Four days after they'd beaten France 5-0 in their first match of the 2022 FIH Pro League, the Indian hockey team were in store for a rude awakening, losing 5-2 to the same side in Potchefstroom. Not only was the loss a near inversion of the earlier result, it was also the first time India had lost to France since 2004.
India ought to be concerned with how France managed to counter their deep press - employed successfully in their earlier two matches. At the same time, India should have made much more of the chances they had.
On paper, world no.13 France defeating world no.3 India is an upset However, it's clear that this French side that's building to the 2024 Olympics at home, is a far more capable side than the rankings and their loss earlier in the tournament suggest. India had the benefit of a two month training camp, but France had only just come together following the indoor hockey season in Europe; arriving in South Africa just two days before their opening game. Indeed, it didn't take very long for France to find their feet. Just a day after their 5-0 loss to India, they fought hard against Netherlands, only losing in the shootout after holding the current Pro League table-toppers to a 2-2 draw.
Beating the Press
Thanks to their massively improved fitness standards over the previous Olympic cycle, India has been able to successfully apply a high press on its opponents. The press forces opponents onto the backfoot, where they run the risk of committing critical errors in their own half. That's exactly how India beat France 5-0 and South Africa 10-2 in their first two games. Over the past couple of days though, it's clear France had studied footage of their loss and come up with tactics to counter it.
On Saturday, India surged down the right flank, pushing the French defender, in a bid to open up space. They were countered by the French shifting another defender to that area, opening up the release shot. France kept their composure under the press, moved the ball sideways and opened up the field when they got their opportunity, thus negating India's most-used tactic.
The high press - with its emphasis on numbers forward - is also a strategy without much room for error. If the Indians tried to dazzle their opponents with the speed of their passing, the French were up to it, forcing India into a number of errors. In the second quarter of the match, when France went up 2-1, only 61 percent of Indian passes had found their way to their target. With the Indians committing to the press, there were opportunities available on the counter and that's where France were lethal.
Defensive errors were a problem for India too - Viktor Lockwood's volley went into the goal through PR Sreejesh's legs - an uncharacteristic mistake from the keeper voted the best in the world last year. France's third goal too came off a penalty corner that was awarded after defender Varun Kumar was struck in the foot by a ball hit by his own teammate.
India's errors probably extended to their goal scoring opportunities as well. With roughly two minutes to go, India looked to have the momentum. They had just scored a goal to reduce a 3-1 deficit and were setting up for a penalty corner that could have levelled the match 3-3. Instead, the shot was cleared and France ended up winning a penalty corner of their own on the resulting counter - which they converted. The penalty corner that India missed was their 10th of the match.
While credit must be given to a French side that had their best defensive game in the Pro League, the fact that an Indian side with three quality drag flickers (who'd already scored 6 times so far) went 0/10 in short corners on Saturday was another unlikely statistic. India's poor finishing was the prevailing narrative of the match. India got the ball into France's shooting circle nearly twice the number of times as their opponents (35 to 18) but it was the French who made the most of their chances.