It’s tricky to read a lot into the Pro League results this season, given that almost all teams are in an experimental mode, but India coach Graham Reid must have a lot going on in his mind.
His team isn’t able to hold possession in an assured manner, lack composure inside the attacking third, seem too one-dimensional in penalty corner situations, are often second to react to loose balls and, as a consequence of all these factors, aren’t able to get results they desire. Saturday’s 1-3 tie-breaker defeat to an under-strength Argentina, after the game ended 2-2 at the end of the regulation time, once again exposed these frailties, which are forming into a habit.
For the first time in two years, India lost back-to-back matches at home, having been defeated by Spain earlier this month. More than the end results, what will hurt India more is the manner in which they have been losing. Taking any recent Indian performance – be it the tie-breaker defeat to Argentina on Saturday, the loss to Spain earlier this month, France before that or Japan in the Asian Champions Trophy – they all seem to fit a pattern.
Reid, it appears, is preparing the team with the bigger picture in mind – the Asian Games this year, where a Paris Olympics berth is at stake, and the World Cup at home next January. This is evident from the way he is lining up the team and rotating the squad, giving a chance to newcomers and those who have been on the fringes for long.
Sneak peek from the FIH Hockey Pro League 2021/2022 match between the Indian Men's Hockey team and Argentina on 19 March at Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar.#IndiaKaGame #HockeyIndia #FIHProLeague #hockeyatitsbest @CMO_Odisha @sports_odisha @IndiaSports @Media_SAI pic.twitter.com/b4wEqGQGVB
— Hockey India (@TheHockeyIndia) March 19, 2022
The Australian hasn’t even shied away from tinkering with the leadership group – handing over the captain’s armband to defender Amit Rohidas and making forward Mandeep Singh – whose last-minute equaliser forced a tie-breaker – his deputy. There is no suggestion so far that Rohidas will permanently replace Manpreet Singh – who started on the wings on Saturday, instead of his preferred centre-half position – as the captain.
Hockey India has kept Reid away from media interactions, so it’s tough to understand the coach’s rationale behind some of these decisions. One thing, however, is clear – this Indian outfit looks a pale shadow of the one that finished on the podium at the Tokyo Olympics.
It isn’t all gloomy. The high number of circle penetrations in every match – India entered Argentina’s ‘D’ 32 times in 60 minutes on Saturday – shows the ability to attack relentlessly. For the second game running, young forward Sukhjeet Singh impressed with his dribbling abilities and Shilanand Lakra continues to impress, but the young forward line still needs to work on its positioning and communication. On Saturday, forward Gurjant Singh – playing his first match after the Olympics – provided some teeth to the attack, scoring a typical poacher’s goal.
But overall, India were pretty wasteful in the final third.
More than the field goal conversion ratio, India will be concerned about the comfort with which Argentina blunted the efforts from penalty corners. India earned five PCs, with Harmanpreet Singh taking a bulk of them, but the team very rarely opts for a variation, allowing the rushers to close down the drag-flicker’s angles.
It is natural for a team that is so committed to attacking to be left exposed at the back, but India’s defensive woes aren’t just about that. While it can still be argued that the profligacy in the attacking third is due to inexperienced attackers, there can be no such excuses for defence, which has more or less remained stable with regulars Varun Kumar, Surender Kumar – who played his 150th international on Saturday – Rohidas and Harmanpreet routinely starting matches.
Yet, the team has conceded uncharacteristic goals – some very soft. The midfield has been notoriously inconsistent as well, putting pressure on the backline.
The inconsistent nature of the Indian team means when they face Argentina again on Sunday, they could put on a near-perfect performance. But Reid will unlikely be swayed by that performance as well. It might be tricky to read into Pro League results, but the Indian team has its hands full.
Subscriber Only Stories
Playing tonight: India vs Argentina, 7.30pm, Live on Star Sports Network
Serie A: AC Milan win 1-0 at Cagliari to maintain A lead