Craig Fulton, the new coach of the Indian men's hockey team, is off to a less than ideal start as his side slipped to two straight defeats against Belgium and Great Britain in the FIH Pro League matches in London.
While the performance against Great Britain (2-4) was slightly better than the loss to Belgium (1-2) a day prior, both games showed the areas of concern for the Indian team and the task ahead for Fulton in an important year.
Need to work on defensive structure
Fulton spoke about implementing his 'defend to attack' approach, but conceding six goals in two matches showed that both parties need time to get onto the same page. That's fair, considering Fulton had only three weeks to work with the team before flying off to London.
However, the manner in which the Indian defence conceded some of the goals would bother Fulton. Against Belgium, they conceded a late penalty corner and failed to thwart away the danger as Nelson Onana scored from a rebound. Against Great Britain, they conceded twice after failing to stop their opponents' attack on the touchline. They also lost the ball cheaply for Britain's fourth goal when they were trailing 2-3 and pushing for the equaliser.
It was pretty evident in both the matches that India ended up conceding when their opponents upped the pressure. This is not a new problem and Fulton understands he needs to fix the defene's tendency to crumble under intensity to achieve his way of playing.
"Structure wise we were good. We need to improve on our defence. They scored a couple of goals from the touchline and we need to fix that," Harmanpreet Singh said after the loss against Britain.
Manpreet in defence?
There's no doubt about the quality of Manpreet Singh. His presence in the XI is vital but his new, sort of hybrid, role as a defender is questionable. He was not at his best as a defender against Britain, often mistiming his tackles and even conceding a penalty stroke, which was saved by PR Sreejesh.
Perhaps Fulton sees him as a player who will not crumble under pressure and is crucial at the back in terms of winning the ball back and launching his team's attack. Maybe there are other players who could press better than him. These could be valid reasons and maybe Manpreet will eventually come out good.
But against Britain, there were flashes of his brilliance when he got the ball in the midfield and ran through the defence, resisting the press while also making space to receive the ball for other attackers. This is his bread and butter, having done that for years and helping his team win many matches.
Hopefully the team and Fulton will have a clarity on Manpreet's role by the end of their current set of matches and before they begin their Asian Games campaign.
Finding the right set of forwards
In the 24-member squad, Fulton named eight forwards along with Akashdeep Singh and Dilpreet Singh. However, all three goals against Belgium and Britain came via penalty corners with Harmanpreet scoring twice.
In both the matches, India's attackers struggled to find their rhythm and cohesion, which was not the case in their previous Pro League matches at home in Rourkela where India scored 16 goals in four matches. That's mostly because S Karthi, Sukhjeet Singh and Abhishek combined well and contributed in terms of creating as well as scoring goals.
As stated above, this team is a work-in-progress in terms of style and finding the right combination of players. It is extremely unlikely that Fulton will stick with these many forwards later at the Asian Games and in the run up to the Olympics.
However, in the remaining six matches, Fulton and his team of coaches should not only try to find the right set of attackers but also give them enough game time to develop their chemistry on the pitch.