"Doesn't matter what strategy we use, if you're asleep."
This was India head coach Graham Reid post-match when asked about his team's defending against New Zealand in the first quarter on Friday. They were down 1-3 after the first 15 minutes, allowing New Zealand to run all over them.
The only positive was that there was enough time to script a comeback: And they did (for the second time in a span of a week), India scored six more goals in the next three quarters to win the match 7-4.
Before we get to the Achilles' heel that is their defence, here's what worked for India on Friday:
Sensational Manpreet Singh has no replacement
Just look at those numbers. Three assists, five tackles (more than anybody on the pitch), two interceptions, three blocks, one shot on target. Offensively and defensively, Manpreet put in a masterclass.
The assist to Selvam Karthi's first goal (scoreline: 2-3) followed by the one to Sukhjeet Singh in the third quarter (scoreline: 6-3) showed his vision, drive and composure wrapped in one neat package. He was ably assisted by Hardik Singh, who put in 31 passes from the midfield and stepped up defensively with four tackles, two interceptions and two blocks.
Sure, Harmanpreet Singh was at his best with penalty corners, Karthi took the applause for scoring twice, Sukhjeet and Abhishek were too hot to handle for most of the time on pitch, but Manpreet was the architect of this win. There are not many hockey players in the world who can bend the match to their team's favour with their sheer will power. He's one of them.
He may not have the armband for these Pro League matches but he's this team's captain, leader and legend.
The best of experience and youth
Reid was pleased with the way his team responded after going down in the first quarter. "Overall, happy. The first 10 minutes and the first three minutes... other than that it was really good. The composure we showed after going down 1-3, you know it's easy to throw your toys out of the cot at that moment but they kept on. We got one back and then two back. We stayed in the match."
This composure which Reid talked about is mainly because of the presence of senior players on the pitch. The likes of Manpreet, Harmanpreet and Mandeep Singh helped their team by calming things down and leading by example. They did not allow panic to set in after those early blows.
Meanwhile, the youngsters also delivered when they were presented with the opportunities. Karthi, playing only his eighth match, showed his finishing skills when he got the chance. Sukhjeet, who played only nine matches before Friday, scored one and looked in control whenever he got the ball. Raj Kumar Pal, only 20 matches old, also added to his goal tally on Friday. The midfielder was on the pitch when the team conceded thrice but his confidence didn't take a hit and he was lively on the field.
Now, that defence. Again.
If you have conceded six goals in two matches, and it's the most talked about aspect of your team, giving away three goals in just the opening quarter of the third match is not how you would've hoped to respond. There's no doubt Reid is trying to fix the issue, but he can't do much if players commit silly mistakes. Or in his words 'sleep' on the pitch.
For the first goal, New Zealand exploited the space on the right. For the second, Surender Kumar gave the ball away cheaply under no pressure. For the third, India's midfielders didn't track the run of New Zealand's attackers and the defenders failed to trap the ball inside the circle.
So far, they played three Pro League matches in the span of a week and there's hardly been any improvement in defence. There's one more match to go against Spain on Sunday, and that will be followed by the five-match series against Australia down under. There might not be any drastic changes but Reid will hope that sloppy defence is not the story for the remaining matches, with the World Cup just a couple of months away.