Indian coach Graham Reid has called upon his team to "go forward and take risks" in keeping with their culture, ahead of their two-legged Pro League tie against world champions Belgium in Bhubaneswar this weekend.
"When you've seen India in the past, they've always loved to attack. I think as coach, you think you have to get their defence better, and that's been happening over the last few years," Reid told ESPN. "But we don't want to take away that ability to be able to go forward and take some risks. That's really what I am trying to get our players to go back to. It's a little bit more of the Indian culture of passing and looking forward."
India began their campaign with a 5-2 win against the Netherlands on January 18, and trailed 3-1 at one stage in the match the following day, before coming back to tie the game 3-3 and winning via shootout. Reid said he wants his team to iron out some of the deficiencies identified in their opening games.
"I've been talking to the team over these last couple of weeks, that if you look at the numbers behind the results, they were good but not fantastic," said Reid. "Meaning that we were, I won't say lucky, but we took our opportunities when we needed to. We were positive, but we were still leaky in our defence."
Top-ranked Belgium are coming off an unbeaten run across their first four games in Australia and New Zealand. Reid is also gambling a bit with youth in his team selection, having left out SV Sunil, Birendra Lakra, Chinglensana Singh and Akashdeep Singh among the seven changes made for the Belgium matches.
Reid will also be handing a debut to Uttar Pradesh-born midfielder Raj Kumar Pal. Reid rates 21-year-old Pal, who first came into national reckoning with a strong individual performance during the Under-23 team's multi-nation tournament bronze in Belgium in 2018, very highly. "He's quite fast, and he has got very good skills. He's always the one that guys don't want to go against [in practice], because his hands are very quick. He moves to the ball quickly," said Reid.
The last meeting between India and Belgium in Bhubaneswar was at the 2018 World Cup, and India had put on a commanding performance in the only game that Belgium drew during their victorious campaign. Reid put the parity between the teams down to how similar their tactical patterns have become. "Belgium play a zonal defence, and our guys seem to have had a lot of practice on that over the last three to four years," he said. "But we also need to ensure we take it to them. That's what they have done in the past -- they haven't been afraid of Belgium and have taken the game to them."
Reid wants his team to focus on the lessons learnt from their performance against the Dutch. He says the application of the learnings is what he wants them to get right, irrespective of the results against Belgium. "How do we get better, and how do we keep improving -- that's how we have to approach these remaining 14 games, before we hit the Olympics," he says, but stresses that the emphasis on attack has to remain.
"What I have been trying to explain to these guys is that by going backwards, you are inviting more risk," says the former coach of Australia. "From the outside, when I used to watch the Indians, teams were afraid when they get a run on.
"When India is running at you, you get worried. We need to try and create that ability more often."