India ended their 2022-23 FIH Men’s Pro League season with eight difficult matches in Europe. In what were new men’s team coach Craig Fulton’s first matches in charge, India won three, lost four and won one penalty shootout after a draw.
It was a trial by fire for the South African Fulton as India played world No 1 Netherlands (albeit a younger side), world No 2 Belgium and a Great Britain team boasting a strong core from world No 4 England.
India began their European tour with losses against Belgium and team GB. In the return fixtures, they bounced back with a superb 5-1 win over the Red Lions and a 4-2 penalty shootout win over GB after a 4-4 draw.
In Eindhoven, Fulton’s side lost both their matches to a new-look Dutch side but won both their matches against Argentina either side of those defeats.
India scored 20 goals and conceded 12 in this European leg to end their season on 30 points from 16 matches. Though they are still top of the points table, it is very likely that they would not be staying there for long with many teams still to play their fixtures.
It’s still early days in Fulton’s regime with the positive being that the players seem eager to learn and follow the South African’s tactics. That they are willing to be patient and commit sacrifices for the greater good bodes well for Fulton.
There’s no better example of that then when the team focused purely on defence in the second half of their final game against Argentina. They adhered to the structure diligently repelling waves after waves of Argentine attacks while sacrificing their own chances to attack.
Fulton is a defend-to-win coach by his own admission. Ahead of the Europe tour, the South African said he wants his team to be built on the foundation of a good defence.
“I think philosophy-wise I’d like to defend to win,” Fulton had said earlier. “I’d like to have our defensive structures in place because that’s the first step of attacking. If we try to play a counter-attacking style it doesn’t help if you can’t defend, so you would never win the ball back to counter attack.”
But it wasn’t the best of starts for him in that regard. In their first eight matches, India conceded 12 goals and managed to keep only one clean sheet. The matches against Great Britain and the Netherlands exposed India’s vulnerability to effective high presses.
In the London matches, the likes of Great Britain’s Sam Ward and Zach Wallace found a lot of joy attacking in from the wings.
The Dutch games saw a high turnover of possession from India as the hosts ran amok. That this was a relatively inexperienced Dutch side doesn’t paint a pretty picture for the Indian defence.
Fulton also continued David John’s experiment of playing Manpreet Singh in defence. Manpreet was superb in playing out of defence and pinging in some delightful passes to the forward line.
“Right now he’s doing a really good job in helping us with defence,” Fulton said before the matches in Eindhoven.
“He is a really good ball player, he can bring the ball from defence to create the overlap which is one of his strengths. He’s obviously a fantastic midfielder as well. We need a bit more experience at the back and he’s offering that at the moment. Long-term, I’m not sure, it’s not set in stone just yet as we also have some senior defenders coming back to the side. We have not decided yet on the combination.”
While the former India captain performed well in London for a player playing out of position, the Netherlands matches exposed his weaknesses as a defender in one-on-one situations at times. Perhaps a player of his quality, ideally, should be dictating play from the middle of the park and not be tasked with being the last man on defence.
Attack a cause of concern
One of the reasons for India’s early exit from the World Cup was the mis-firing forward line. Those problems were present once again in Europe. Like at the World Cup, India managed to get inside the circle fairly regularly but were unable to take their chances.
“What happens if you are 2-0 down? You can’t sit in your own half and you have to make the game then,” Fulton had said earlier. “You’re going to have to high press, you’re going to have to put the opposition under pressure.”
After his brilliant performances in the Rourkela mini-tournament, there were hopes that Karthi Selvan would keep his place in the 18-man matchday squad consistently in Europe. However, the Tamil Nadu forward did not play in the London matches and only played against Argentina in Eindhoven.
The returning Simranjeet Singh was also rarely used with Fulton playing the veterans Lalit Kumar Upadhyay and Mandeep Singh along with Abhishek, Gurjant Singh and Sukhjeet Singh in attack.
In the matches against Argentina, the young attacking line-up of Abhishek, Karthi, Gurjant and Sukhjeet created some good chances and were effective in the press. The quartet was a joy to watch in India’s wins against Germany and Australia in Rourkela and it was perhaps a missed opportunity that they were not played together against Great Britain, Belgium and the Netherlands.
The highlight of the tour was, of course, the 5-1 win against Belgium where most things clicked into place:
Mandeep and Lalit struggled in Europe with the latter having a forgettable tour. Does Fulton continue to persist with the senior pros or look to play more with the younger group at the risk of going in with inexperienced hands? With the Four Nations Tournament and the Asian Champions Trophy coming up, India need to sort out their forward line up ahead of the Asian Games.
India’s FIH Pro League matches in Europe
India 1-2 Belgium
India 2-4 Great Britain
India 5-1 Belgium
India 4 (4)-(2) 4 Great Britain
India 1-4 Netherlands
India 3-0 Argentina
India 2-3 Netherlands
India 2-1 Argentina