Vivek Sagar Prasad scored the second goal in the tiebreaker. (Source: HI)
Three days before India last played the Netherlands prior to this weekend, in the quarterfinals of the 2018 World Cup, the then coach Harendra Singh was teaching striker Mandeep Singh some basics - trapping, positioning and such. Mandeep, who had a reputation of missing more goals than he scored, could not get a single thing right; and it reflected in the match, which ended in defeat for India.
Days later, Rupinderpal Singh had a heart-to-heart conversation with high performance director David John, with the defender, under-fire for an error-ridden World Cup, wanting to get clarity on his future in the team. Goalkeeper PR Sreejesh was not his reassured self; forward Lalit Upadhyay was out injured and winger SV Sunil, it seemed to many, was done.
A severe confidence crisis had swept the squad following second successive quarterfinal exit at a major tournament—Rio Olympics followed by a World Cup at home. And it did not help that some of the senior players were second guessing themselves and repeatedly accused of shying away from responsibility in crunch matches. A former India captain, now a selector, moaned about this even against hockey nobodies Russia after the Olympics qualifiers last November.
For Graham Reid, this was the biggest challenge because to make the formation he adopted for India work, it was vital that all these players clicked. India started the Pro League double-header against the Netherlands using a variation of the 2-5-3 system. In the comeback win on Sunday - India, trailing 3-1, made it 3-3 in the last quarter and won 3-1 in the tie-breaker - Rupinderpal played as a sweeper back, meaning even a tiny error on his part would expose Sreejesh and Krishan Pathak, who played the second and fourth quarters. Captain Manpreet Singh plays in a position, centre-half, where almost everything goes through him.
Manpreet’s peripheral vision is the reason behind most Indian attacks, which are most effective when he combines with speedy Sunil on the right flank or Upadhyay, who can dodge a player or two, just in front of him. And India, generally, are at their best when Mandeep is able to make a nuisance of him in the rival ‘D’.
It’s often up to these veterans - who are a part of Reid’s leadership group - to execute the script that the coach writes, the rest, mostly, are supporting actors. And a big factor why India could eke out rare back-to-back wins over the Netherlands was because these players stepped up when it mattered - first on Saturday, when India won 5-2, and then again on Sunday, in a more dramatic circumstances.
In a span of 60 minutes, a bunch of them seemed to slip into the dark space in their minds, conquered their on-field demons and helped the team stage a remarkable comeback.
Upadhyay, who could do no wrong the night before, could not get anything right on Sunday in the opening exchanges. Twice, at least, in the first quarter he missed chances to score open goals, getting his positioning wrong and unable to make contact when all that was needed was simple tap-ins.
Rupinderpal had a horror second quarter - first conceding a penalty corner, from which the Netherlands scored a goal, and just 17 seconds later, straying out of his sweeper-back position to give the visitors a two-on-one situation with the goalkeeper, with Bjorn Kellerman easily beating Pathak.
In the fifth minute of the third quarter, Manpreet got involved in a tangle with Lars Balk near the half line. To muscle past the midfielder, Manpreet raised his hand and appeared to have hit Balk on the face. The South African referee, Sean Rapaport, sent Manpreet off for remainder of the quarter. India were a man down and trailing 3-1. If not for Sreejesh - who was having one of his vintage evenings - this would have been a no contest. Their struggle was real, and the team’s leaders were letting them down. But, for once, they were able to step up when it all - the match and reputations - seemed to be going rapidly downhill.
It wasn’t anything dramatic that Reid or the players said to each other. Just a little bit of positivity. “In the past, we were very critical of each other if we made mistakes on field. That affected our confidence and we went into a shell,” Rupinderpal said. “In the last 2-3 months, we have been consciously working on this. Mistakes happen, but shouldn’t dwell on it during the match. And it was up to us senior players to take responsibility for it.”
Rupinderpal took charge at the back. The muscular, 6-foot-3 defender gathered himself and commanded the backline along with Sreejesh to stop Netherlands from scoring a goal when India were down to 10 men.
Once that was ensured, and Manpreet returned in the final 15 minutes, India had a swagger about themselves. India, to begin with, started playing more direct instead of sideways or backward. Manpreet, who did not fall once again for Dutch mind games, began to distribute the ball better. Mandeep and Lalit - who had scored India’s opening goal - started to run behind the Dutch defenders, giving the midfielders a target inside the ‘D’.
Mandeep, dragged India back into the game with an opportunistic finish off a rebound to beat Sam van der Ven in the goal. It’s something he did remarkably even on Saturday - converting the chances that fell for him, or making the goalkeeper work at least. He wasn’t wasteful as before all weekend.
With five minutes remaining, India challenged the umpire’s decision and asked for a penalty corner. India’s reviews were another aspect that was refreshing - on Saturday, they got all six correct and on Sunday, too, the only time they asked for a referral, at a crucial stage of the match, they got it right. Rupinderpal, who had been far too one dimensional in the past, scored from the consequent corner with a wily drag-flick. He pretended to go to the top-right; then, just as the goalkeeper committed himself to that direction, he changed the position of his wrist and flicked it down the middle. With that artful deception, India’s comeback was complete.
In the tie-breaker— Pro League’s format is such that a result is mandatory for all games—Sreejesh denied three Dutchmen while Vivek Sagar Prasad, Gurjant Singh and Akashdeep Singh converted. In long run, in an Olympic year, the results over the weekend may not mean much. But for Reid, the biggest takeaway would be his key players are growing in confidence. The only question remains is if they can repeat the same in high-stakes matches, under a lot more pressure. Like that 2018 World Cup quarterfinal, which a triggered confidence crisis in first place.