarter, 63 percent, testify to England’s dominance. It must also be said that India defended cleanly with the mindset of a miser — not a single PC was conceded in that quarter.

In their previous six World Cups, India had won their opening match only once; in Paris 1974 when they beat The Netherlands 1-0. They had also played England once in the opening of the 1998 World Cup, losing by a solitary goal. In fact, playing the Dutch in openers has come to represent somewhat of a hoodoo jinx for India with them having lost four out of their five matches. So taken in perspective, the 1-1 draw against the hosts on Saturday does have a silver lining. It’s only their first draw and for the 2nd time in a World Cup they didn’t lose their opening game. That gives life, massive confidence and a position where the rest of the teams now walk onto the pitch with trepidation.

 Women’s Hockey World Cup 2018: India expose Englands defensive vulnerability and porousness in hard-fought draw

India players celebrate the goal against England. Image courtesy: Twitter @TheHockeyIndia

However, it seemed England had come in with an aggressive intent when they attacked from the right flank inside of a minute and won their 1st PC. India defended well, covering the angles, the runners fast, hustling both Giselle Ansley and Grace Balsdown. Indian goalkeeper Savita Punia used the pads to good effect, thrice lying down sideways using the pads and her body to block the height and angle. It was surprising that England hardly used the high flick. A lot of credit to the Indian runners who didn’t give them space to get into position for a high flick. When once they did try the indirect, Savita Punia saw it early and closed the angle to the post.

Good defending leads to counter-attacks and the best ones usually slice through the middle. The more you pull to the left and right flanks, that extra second gives the defence the much needed second or two to come back. India had two splendid opportunities in the 1st quarter – Navjot Kaur, Lalremsiami and then Nikki Pradhan blew chances which either was not trapped well or the push was too weak. For a team that is ranked eight spots below the opposition, some players need to be told to never look a gift horse in the mouth.

The first quarter ended with England having more than 60 percent possession and two PCs blown away. India may not have had domination but they had counters and an equal number of chances in the English striking circle. They also walked off knowing a drawn 1st quarter was a credit to them. In front of their fans, England needed early goals to show their ascendancy; but now their confidence, if not dented, was definitely shaken.

Deepika led in the 2nd quarter with a few forays and dribbles that showcased confidence and also pushed the English back on the left flank. Alex Danson was creating trouble with her pacy runs and silken skills, the swish cutting past three or even four defender sticks. But India hung on with some highly structured defending. They didn’t lose formation even when rattled with three PCs. With five PCs blown up in smoke, forwards unable to break through, England was losing out on ideas. India was playing and enjoying themselves. Errors were there in the midfield but elsewhere they played tight and compact hockey. The goal came in the 25th minute. England was sloppy. India played on that fact and when Nikki Pradhan hit the ball into the circle, it went of a defenders knee, rose but not dangerously, reached Navjot who tapped it inwards towards Lalremsiami but the ball evaded sticks, feet and reached Neha Goyal whose push beat the England goalkeeper Maddie Hinch. For the Sonepat girl, there couldn’t have been a more joyous occasion; the first match of a World Cup and scoring against the Olympic Champion.

The 3rd quarter should have seen England going all out. But they gave away too much by constantly attacking from the right — more than 60 percent of their moves coming from there. There was no sudden switch of flanks either. For India it became slightly easy to contain them. The Indian defence let them in as they used space and time and then plucked the ball away to safety. It was also the quarter where Susannah Townsend gave full rein to her sublime skills that made her such an integral part of the gold medal winning 2016 Rio Olympics team. Time and again, she did switch positions but Sunita Lakra, Deepika, Deep Ekka and Gurjit Kaur didn’t lose their structure. Townsend, unable to break through, sent the ball back to the top of the striking circle. England were getting frustrated. India knew what to do. Sophie Bray had a lovely ball cut in by Townsend but the connect wasn’t top class.

England had 63 percent possession but no PCs and goals. After the match, England coach David Ralph, said, “India were playing negative.” On the other hand, Kate Richardson, 2016 Olympic gold medallist and now analyst after a playing career with over 370 caps, gave credit where it’s due, saying: “India deserved the draw because they used the defensive tactics brilliantly and kept the English away.”

The 4th quarter was the most open. The game moved back to the midfield and the Indian defence, under the siege so far in the game, did breathe a bit. It was in this quarter that India should have used the high ball. After England’s 6th and 7th PCs, the England coach pulled off the goalkeeper Hinch and used a kicking back. There was a window of a few minutes where India could have seized the initiative but they still packed the midfield instead of stretching it. Lalremsiami’s speed, Rani Rampal’s vision and Vandana Katariya’s stick work could have been used on counters to get a second goal. In fact, a few minutes before Hinch was pulled off, Lalremsiami had a chance but the deflection, though well taken, whizzed wide off the post.

And then just after the 9th PC, Deepika committed an error. Deepika, still with the face guard on, had the ball and the opportunity to clear, but the back lift was too much in her effort to smash the ball away. England snatched away the ball and Lily Owsley scored the equaliser. At 1-1, the match had been reignited.

Both the teams now didn’t want to stretch their resources. India were looking at taking home a point and England didn’t want to give India another chance. Indian coach Sjoerd Marijne said the English goal came off an error and that the player concerned (Deepika) was in tears. “But I am happy that the team wants more than this,” said a delighted Marijne.

If there are any regrets in the Indian camp after the draw, it would be that they couldn’t create any PCs. But while playing defensive structures, it’s only counters that India could rely on. With less forwards up front, no goalmouth melees, PCs would always be a rarity.

Before the World Cup, goalkeeper Savita Punia had said she would want to correct the errors of Rio Olympics and the mistakes of the CWG bronze medal match against England. She did more than that, making at least six match-defining saves. Only in the next two matches against Ireland and USA would we know if the Indian women can build on the draw against England and redefine their previous lacklustre World Cup campaigns.

Updated Date: Jul 22, 2018 12:18:07 IST