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Path to Paris: Indian hockey takes control of the chaos in a bid for Olympic glory

Path to Paris: Indian hockey takes control of the chaos in a bid for Olympic glory


A year ago, the Indian men's hockey team was in chaos.

Take the example of the 2023 FIH World Cup, specifically the crossover against New Zealand for a place in the quarter-finals. In Bhubaneswar that evening, India took a 2-0 lead and looked comfortable. This was them living what they were: a team defined by their attacking hockey and scoring goals that did just that. But this was also a team characterized by goals conceded, especially late in the game. As the match progressed into the second half, the Indian defense began to crumble in the chaotic, relentless pursuit of more goals. 2-0 became 3-1 and in the last quarter it became 3-3. Towards the end, India had to hold on to force a penalty shootout: which they would lose, breaking hearts and their long-unfulfilled World Cup dreams. One of the favorites dropped out before the serious business started.

Nine months later, India played a very different brand of hockey under a new coach in another high-pressure match. This was the final of the Asian Games in Hangzhou, against Japan, for gold and a place at the Olympic Games in Paris. It could have been another chaotic evening against an opposition that looked a lot like New Zealand, but India were in absolute control throughout the match. They started slowly, calmly chose their moments to attack and eventually scored five goals to capture the gold medal.

This is the story of that transformation. From chaos to control. From Graham Reid to Craig Fulton.

Why the change in style?

It's not that the chaos philosophy wouldn't have worked for the team. Under Graham Reid, they broke a major Olympic drought by winning bronze in Tokyo, and they did it by overwhelming their opponents with that direct, attacking style of hockey. The same style had also brought them good results in the Pro League; it seemed like this offensive hockey came naturally to the players.

It is not unusual for a new coach to come with new ideas. Speaking to ESPN, even Fulton agrees that the Indian team was not lacking that much before he took over, but what he wanted was balance in the way they play.

“I have been coaching for a long time and you have to realize what the strengths of the group are and where the areas for improvement lie,” he says. “You have to manage what you are good at and what you can improve on, because if you lose games by two goals and you don't work to improve that… how do you win? Some days you can “You score goals and you win, on other days you can't score and you concede three goals, which means you lose the match.”

The part about allowing goals is the most important point here. Because while India played a very attractive style under Reid, they always seemed vulnerable at the back. It makes sense, of course: when a team pushes forward relentlessly, it opens up space for the opposition to attack. Because it is such a fast-paced sport, it is very difficult for players to fall back every time they lose the ball. And that means that top countries such as Belgium, Australia, Germany and the Netherlands can exploit this weakness quite easily. In fact, that's exactly what New Zealand, an underdog, did in that fateful World Cup match.

That match underlined the truth that India's tactics to beat opponents were not the way forward: especially against top teams in major tournaments where pressure plays a major role. Fulton, who had been part of the hugely successful Belgian national team and other European clubs, wanted to bring in the one key aspect that had made these teams such winners: control. Specifically, he wanted to strengthen the team's defensive structures.

'Defending to attack', he calls it. Fulton explains: “You have different ways to win the ball back, [like] the high press that is India's strength. But we also have to try in a different way, by being more compact, as you saw in the Pro League. We did a little bit of half-court defense – man-to-man and zone-by-zone. That got us into the counter-attacking phase where we won the ball – it added another dimension to the way we attack and organize ourselves.”

Positive results, early, under the new method

However, a new system is only as good as the results it produces. Fulton says it took time to implement some changes, but once the players saw it was working, they went all in. In one of his first tournaments as head coach, Fulton's team played this different style and found success.

“One of the best things that happened was we went to the Asian Champions Trophy and won there, playing in this new style,” he says. “That was important. It was still difficult in the final (against Malaysia), when we went down 3-1 and won the match. If it finally works, the boys will gain a lot of confidence,” says Fulton.

India were solid defensively throughout the tournament, but in the final they needed their attacking prowess after a first-half defeat. In a big match it is not always possible to have complete control or to stop the opponent from scoring. In such situations, India can rely on their attacking hockey. This is the balance Fulton wanted to achieve when he first took charge.

