The only certainty to emerge from India’s group stage performance is that Roelant Oltmans was not the problem. It was a forced change, one that wrecked the house which only needed some minor repairs. This isn’t to suggest Oltmans’s successor, Sjoerd Marijne, is unfit for the job. It’ll be unfair to judge him after just three matches against the world’s best. In fact, no coach in the world will be able to do anything with a team that cannot pass or trap.
The Asian champions wanted a reality check in the World League Final. And they’ve got one. The gap between India and the world’s best is terrifying. And it is scarier when you think that in the group stages, most teams weren’t even playing at their full potential while India appeared to be the only team going all out. Some were conserving energy for the more meaningful knockout stage, a few others testing combinations for next year’s World Cup.
Yet, the hosts have been humiliated. There’s a risk they might be embarrassed further by the rampaging Belgians in the quarterfinals on Wednesday. Marijne calls them a ‘great opponent’ and a ‘very strong team.’ But there’s ‘belief’ in the team that they can beat them.
But it was tough to see how. With three wins out of three, Belgium have looked unstoppable. India, meanwhile, enter the last 8 on the back of two of their worst performances in recent times. A closer look at how India fared in the early stages of the tournament:
Skills: You cannot fault Marijne’s philosophy. It isn’t too demanding for a coach to expect his players to control the ball first time and play a pass that reaches its intended target. For most teams here, it’s a simple two-touch process in which they trap with the first and release with the other.
For one month, Marijne has been trying to get India play that way. To the players’ credit, they did just that against world champions Australia. Deservedly, they managed a draw – just the second in nearly four years.
Then, something snapped, and India have not been the same since. Against England (2-3) and Germany (0-2), the players have shown how awfully inept they are. They have taken at least two touches to control the ball, giving the opponents a chance to put pressure on them. Consequently, they have always been rushed into their passes, which have been off target.
Harmanpreet Singh and Rupinder Pal Singh’s long cross-field balls have lacked sting while the balls from midfield too have been intercepted easily. It’s resulted in a high turnover rate. For a team that usually likes keeping possession, the players have just been chasing shadows without it.
Pace and structure
The missed passes have broken the rhythm of the attacks. India are a counter-attacking side and very dangerous at it too. But they seemed to have been sorted out by their opponents. Germany, for instance, did not give India even one chance to launch a counter-attack. On the odd occasions when India forayed into the rival half, it was packed with so many Germans that it became tough to run past them or even find space to pass the ball. Eventually, they had to retreat to their own half.
The Olympic bronze medallists, on the other hand, rotated the ball among themselves so effectively that India never had the possession to catch them on the break. India did a lot of off-the-ball running, which left the players drained. Consequently, they lost their structure, an aspect that Oltmans had drilled into the squad.
So exhausted were India after the 60 minutes against Germany, according to some, that they were given a break from training on Tuesday and given time to recover for Wednesday’s quarterfinal.
Despite playing one of their worst matches in recent times, India created two chances against Germany and there were three half-chances. But as was the case in previous matches, India have been wasteful up front.
On paper, India had more shots than Germany, but they either sprayed wide or were too feeble to trouble the ‘keeper. In the previous games, too, the strikers – Akashdeep Singh and Mandeep Singh especially – missed sitters, which eventually cost India three points against Australia and at least a point against England.
The lack of variations from penalty corners, too, is a concern. India have preferred the direct route, with either Rupinder or Harmanpreet going for the flick. While they have been successful against lesser opponents, they have found it increasingly tough to score from corners against the top teams, who are good at rushing and closing down the angles.
The corners have been too one-dimensional and predictable.
Most of all, though, this team has lacked in confidence. You can feel it during training as well, where the players have not looked sure of themselves. The players have been making the same errors that they’ve made in matches. Before it was cancelled, Marijne demanded a closed-door session on Tuesday to keep them away from the media glare.
The lack of confidence is visible during the matches as well. Birendra Lakra, one of the calmest persons on field, has looked jittery. His two errors resulted in two goals against Germany.
His state-mate Dipsan Tirkey, playing his first major tournament at the senior level, has looked overawed by the occasion. That Manpreet has had to fall back from midfield to take the ball from him, instead of waiting for the pass forward, shows how low the trust factor is. Up front, the striker’s have lacked conviction while attempting goals.
Marijne is a trained motivational speaker. How well he inspires his boys for Wednesday’s match against Belgium will go a long way in determining whether India progress in the tournament or will be fighting to avoid the wooden spoon.