After three Hockey World Cup matches, India's struggle to score goals has become fairly apparent. They failed to score past England while labouring for large periods to break down Wales, a match which they eventually won 4-2 (needing an eight-goal margin win).
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Harmanpreet Singh's penalty corners aren't working, neither are India's forwards offering enough goals. What is working though, is that India are able to play their natural attacking game and at least create chances. One player who has been a menace in the opposition's circle, a livewire who's able to provide a glimmer of hope when the ball is with him, is Mandeep Singh.
Mandeep, an experienced campaigner with over 200 international matches to his name, has been the most influential player for India going forward; while the likes of Lalit Upadhyay, Sukhjeet Singh and Abhishek are still struggling to make an impact. He has no goals to show for in this World Cup, but his attacking play against England and Wales were a delight to watch. Goals are not his only job - he creates opportunities for other players by creating space and passing at the opportune moment, which has seen the likes of Hardik Singh and Akashdeep Singh benefit at this World Cup.
"When I first came into the Indian team, I was playing with SV Sunil. At that stage, I was getting the goals, I was scoring many. Now I am a senior player - at least others consider me as a senior. When I speak to Sree paaji (PR Sreejesh) and others, they tell me that my job now is not only to score but also to make them. Earlier, I used to score goals thanks to Sunil's assists, now I try to do the same as a senior striker," said Mandeep, reflecting on his evolution in a conversation with ESPN.
"I don't worry if I don't score goals in five matches. My aim is to play simple hockey, make opportunities for others and also create penalty corner chances. In the Australian series, I think I earned nine or 10 PCs. I want to play simple and create the maximum outcome for the team," Mandeep said.
Keeping things simple is Mandeep's style on the field. Akashdeep's goal against Wales owed a lot to a simple, yet effective pass, from Mandeep. Against England, Mandeep dragged two opposition players out of position after winning the ball and then held on to it inside the circle, making space for Vivek Sagar Prasad. The resulting pass to Vivek ended in a shot that was brilliantly saved by goalkeeper Ollie Payne. Mandeep's form is hardly a surprise - he was instrumental when India beat Australia 4-3 last month. The winning goal came from another simple trap and pass to Akashdeep, who made no mistake in slotting the ball in. Mandeep knew exactly where his nearest attacker was, so he already positioned his body to make the pass before even receiving the ball.
Against England and Wales, whenever Mandeep was off the pitch taking a breather, the lack of quality up front was glaring. Especially against Wales, in a scenario where India were searching for goals, the other forwards were struggling to even hold-up play. Mandeep though, was in a different zone - often the only one able to create attacking opportunities.
The 27-year-old now shares all the valuable knowledge he gained by playing alongside Sunil for many years.
"Off the ball running is very important. If a defender has the ball, my job is to lead the attack and then re-lead. A defender might spot you if you make the run once, but I try to do it again after a few seconds. I run up and down trying to give options, trying to make space for me and others. I learnt a lot from Sunil paaji. Now I try to tell youngsters how to make space for yourself and how to receive the ball in space," said Mandeep.
That focused simplicity has been missing from India's other players at the World Cup. Head coach Graham Reid has been reiterating the need for calm throughout the tournament - he wants his players to play 'aaram se'. India have been rushing things, resulting in silly errors, which proved detrimental in the first half against Wales. India have more circle entries (76) than Australia (74), and Belgium (74) and England (62) but the fewest number of goals of all these teams.
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The key to turning India's fortunes in front of goal is calmness, says coach @reidgj. #HockeyWorldCup2023 pic.twitter.com/BkLl3NohTC
- ESPN India (@ESPNIndia) January 18, 2023
"We do get irritated, but you have to learn to calm yourself down. I used to get irritated a lot in the beginning because I was constantly running and chasing goals. It's a simple thing. You're doing it for the team. This is my job. I try to calm myself down by thinking that I am doing it for my country, I am doing it for the Indian team," explained Mandeep.
India are facing Mandeep's favourite opponents for a place in the quarterfinals. In 21 matches against New Zealand, Mandeep has scored 11 goals, including a brace in the recent Pro League match at the same stadium. However, more than his goals, the Indian team will need to adopt his way of playing. Do not complicate things on the pitch, keep calm and use all the experience to get the job done.