Two games into their Rio Olympic campaign, the Black Sticks have laid a solid foundation from which they can built on although the strength of Pool A will make life very difficult for them moving forward. The kiwi lads opened with a 2-1 loss against Australia before bouncing back with a 2-2 draw against Great Britain and in both games there were good signs.
Australia are favourites to at least win a medal and they showcased their typical style of play against the kiwis, relying heavily on speed and strength. The Black Sticks did a great job throughout the game to hang in it and came extremely close to sealing a late draw as Hugo Inglis' goal was ruled out after a review. Inglis got the sole goal for the kiwis just before the half-time break, pegging one back after they went 2-0 down.
A different sort of challenge was laid down by Great Britain as they allowed the Black Sticks to dominate much of the possession and made the most of a few chances. All four goals came in the first half and as a fan, this game was a joy to watch on the back of watching a great Australia team. Both Australia and GB have players of the highest quality, headlined by Jamie Dwyer being the best player on the park as a 37-year-old in the first game and then you had a GB team that with the likes Barry Middleton, Ashley Jackson and Harry Martin leading a strong team performance.
Despite putting their best foot forward and competing well against Australia, that first game was always going to be a tricky assignment. This made the game against GB much more interesting for me as it was a slightly more even match up and a game in which I thought we'd see the Black Sticks dictate the style, playing how they wanted to play. For much of this game, that's exactly what happened and this game highlighted some key elements of their play that will crucial in games against Spain, Brazil and Belgium.
The three veterans of the team play in each layer with Simon Child up front, Ryan Archibald in the midfield and Shea McAleese in the middle of the defence. All three are key play-makers across the field, with McAleese doing a sound job of carrying the ball into space as well as picking out the right pass more often than not.
The funk comes when Child drops deeper from his striker position, slipping back into the midfield where he gets more ball and has the game in front of him, allowing him to pick out passes. Archibald is the closest kiwi athlete to Italian footballer Andrea Pirlo as he sits in the pocket and pulls the strings. Against GB, good things tended to happen when either of these three had the ball, especially when Child drifted all over the field, popping up in vacant space.
Kane Russell scored a screamer of a goal against GB, which came from a Nic Woods overhead and with Russell creeping forward up the right flank, trapping the overhead and smacking it between the goalie's legs. Russell is an attacking weapon with great skill and speed which allows him to burst forward, his presence on the right is not only a specific weapon, it also reflects how the kiwis attack when they are at their best.
Down the flanks. The Black Sticks look their best when they are attacking the wide channels and then combining with short passes. Shay Neal was a standout against GB and reflects the hard-working yet skillful nature of this group of strikers, he played a key role in setting up Hayden Phillips' goal by carrying the ball strongly around the GB defence, along the baseline and combining nicely with Inglis before Phillips pounced on the loose ball.
Nick Wilson left the field with what looked to be a ankle injury which could be a hefty blow for the striking depth, yet this game after Wilson also carried the ball to and then along the baseline. This is how the kiwi lads are going to break down their opponents and they must keep pumping this wide channels, relying on the chemistry of their strikers to combine with short passes.
Devon Manchester deserves some lovin' as well after repelling many GB chances, making Jackson's drag flicks look rather pedestrian. He's not big but he moves swiftly and reads the play well.
Wednesday is a big day for the Black Sticks men as the face Spain, who have traditionally been a decent team but not quite in that upper echelon with Australia, Netherlands and Germany. However Spain beat Australia 1-0 and are currently level with Belgium at the top of Pool A on 6 points - Belgium are a similar team to Spain as they aren't favourites but have huge Dark Horse potential. It's important to note that Brazil's first two games were against Spain and Belgium, so our Black Sticks, Australia and GB are yet to cash in on what must be considered a certain win against Brazil.
I reckon the Black Sticks will need a win against either Spain or Belgium to seal at least 4th in their Pool, thus qualifying for the quarterfinals. That starts with Spain on Wednesday, 1am NZT; this is high-pressure Olympic hockey folks.