Two matches played, one thrilling victory and one disappointing defeat. While the 4-3 win over New Zealand in the FIH Pro League showed the resolute fightback India can produce when the chips are down (in terms of scoring goals), the 2-3 loss against Spain displayed how vulnerable they still are to last-minute setbacks (in terms of conceding goals).
Two more matches to go in this leg of the FIH Pro League, so there's plenty of scope for improvement but India coach, Graham Reid, will know that both matches played out in a similar pattern, and that's... not a good thing.
Sloppy defending leading to goals
Take two examples from both games - Surender Kumar's mistake in the first match and then Harmanpreet Singh's error in the second. Both could've been avoided, but both resulted in goals. Surender conceded a penalty corner after he failed to control a relatively easy ball. New Zealand converted the chance and made it 3-1. On Sunday, Harmanpreet was too aggressive with his stick tackle outside the circle, which resulted in a penalty corner and Spain made sure they took the chance and made it 1-0.
Admittedly, PR Sreejesh should've done much more for both goals - letting the first one go through his legs and not covering his near side well enough for the other. Overall though, these goals were the results of sloppy defending.
The issue of chance creations
Again, this was seen during the match against Spain. Although the numbers did have a marginal uptick when compared to New Zealand, India still did not do enough. We have seen from the past that Reid likes to start fast, put pressure right from the pushback and make use of the resulting chances.
At half-time, Spain had seven shots to India's two. Spain also had more circle penetrations and earned more penalty corners at the break. It's not as though India were not able to keep the ball. At half-time and full-time, India had the larger share of possession against both New Zealand and Spain.
For all the work on the ball, India are not making it count. One superb final quarter turned it around against New Zealand, but that won't happen all the time, as it was seen in the Spain match.
Why is Reid failing to address the flaws?
Unlike New Zealand and Spain, whose players were playing in the European club season, this Indian team had an extensive camp before the start of the new season. After the Commonwealth Games, India enjoyed a good break and they also knew which areas to work on ahead of an important few months in the calendar.
"We talked about trying to be a little tighter in defence, that's something we have let ourselves down in. Not marking tight enough. Of course, we try to promote going forward, attacking and really good solid forward play, but sometimes we forget about our defensive work. Things like tight marking in the circle, thinking as a collective rather than individuals tackling, how do we do that together in scenarios," Reid said before the start of the season.
On the back of the first two matches however, there's not much progress. Hockey is an extremely fast sport, and it's too tough to produce a textbook defensive performance. Clean sheets are hard to come by, but outscoring opponents will not always work.
It's definitely not a startling revelation for Reid, but he would have learned that no matter how much effort you put during training sessions, it's not equal to the learnings from on the field, during a match. These two matches will give him a better picture of the team, and what needs to be done to fix the issues. No doubt, they'll work on it in the period of four days till Thursday. But the only tangible way of measuring improvements is to show it during the matches on Friday (vs New Zealand) and Sunday (vs Spain).