The players have now fully adopted his methods. Gone are the days when India got out of trouble extremely quickly. They are not necessarily slow, but the emphasis has been on keeping the ball and maintaining defensive shape. After the success of the Asian Champions Trophy, Fulton's India went to the Asian Games and won gold in Hangzhou. In the biggest match of his short reign as India coach, Fulton's philosophy was evident.

If you're a football fan, you understand this: Fulton is a fan of the Jose Mourinho way. If done right, he points out, there are big benefits. India can play their fast attacking game because it is always in their DNA, but now they can also pick the moments when they break out and exploit the space.

“No disrespect to the low block,” he says. “Sometimes, in phases, when a team is doing really well, it's something to keep your numbers close together and if you can turn them around from that, you have 70 meters of space. We can counter-attack,” Fulton said after the competition in India. 1-0 win over Ireland in the Pro League.

The low block was very effective against the powerful Dutch in the recent Pro League matches. Both matches ended in a draw (1-1 and 2-2) in regular time. The Netherlands came hard, but India did not make it easy for them when they had the ball. It was an intense tactical battle across the two matches and India showed defensive resilience while managing their chances effectively.

Major setback #1: Australia

The recently concluded tour of Australia proved to be more of a challenge to Fulton's methods, the first real major setback under the new coach. India, who used the tour as preparation for the Paris Games, lost all five matches in the series. The initial expectation was that India's newly adopted strategy would make it harder for Australia to play their naturally aggressive hockey and that India could achieve some positive results, but that wasn't exactly the case.

To be clear, India's defense improved as the series progressed. The low block made it difficult for Australia to score goals freely in the way they like to do. However, the specific problem in the series was the fact that India's attack failed to produce results. The counter-attack, so crucial to Fulton's style, did not click as the attackers were not quick on the break and made careless errors on the ball. The series provided a crucial learning experience for the Fulton team and showed the importance of actually executing their plan. While mistakes, mistakes and negative results may not matter much in a tour like this, India cannot afford to do the same in the upcoming Olympics.

The Olympic challenge

Playing a certain way does not guarantee success or medals. Despite all the changes in style, things can still go wrong and there may be no medal for the team at the Paris Games. The challenge at the Olympic level is enormous and Fulton knows that India must go one step further in every area to have a chance of winning gold.

“Penalty corners will be big and so will the defense of penalty corners. India has them all, India is competitive in all departments.”

Craig Fulton

As is always the case, there are no easy groups at the Olympics, with India set to play Belgium, Australia, Argentina, New Zealand and Ireland in Group B of their Paris campaign. The top four teams from each group qualify for the quarter-finals.

For Fulton, the grouping doesn't matter much. “I wouldn't say one team has the best goalkeeper over the other. I think all teams are similar,” he says. “You have some teams with strong penalty corner attacks and variations. And a lot of these games will come down to penalty corners. If you get three or four penalty corners and you score one or two, then things go wrong.” to make a big difference. Penalty corners will be big, as will the defense of penalty corners. India has them all, India is competitive in all areas.”

India has a world-class midfielder in Hardik Singh. Captain Harmanpreet Singh is one of the best drag flickers in the world right now. Equally important is the goalkeeper, where India once again have one of the best shot-stoppers in the game – PR Sreejesh. And when it comes to defending penalty corners, both Amit Rohidas and Manpreet Singh have done an excellent job as rushers in recent years.

This is an exciting squad – a group of players considered world class, with plenty of major tournament experience and a promising bunch of young players. Getting to the final of the Olympic Games will never be easy and it is very unlikely that they will win all the matches. That is why it is important that they click as a team at the right moments. As it happened at the previous Olympic Games, when they were defeated 1-7 by Australia, but still won bronze.

At this point, India will look to perfect their style and overcome the shortcomings in the away Pro League fixtures in May. However, the focus is very much on Paris.




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