Free Man Hockey: Black Sticks Women x HWLF #1



Everyone involved with the Black Sticks Women's team will be rather chuffed that all teams slide on into the Hockey World League Final quarter-finals as they've got plenty to work on. Aotearoa got touched up by Netherlands 4-0 in their opening game and then lost 2-1 to Korea, with the most concerning aspect of these losses being that the same problems were evident in both games.

The positive is that coach Mark Hager has two more games to iron these issues out and if we see two more losses along with improvements, this will still see Aotearoa move into the quarter-finals full of optimism. A major positive, perhaps the only positive thus far is that Aotearoa look their best in super scrappy hockey and while we'd all love to see slicker passing movements and greater efficiency in passing, Aotearoa are have made their own luck through effort and determination.

I'm kinda stretching for a positive here, as much of this scrappy hockey starts with a turnover from a kiwi player. Stacey Michelsen for example won a string of 50-50 contests against Korea, but those contests were only created by losing the ball. Aotearoa's sole goal from the two games came in such fashion, with a poor pass into the circle was hit straight at a Korean defender who then fluffed the trap. This coughed the ball back to Aotearoa and Ella Gunson's determination saw her hold on to the ball, hit a reverse shot/pass across to Erin Goad. 

This stuff is low key crucial because when/if Aotearoa suss out some major problems, such effort plays will be the difference. They won't however be the difference if Aotearoa continue to turnover as much ball as they are and continue to allow opposition teams to pick off long passes with err, worrisome ease.

Exiting defence was never going to be simple against the classy Dutch and Aotearoa made this much harder than it needed to be. In both games, Aotearoa tried to bite off more than they needed to with exit passes which allowed for easy interceptions, or these exit passes were hit directly to an opponent. This feels like an issue of wanting to counter-attack swiftly, so decisions are rushed and care is neglected with the key first pass; it's not a counter-attack if you turn the ball over.

That, or dribbling directly on to an opponents forehand when trying to dribble out of defence as Kelsey Smith did here:


Try not to dribble out of defence and if you do, definitely don't walk into a forehand tackle.

A lack of passing connections coming out of defence is related to a similar lack of link-up play in attack. It's not a good thing when your best attack comes through scrappy effort plays and Aotearoa have largely been unable to build into attacking movements as the movement breaks down within two passes. Early in the Korean game, Aotearoa did look alright in attack as they got to their desired areas on the field, hitting wide patches and then going to the baseline.

Opportunities created from these were great, the finishing was not.

Aotearoa need to snap up these chances, whether it's through penalty corners or smack a goal in. The finishing hasn't been of a HWLF standard though and drag-flicks have gone straight at goalies and most shots have been pushed wide. Compare this to the first Dutch goal that saw a reverse shot hammered into the bottom right corner (opening the floodgates) and the second Korean goal which was slotted into the roof of the net to seal a win.

Signs of a weakness against long passes was evident against Netherlands and I kinda blew this off as being because the Dutch are awesome, along with first game jitters. It became a trend when Korea scored both their goals from such passes and most of their chances came in similar fashion. Centre defender Brooke Neal was exposed if giving the striker far too much space on both occasions, although it's important to note that the whole team is responsible as there's no pressure on the players making the passes and in-between, players are simply letting the ball go through.

Here's a warning shot from Korea, where the Korean player has time to pick her pass:


Time to thread the needle through Aotearoa's defence. Surely one of these three could have got a touch on it:


And Neal isn't close to the Korean receiver:


For the first Korean goal, things got even crazier. I'm not sure who the kiwi player was, but instead of running to the ball (yellow) and cutting off the line of the pass, thus putting the Korean player under pressure, she runs past the line of the pass where she is, well, kinda useless:


The pass takes a deflection, which would have me feeling sympathetic for Neal if this wasn't such a trend. Neal is disconnected from the player she's marking:


And the ball goes right to that player:


Finally, Kelsey Smith gave away a free-hit and was then far too passive in defence, basically inviting the Korean to pass as she pleased:


Neal is again disconnected from her striker, allowing the striker time and space to receive the ball in the circle:


Not great deep-defence from Neal. There's other factors at play here and I've got to wonder if she was getting any help from second-half goalie Sally Rutherford (Grace O'Hanlon started). Neal is trying to defend in front of the striker, which requires immense communication from the goalie and it doesn't seem like Neal got much help there. Nor can you allow players the time and space to make the passes that Aotearoa are letting raid their defence; the machine is failing at every level.

I'll be intrigued by how Hager goes about fixing this, well fixing everything but in particular the defensive scheme. Rose Keddell appears to have been given the centre-midfield duties along with Pippa Hayward and as Hayward's more advanced, Keddell is likely to be operating as the Free Woman in the middle. If so, she's got to stick to the line between the ball and the goal, where she'd be able to intercept these passes. If Smith on the left and Michelsen on the right defend more compact, they'll also help cut off the line and I'm fairly certain we can expect far more aggressive pressure on the ball-carrier at all times.

These are all fix-able and it's good that Aotearoa are doing the opposite of 'peaking early'. There's just a lot to fix and such issues like connections or chemistry in attack need more time, compared to tactical changes that will tighten up the defence. Over to you coach Hager.

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Peace and love 27.