Soon after taking over, India’s Dutch coach Sjoerd Marijne had threatened to bench players who took more than two seconds to release the ball. If he was stern and had done what he’d said, he would perhaps be left with no one but the goalkeeper on field against Germany in the Hockey World League Final on Monday.
Put bluntly, it wouldn’t have mattered had India played with 10 outfield players or none, for the ones who wore the blue shirt in front of nearly 9,000 fans could not pass or trap. They neither had the skill to put pressure on the Germans nor were they able to give their own goalkeeper a moment to breathe. Eventually, they lost 2-0 – a scoreline that, just like the 3-2 defeat to England, is far too flattering for India’s flat performance.
The result, although significant, was never going to be the only parameter to judge this team. Given the format, India are already in the quarterfinals despite finishing at the bottom of Pool B . Instead, Monday’s match was a pointer to several other shortcomings. One of the most crucial was the team’s character. Marijne is a trained motivational talker but he couldn’t inspire his players enough to bounce back from a morale-sapping defeat to England. Instead, the Indian boys seemed to have waved the white flag even before entering the field. They didn’t show the stomach for a fight, entering the field scared and overawed by Germany’s reputation.
Sensing blood, the Olympic bronze medallists pushed India to a corner and forced errors. And the way India played, the Germans did not have to work really hard to draw mistakes. It was as if Germany were playing for a win while the Indian players competed amongst themselves for the prize for committing most errors. India lost the ball nearly 30 times in the match, most of the times in their own half. Highly-rated drag-flicker Harmanpreet Singh was having another shocker. His passes, so accurate and powerful usually, could barely cross the half line on Monday. His defence partner Rupinder Pal Singh was no different. The forwards rely heavily on these two players for their passes and build-up. Against Germany, it just wasn’t to be.
Local boy Birendra Lakra, making a comeback after an injury, looked unfit and tired. His errors in the 17th and 20th minutes led to Germany scoring both their goals, captain Martin Haner and Mats Grambusch punishing the defender, and the team.
Lakra’s state-mate Dipsan Tirkey, one of the best young players in the team, was taken aback by Germans’ skill and creativity. Clueless most of the times, he lost confidence so much as the match progressed that skipper Manpreet Singh ran from his position in the midfield to the defence to take the ball from Tirkey, instead of waiting for a pass.
If anything, Manpreet was marginally better than the most. But he failed in giving direction to the team. The captain’s body language showed how unhappy he was with the team’s performance.
At the end of the first quarter, there was plenty of finger-pointing among the Indian players as they waited for the two-minute break to end. And in the second half, Manpreet played in anger, which he called ‘aggression’. However, by allowing his emotions to take control, the centre-half let the Germans take control of the midfield.
The Europeans were allowed so much space in the middle that it wouldn’t have mattered if the Indians were on the adjacent practice pitch. They passed the ball with authority, without any errors and making it look awfully easy.
India couldn’t predict the direction of the German passes. Nor were they able to anticipate their opponents’ moves. With the match being played in the Indian half, chances were few for the strikers, who struggled to unlock Germany’s close man-marking. Akashdeep Singh had a couple of shots, but both hit the advertising boards behind the goal. SV Sunil overran with the ball, not releasing in time for the forwards positioned inside the ‘D’. Lalit Upadhyay was effectively taken out of the game by his marker while Mandeep Singh’s poor tournament continued.
Time and again, Mandeep ran behind the German defence when a long pass was played towards him, in the hope that the defender would fumble and he would be released on goal. Unfortunately for him, though, the Germans had the skill to not just bring the ball down calmly, but also launch a counter-attack from it. India would consider themselves lucky their rivals were conserving energy in the group stage. Quarterfinals onwards, they might get more unforgiving and ruthless for that is the stage when, for those teams, the tournament begins. For India, though, it might just end there.