Eight-time Olympic champions India qualified for the Tokyo 2020 Games by beating Russia over two games last weekend. It was not the most fluent of performances but with the qualifying troubles behind them, India can breathe easy. But not for too long.
For Graham Reid, who took over as the men’s team coach in April this year, the qualification gives him a chance to reset and reassess the team goals. India are ranked fifth in the world according to the FIH rankings and on their day, they remain capable of beating the best in the world.
But Reid has the unenviable task of converting the odd brilliant day into scary consistency that will make the world sit up and take notice.
Scroll.in caught up with the head coach a couple of days after India punched their ticket to Tokyo to understand his roadmap for the months leading up to the Olympics.
Excerpts from the free-wheeling interview:
The mission of getting to Tokyo 2020 has been achieved. What next? Do you have a roadmap in mind?
To be totally honest, I have not put a huge amount of thought process into exactly how it’s all going to happen in the next seven or eight months. I have been so focused on making sure that we got to Tokyo and maybe that’s just my Australian way of thinking. I talked to the team a lot about being able to zoom out and look at the big picture and try and plan ahead, which of course we have done. Now we’re going to go down and do it with greater detail.
We’re quite lucky with Pro League because that gives us automatic competition and a really good level of competition – a shootout every game, travel, playing under pressure and in front of good crowds. It is very hard to buy experience like that. So, from a point of view of competition, I think we can sort of tick that off.
The other part about that is that it gives us an opportunity to a good selection tool as well. One of the problems that you have is being able to have a competition where you can select from and so this gives us an ability to bring some younger players to the team. The Pro League is quite demanding and you don’t want to bring all of your players to begin every trip. There is a risk of them getting burnt out and, and so in these next four weeks, it will be about planning matters and looking at exactly you know, who’s going to go on which trip and how that can work. A lot of that’s also going to be dependent on form.
But as you said, it will give India the opportunity to try out a lot of different players for different positions.
Definitely, who played well together and what rotations work and those sorts of things, I’m looking forward to digging deeper into things like goalkeeping. What are we going to have to do with goalkeeping? And what is going to be possible? Can we get access to some funds that allow us to have goalkeeping coaches that travel with the team or coach for camps?
Also, things like goal scoring. We need to get better at that, so that’s an area that we will be trying to spend a little bit more specialised time on.
After the second match against Russia, you did speak about being much more clinical in front of goal. Are you talking about just goalscoring or are you also looking at the number of short corner opportunities that are created from those circle penetrations?
It’s about making sure that that we don’t waste an opportunity. I employ a goal opportunity total score to every chance we get during a game – grabbing every opportunity that you create and assigning a number between one and five. For example, a score of one is an opportunity where you get inside the circle and touch the ball and five is an open shot in front of goal right. And a short corner is worth a five because you get a free shot at the goal Yeah. And so, when you add up your opportunities like that, corners become a little bit more important because there are five and we know from years of history doing this, that if you create then you score a goal. And that’s pretty standard across different teams across different times.
Now, like anything, you need a, you need a bigger sample size, but normally when you average it out over 20 games, then if you have a goal opportunity score of 20, you’ll end up with one goal. So, what all this is saying pretty much tells us that penalty corners are very important scoring opportunities. And so one of the things that I’ll always try and do is to create the threes, fours and fives. I try and teach our players to turn a one into a two or three or four or five.
Of course, one of the best ways to do that is in a short corner. When you use that sort of data, the players get to understand how they could have had a much higher chance of scoring. Or, for example, as we also know, 70% of goals are scored within six yards of the goal. So, how do we get players into those positions, because then we have a much higher chance of scoring.
Clearly, data analytics is a big part of your style of coaching. Do you use data to point out specific flaws or specific things that the Indian team is doing well? When you’re trying to make a point to the team how much do you rely on this data? Or is it more from a tactical viewpoint?
Yeah, it’s a bit of both, To be honest, I think some of it you can use to make a point, just like I did, then others will tell you a story. For example, with our numbers from Friday night, we would have been something like 15% down on our last game in Belgium.
