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As predicted by many, Australia emerged triumphant at the Hero Honda World Cup in Delhi, winning it with class. Australia dominated most of their matches, including a 12-0 pounding of South Africa. Australia's Luke Doerner was the joint Top Scorer of the World Cup, with 8 goals. Unlike the Indian hockey team, Australia did not disappoint their fans and supporters.
There is a lot to be learnt from this Australian team, which plays attacking hockey with flair and speed. Australia has taken the concept and style of hockey of India and Pakistan during their days of world domination, and then adjusted their game plans – strategy and tactics – according to the needs of the times.
Presented below are some Lessons Learned from the Hero Honda World Cup, from a coach's analytical point of view. We will also focus on the skills and tactics to keep, and the skills and tactics to discard, while developing our current crop of young and upcoming hockey players.
There will be a series of monthly articles. The first in the series addresses the question - Does one size fit all? In other words, can one player play all the positions on the field? And, if yes, to what degree can this be achieved?
The concept behind the one size fits all approach is as follows - "In the modern game of hockey, the player has to be an all rounder, and should be able to play all the positions on the field as the situation demands. There is no place in today's hockey for a traditional player, who could only play one position."
This view is quite prevalent in Europe, and in theory, the philosophy is correct and appealing. The present coach of the Indian team, Jose Brasa of Spain, also subscribes to this coaching outlook.
In an interview with The Telegraph newspaper of Kolkata, Brasa said, "In terms of skills, Indians are one of the best, though there is a bit lacking in the basics like passing and ball positioning. There are some players who believe they are born to defend and others who believe they are born to attack. But in modern hockey, everyone must do everything."
The question to be asked is - how can this coaching approach be applied to a team, and how successful will a team be when adopting such an approach. Using an analogy from athletics, can a world class sprinter be coached to become a world class middle distance runner?
Did we see Teun de Nooijer, the Dutch superstar playing in his 5th World Cup, ever play in deep defence in the Hero Honda World Cup. He was always in the role of an inner or centre-forward. So was the case with Jamie Dwyer, the world class striker from Australia, who almost never was seen playing in the half line or deep defence in the Hero Honda World Cup.
If a coach does decide on positional changes, it becomes his/her responsibility to explain to the individual player the role and responsibility of the new position, and make sure the player develops the necessary technical and tactical skills to to adapt to the new position.
To quote Jim Collins, author of the best-selling book 'Good to Great' - "First get the right people on the bus, then the right people in the right seats, and then figure out where to drive".
In an interview with Mail Today newspaper, Brasa's predecessor Joaquim Carvalho said, "India's positional play was bad in the World Cup. The ploy of making forwards play as defenders was a flop. They ended up looking like a bunch of inexperienced players."
Let's take the example of the Indian player Bharat Chikara, who was a traditional forward, but was made to play as a defensive left-half. Bharat played his left-half position as a forward, not knowing the role and responsibility of this key defensive position. At times, one could see Bharat over-dribbling and taking on opponents, due to his natural inclination of being a forward. However, this resulted in turnovers and the occasional goals. His positional play in the defensive zone, especially in the D, and in the marking of the opposing forwards was a question mark at times.
SCOPE FOR IMPROVEMENT
There is no doubt that individual players need all round skills to meet the needs of ever changing roles during game situations. A forward has to also possess defensive skills of marking, tackling and covering. A deep defender needs to know when to support the attack and when to overlap with the forwards, thus packing an element of surprise.
The message is clear - while each position still demands mastery, each player also needs all round skills to be able to play different roles over the course of a fast changing game.
However, the specific area where an individual player still can improve is getting out of tight game situations or in a 1-on-1 or 2-on-1 scenario. A forward should be able to bypass a defender in a tight situation, using change of pace, direction and grace, rather than using raw power.
When you watch a European football game, you see these qualities in abundance in the attacking forwards. This is what excites the spectators, both in the stands and those watching on television. We seem to be missing this aspect in hockey. We are tending to have players who are 'Jack of all Trades but Master of None'.
In the decades of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, players were masters of their specific positions. They were able to cope with pressurised game situations which faced them.
For example, during the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games, when Surjeet Singh, India's left full-back, faced a press in his deep left corner, he had no difficulty dodging 2 or 3 rushing forwards, breaking the press and making an effective offensive pass.
Similarly, when Shabaz Sr. of Pakistan played during the 1980s, we hardly ever saw him defending. This forced the opposing defenders to stay with him and not support their attack. This reduced the opponent's numbers and punch in the attack.
No doubt the game has changed from the earlier decades, and new tactics and strategies have come in to play. In my humble opinion, what we have presently is players with a very high level of fitness and tactical awareness, but lacking in individual crafty and silky skills to come out of the pressure situations which present themselves during a game.
Gone are the days when a forward did not need to come back and help the defence, or a defender never strayed past the half line. In modern hockey, one has to be versatile and be able to play in multiple positions and roles all over the field. The interchanging and overlapping of player positions happens instantly and continuously, during the run of play.
To execute positional interchanges successfully, the coach and player need to develop a range of technical and tactical skills. For example, if a right winger ends up in a position of a right-in in the midfield, the player must be aware of this changed position and its role, and instantly change tactics.
We hardly saw this switching of mental gears during the run of play in the Hero Honda World Cup, which players of the past like Manzoor Jr. of Pakistan and Ric Charlesworth of Australia used to do so seamlessly during their hey days.
The purpose of this article was to make the coaches and the athletes aware, that while the intent is very good, it is often not easy for one player to play all the positions on the field. If one is forced to do so, than the player has to develop the game sense, knowledge and skills for the given position.
Players should be able to instantly recognise a game situation and change the mental gears according to the requirements of the new position. Our game will escalate to a higher level when we blend the modern game with the traditional skills, tactics and concepts of the past.
This is what Australia did very effectively during the Hero Honda World Cup, and it came as no surprise that they emerged deserving winners.