One knew what (in this case, who) was coming, yet it seemed like India's dragflickers simply couldn't find a way to consistently score past them. Raiki Fujishima and Shota Yamada will have physical scars from their penalty corner rushing masterclass, but it earned Japan a point in a 1-1 draw against the hosts in Chennai on Friday.
India earned 15 penalty corners -- seven of them were re-awards due to shots hitting the bodies of the first rushers. "They did very well in that space, they did that in the World Cup as well, so it's not like it just happened tonight," India coach Craig Fulton said after the match. India scored off their tenth penalty corner, and missed a further five, while Japan converted one of their two. Just a day after an excellent penalty corner conversion performance against China, India's dragflickers had hit a brickwall thanks to Fujishima and Yamada's brilliance.
Fulton, though, didn't seem particularly perturbed by a result that, on the face of it, is an underwhelming one, given that India had beaten this Japanese side 8-0 in a classification match at the World Cup earlier this year. But the head coach was clear that he didn't want to lose sight of the bigger picture. "The Asian Games is the focus, everyone knows that. So, it's playing the long game as well," he said.
That long game will involve Fulton finding ways to ensure India can consistently score enough goals. This was the sixth time in their last seven games that India have scored two goals or less.
"It's every coach's concern if you're not converting your chances, whether they are PCs or field goals. That's normal," Fulton said. "We always try and work out why and then try and find a solution for that, with combinations of players together."
- Hockey India (@TheHockeyIndia) August 4, 2023
Fulton's style of hockey is certainly a contrast to the one employed by Graham Reid in his time in charge of India. There's more emphasis on control now as opposed to Reid's high-intensity attacking style, with India happy to recycle possession and keep the ball moving around midfield and at the back, even at the cost of speed and tempo. The South African certainly hasn't lost faith in the way he has set his team up thus far in his tenure.
"It's not that we're not scoring because we are not playing our system. We are playing our system, we are playing the way we want to play," he said, choosing to focus on the need to be more clinical. "Even tonight, we had two or three really good counters, and those are the ones that we wanted to finish. We're one phase away from playing the way we want to."
For Fulton's team to complete that phase to play exactly how he wants, the shot-shy forwards will come under the scanner. India had 27 circle penetrations but had only five shots from non-penalty corner situations.
"We want our players to shoot, that's one of our main objectives," the South African said. "Players have license to shoot, they then make the next decision based on instinct, and we back that."
Fulton has a day to recalibrate before India take on Malaysia on Sunday, a game for which the coach's objective is clear. "That's where we are, [we've] just got to get better at everything [in] the next game."