When you say down, are you referring to overall numbers in terms of shots, possessions, or are you looking at fitness?
So, in this case, the number of high-intensity minutes. We recently did a joint training session with the Dutch team and it allowed us to look at the numbers we need against a top team. Against Russia, those numbers dropped. I could look at the numbers and say that we’re not doing the hard work, and doing those sprinting moments and that is what I did on Friday after the first game. Russia played some really nice hockey and sometimes it’s very hard to get back because the opposition can get some oxygen and that’s what happened too.
So how do you stop this team from trying to be too ‘Bollywood’ (as you described it against Russia) during a game?
(Laughs) I used to call it Hollywood when in Australia. It’s what I tell them all the time. I used a quote from Johan Cruyff to make the point. He said, “Playing football is very simple, but playing simple football is the hardest thing there is.”
And, you know, to play hockey simple, is quite difficult. So you end up trying to do different things because you’re trying to win the game or you’re trying to do whatever it is to win. The difficult thing is knowing when you add the extra dose of magic. Teun de Nooijer [the Dutch hockey legend] was somebody who just had that, not doing that special thing when when the time was just right. And that’s the thing – you can’t make it, you can’t force it. It will happen when it’s ready. It just has to flow.
Now that you now have some breathing space before the Olympics are they are there any particular concerns that you’re sort of looking at?
I don’t think there is anything specific to this team and I would make the same comment if I was coaching Holland or Australia. We need to get tighter in defence, we give away too many opportunities. Not every time, but when we’re not playing well, that’s what happens. So I think we need to to get more consistent with our defence. And if we do that, that makes it very hard to score against you and then you have a much better chance of winning.
How would you find the right balance for someone like Rupinder Pal Singh – great drag-flicker but also prone to making errors at the back?
I’m not talking about individuals but players in general. The biggest challenge will be to get everyone’s base game – tackling, goal-scoring, shooting, tracking, passing... all those things, we just need to get as good as we can in these nine months. And that’s the challenge that I’ve thrown down the team to the team at the moment – individually we have to get better. Indian hockey can’t or shouldn’t rely on magic moments to bail us out and that is why the basics are really important.
Are we now sorted on the fitness end of things? It was one of India’s big failings in the past...
Yeah. When we were in Tokyo, for example – and the reason I’m bringing that up is that the environment we’re going to have to play in during the Olympics is going to be similar – we ran over of the top of New Zealand. I know the sort of amount of work that New Zealand puts in and I would say that they are also very fit, but we ran over the top of them so I’m pretty confident and comfortable with where we’re at with our fitness.
We had just finished a fairly hefty four-week block of training at that point and that helped. So now we just have to keep building on that. As far as fitness is concerned, I think that the strength and conditioning guys have done really well on that front.
India was a team that used to somehow find ways to lose games in the final quarter when there were one or two minutes left in the game. How are you looking at that sort of aspect? Are you going to be thinking about mental conditioning coaches?
Yeah, and I will look at that. It’s always a difficult thing. I’ve worked with a lot of psychologists before. The important part of that is the relationship between he or she, and I. So it’s going to be very difficult to find someone who is along those lines, but there are lots of other things that we can do. I think we have access to psychologists here at SAI and I definitely wanted to perhaps take a look at that area and see what’s available from a personal point of view. Trust is a huge part of the equation and that doesn’t happen overnight.
It’s a really good thing that will be certainly having a look at. I want to look at what we can do in the next camp. We’ll roll out a questionnaire to everybody and get the players to write about themselves. There are something like 47 aspects of a person, physical and mental, and hopefully, after we do that we take stock of where we are at. It is about asking the right questions of yourself: Am I mentally strong? Am I brave? Do I suffer under pressure?
India gives away things at the last minute but if you have a look at the games the last two weeks, everyone concedes goals in the last few minutes. It’s the game. That’s what happens. Just have to find a way to not let it happen in the big games.