There was a moment late in the Asia Cup final against Malaysia on October 22, when India coach Sjoerd Marijne felt that his stint "for just two weeks" before the continental tournament had helped the team understand his philosophy to coaching.
"The players chose a defensive style inside the pitch and adjusted. I was not able to coach from the sides -- they had to make the choices," said Marijne, speaking of a game where India scored two by half-time but then had to soak up a lot of Malaysian pressure in the second half. "That's what we want to do and that's why we want to be player-driven. I am really happy with that choice, because we won, and more importantly they took a decision. That's what we train for."
Marjine said his relationship with the team he has inherited from fellow Dutchman Roelant Oltmans is an "open" one, and that he gives them a lot of freedom. He cited how the team watched clips of their opponents in Dhaka during the Asia Cup and gave presentations in tactical meetings by themselves, as a measure of how well they responded.
"At the Asia Cup, we decided to go match-by-match. We had the league stages and then the Super 4s, and our aim was to maintain our performance level and stick to our structure from the first minute to the last," said captain and midfielder Manpreet Singh. "Indian players are very skilled, and we must use that skill at the right moments. In time to come, we have to work on our strengths like counter-attack, and pay more attention to defensive structure."
Ranked sixth going into the Asia Cup, India were favourites and played like one -- finishing their seven games unbeaten, scoring 28 goals and conceding just six. Marijne and his team know that the real test lies in Bhubaneswar, where India host seven other nations at the World League Final in December. India, who began their camp in Bengaluru on November 6, are hoping for their second podium finish at the biennial tournament finals, where they have always qualified by virtue of being hosts. The only positive finish was when they beat Netherlands on a shootout for bronze in Raipur two years ago.
"We played well in the Asia Cup, and now our focus is on the World League, because all top-ranked teams will be here," said Manpreet. "We have to perform well, especially in home conditions. We must prove that we are capable of being there at big tournaments, irrespective of the opposition. We play Australia first and have to give our best and improve for the tournaments coming up."
"If you look at any team in the world, we have beaten them in recent years. Even when we have lost, we have done so by narrow margins and after fighting till the end. We never start a game thinking we can't beat the other side."
Marijne said first-choice goalkeeper PR Sreejesh is still only "coming back on the pitch" from an injury sustained during the Azlan Shah Cup in May, and bringing him into the World League squad might be "doing things in a rush". Defenders Rupinderpal Singh and Birendra Lakra might also be fully fit, but assessing their match fitness could take more time before the team leaves for Bhubaneswar on November 21. This could mean another big tournament for Harmanpreet Singh, who was joint top-scorer with Malaysia's Faizal Saari at the Asia Cup with his seven goals.
"It is always good to have the responsibility of scoring, because I had been a part of the junior team not long ago," said Harmanpreet, who was paired alongside Sardar Singh in defence for the Asia Cup. "It was good, because he [Sardar] has always played in midfield. He knows how our game is structured, when we defend and when we push forward with the ball. The understanding was good."
Manpreet said the presence of Sardar in defence helped him and other midfielders play with greater freedom. "When the other team puts pressure or goes on a full-court press against us, we have two options now -- Harmanpreet and Sardar. This is the plus point, that we can play the ball back when needed, knowing that we have a leader in the backline. He [Sardar] gets a good view of the game, and calls well from there."
Marjine has often spoken about the importance of speed in modern hockey, especially in his recent stint with the Indian women's team, and he added the significance of getting the men's team to give-and-go more often. "I am not really interested in touching the ball a hundred times," he said. "I am more keen on playing give-and-go. They must create chances for themselves and for that they have to look up. If they do that, they can play the ball or they can go themselves."
Marijne also spoke of the importance of listening to players' needs for more rest between tournaments, and the ultimate goal of the team ahead of a busy 2018, which will include the Commonwealth Games, the Asian Games and a World Cup hosted at home. "The one tournament that is most important is the Olympics in 2020. To qualify for that you, you have to win the Asian Games," he said. "But to be good at the Asian Games, you have to be good at the World League Final and then you have to be good at the Commonwealth Games."
"For me, every tournament counts and as India, you have to go there to win."