“Defend well to win”. That’s the mantra of Indian men’s hockey team coach Craig Fulton, whose first assignment was the FIH Pro League mini tournament in London and where his side had mixed results.
The Indian team’s post-Graham Reid era began with back-to-back defeats to Belgium (1-2) and Britain (2-4) on May 26 and 27 respectively. But the Fulton-coached side bounced back strongly in the return leg, winning 5-1 against Belgium and then beating Britain 4-2 in a penalty shootout after both teams were locked 4-4.
“There are glimpses for sure, we want to keep the Indian style of play which means a lot of attacking hockey. But, at the same time, it does not help if you can’t defend,” the South African said in a virtual media interaction on the eve of their clash against Netherlands.
“We need to make sure that we get that right and everyone buys into that -- it will take a bit of time.
“It’s just been like three weeks of hockey with the group, and we are in the middle of a competition. We can’t change too much.
“We want to keep a structure that everyone understands and then we need a bit of time. We have scored goals that we know we can score again.
“Our striker line-up is helping win more penalty corners and this is what we want. But overall, we just need to improve our defending from front to back,” the 48-year-old South African added.
Having slipped to second spot behind leaders Britain (26 points), India (24) begins the tricky Dutch mini tournament by taking on the hosts, the world No. 1 side here on Wednesday.
They next face lower-ranked Argentina on Thursday before resuming its rivalry in the return leg on June 10.
“Two weekends and good learnings from the first weekend. We lost to Belgium by a last-minute goal but came back strongly against Britain,” he said.
“There were a lot of things out of our control. The referrals had a big effect in the game which I didn’t think was a fair reflection. It’s always about playing back-to-back, but we did well, it was nice to win the shootout (against Britain in the return leg).”
“It’s early days for us. We are trying to improve our defence. It also depends on what structure you are playing. We can’t keep giving away a lot of corners to top teams. We have got some objectives that we are trying to improve.”
Having taken over from Reid, who guided India to an Olympic medal (bronze) in Tokyo after 41 years, the task will be cut out for Fulton. His first big job will be to secure India’s qualification for the Paris Olympics next year and Fulton said he’s still in “a discovery phase” of his squad.
Fulton had guided Ireland to the Rio Games, the team’s first Olympic qualification in 108 years. Then, as Shane McLeod’s deputy, Fulton rose to greater heights in Belgium’s coaching set up when it won the 2018 World Cup and the Tokyo Olympics gold.
“I’m still in discovery phase with the squad, obviously there are some senior players who are not here.
“We are just giving everyone a good opportunity to play. We still have one or two injuries, but the guys who are here for the next four games, will get their opportunity to play.
“We will assess when we get back, have another squad training and we will select the group to go to Spain and then obviously the Asian Games.” With Manpreet Singh continuing his new role in defence, Fulton said it’s adding depth to the squad, but “nothing has been set in stone just yet”.
“Right now he’s doing a really good job in helping us with defence. He is a really good ball player, he can bring the ball from defence to create the overlap which is one of his strengths.
“He’s obviously a fantastic midfielder as well. We need a bit more experience at the back and he’s offering that at the moment.
“Long-term, I’m not sure, it’s not set in stone just yet as we also have some senior defenders coming back to the side. We have not decided yet on the combination.” The coach was all praise for his skipper Harmanpreet Singh, for his ice-cool demeanour.
“He brings a lot of experience and composure. He is not a guy who will shout when you don’t perform. In fact he’s just the opposite -- quiet in the eye of a storm, which is good.
“We need that in leadership as well as in the position he plays, he has to set up a lot more. He’s really important as a player but also with penalty corner and on general organisation of the team.
“We are trying to focus on improving our communication. He plays a massive role in that,” the South African added.
With the team building up for the Asian Games, the key for Manpreet is to create a cordial atmosphere and get clarity in communication, the captain said.
“Of course, leading a side is a big responsibility. On the field, the more calmer you are, the better it is.
“If anyone faces a problem or does a mistake it’s about making sure not to overthink it. Otherwise it would have a negative impact in the upcoming matches.”
“I always try speaking to juniors whether they are comfortable be it on matters related to family or the field. I always try to keep myself attached to them.
“It’s about creating an atmosphere where anyone can speak to anyone and making sure communication is clear. I’m talking about juniors especially. If they have any doubts they are welcome to clear it anytime and no need to feel shy about it,” the captain added.
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