Champions Trophy 2014, World Cup 2014, World Cup 2006, Sydney Olympics 2000 and Rio 2016. Indian hockey will remember these major events for the wrong reasons—last-minute heartbreaks after the team, seemingly cruising to a draw or a win, conceded late goals that ended or compromised their chances in the tournament.
On Monday, the Indian men’s hockey team played with heart and vigour—matching the physicality and the tactical and technical variations of their German opponents.
Till about five seconds to go in the match.
India’s second match of the Rio Olympics ended in heartbreak as they conceded a late goal to go down 1-2 to the Germans.
The result will not have an impact on the progress of the team into the quarterfinals. Four out of six teams from the group will enter knockouts and India with two victories—against Ireland in the opening match and Argentina Tuesday—will go through.
However, the team showed some nervousness in the fourth quarter of the match against Argentina as well, conceding back-to-back penalty corners. If this result against Germany has dented India’s confidence in crunch situations, they might stutter when they face the top finishers from Group A where Australia, Spain and Belgium are showing ominous form.
Beyond the group dynamics, the more worrying matter is this trend of the team conceding late in the match during crucial games. Looking at the results in the last two decades, the frequency has been equally disconcerting.
Things have improved
Former India coach AK Bansal feels the frequency is now better than what it used to. “Earlier, conceding late was more like a habit,” he says. “That had more to do with our players losing focus at the last moments when things get tight.”
One of the most famous incidents of late heartbreak was at the 2000 Sydney Games. Led by Ramandeep Singh, India needed to score at least two goals in a win or a draw in the group match against Poland to ensure safe passage to the next round. But, while leading 1-0 and pushing for the second, they conceded late and the match finished 1-1.
The players later spoke about how they got a little nervous with the clock ticking down. They were in control at 1-0, but desperate to get the second goal. They forgot the tactical system they were employing, and play got a little erratic. That’s losing focus, indeed.
However, “losing focus” is a pretty broad definition in a sport that is inherently dynamic—both evolution and game-play wise. The kind of hockey Indians were masters of (winning eight gold medals at the Olympics) is ancient history, while modern hockey, which Dhanraj Pillay’s generation tried to catch up with, is also history now.
The ultra modern hockey involves minute-by-minute changes in tactics, with coaches employing rolling substitutions to work out the game-plans on the turf.
The Indian team, after the London 2012 debacle, have, to a large extent, learnt how to react fast and change with the tactical variations from opponents. The transformation began when the team was coached by Australian Terry Walsh, with current coach, Roelant Oltmans (who was the high performance director then), overseeing things.
Walsh had once spoken about the micro-tactical systems at play during a match. “Hockey is not just broken into two halves or four quarters,” he had explained. “We, as coaches, look at five minute passages and change plans according to how the opponents are playing. Besides reacting to opponents, we also have to devise our own tactical variations. It is a complex system and the Indian boys are now in the process of learning and implementing this on the field of play. It is a long process but we are improving—from tactical awareness and versatility to physicality.”
Walsh had said this in 2014, ahead of the World Cup in The Hague. Two years down the road, in Rio, the players were at pace with the Germans—one of the strongest teams in the fray.
Till the final 10 seconds, that is.
“I don’t think India conceded because there was a big tactical push from the Germans which they didn’t read and react to,” said Bansal. “What I noticed was that our players were keen to score, and so were they. The plays were evenly matched. But at the last moment, we did fail to mark the lone striker that Germany had pushed up. That’s the mistake India made.”
The lone striker, Christopher Rühr, was, not the only German in front of the Indian goal at the time. They were four unmarked Germans in front of goalkeeper PR Sreejesh when the ball was hit in from well outside the ‘D’. It is clear that they were there as part of a well-rehearsed set-play by design and not by chance. The push for goal Germany made was powered by a micro tactical tweak though changes in formation were not visible. And Indians failed to react.
There is no doubt that this hockey team is the best India has had in a while. They are up there with the rest and have the right attitude and technical aspects in their game-play to challenge the best in the world. But if things go south, it could all be attributed to the team’s inability to react to quick tactical shifts at the crunch. Such quick and subtle moves will happen more frequently as the tournament progresses to the knockouts.