Coming off two losses that saw Aotearoa's defence systems put under all sorts of pressure, the Black Sticks Women faced a different challenge against USA. I was intrigued to see how the kiwis would fix a few of those defensive issues, however they spent much of their 3-1 loss to USA with the ball and instead of getting an insight into those defensive flaws, insight into Aotearoa's attacking flaws were amplified.
With so much ball, Aotearoa simply weren't put in the defensive situations that they found themselves in from the first two games. As USA defended with 11 players behind the ball, they didn't have a striker high up the pitch and instead sat comfortably in defence where they waited for Aotearoa to more often than not, work their way into a congested USA defence. This meant that Brooke Neal wasn't tasked with following a striker as much as she was asked to play a key figure in moving the ball to the flanks when Aotearoa set up.
In this regard, Neal was one of Aotearoa's best along with Rose Keddell. Whether Neal is in the centre, or with Sam Charlton dropping back to give Aotearoa two central defenders, thus pushing the likes of Keddell and Liz Thompson up the field, she delivers crisp passes that give the receiver the jump on their defenders.
Aotearoa will definitely be placed under more defensive pressure (odd given they lost 3-1) in the quarter-final as it suited USA's style to sit back and either Germany or Argentina will be far happier in holding the ball, building attacks and dominating the kiwis. And with some rather average attacking play hindering Aotearoa, they'll be heavy underdogs in the quarter-final.
Scratching the surface suggests that Aotearoa were great on attack as they had all the ball, circle entries and shots. None of these were of any great quality though and while Aotearoa's penalty-corner goal came from a nice variation (very similar variation to USA's first goal), it came after three consecutive corners had gone to the left and the PC before the goal was the same variation, only Olivia Merry's sweep didn't catch a deflection. Aotearoa basically ran the same variation, first going to the left with a drag-flick a few times and then the sweep/deflection. They kinda hammered away at one variation and then moved on to another, which was weird.
Compared to USA who executed their early PC with precision. Aotearoa have many moving parts in their PC bracket as well, which feels like it's all show and no go, whereas USA just kept it simple and scored. Other than that, circle entries and shots don't mean a whole lot unless they result in a goal. Aotearoa dribbled into tackles or simply shot wide and as we saw in the first two games, USA's third goal was a reverse that went into the bottom right; put it in the corner and you score. Stacey Michelsen had a similar reverse-shot opportunity at the top of the circle and this summed up Aotearoa's lack of world-class finishing as she shanked it to the right, while USA slotted it in the corner.
Dominating possession is cool, yet Aotearoa made life super hard for themselves and once again just played bad hockey. There was a patch in the 2nd quarter where the kiwis held the ball, made simple passes, moved the ball around USA's compact defence and this looked really good, exactly how they should play. This was a patch though and much of Aotearoa's attacking movements broke down via dribbling into a bad position (multiple USA defenders) or attempting a horrible pass.
Here's some examples, led by a move that resulted in the USA getting a (dubious) PC from which they scored. The PC was dubious, yet Neal shouldn't have been in that position as a counter-attack started when Amy Robinson decided to dribble into a tight space where two free (yellow) USA defenders were ready to pounce:
That's instead of passing to a fullback, swinging it around to the other side and finding space, holding possession and building pressure. Next, Olivia Merry received a delightful pass from Sam Charlton who thread the needle to put Merry in a great position. Merry could have gone around the defender's reverse (hockey 101), hit the baseline and fed a pass across the goal or worked a PC. Instead, Merry cut back to the middle, not only on to the defender's forehand, but into the path of the free defender:
Because this slowed the attack down, USA then had multiple defenders around the ball and Merry was caught up dribbling, head down, so she couldn't see any passes:
Michelsen then tried to make an impossible pass, through a USA defender. The better option is in blue with Sam Harrison there, ready, waiting, only for Michelsen to take a horrible option:
Also note the number of USA defenders in this play, there are four in front of Michelsen, one chasing her and two (red dots) slightly out of shot chasing back. USA always had numbers, they wanted to defend and congest the centre - they were happy to absorb all the kiwi possession (not crumbling under the weight of possession as those pesky commentators would lead you to believe).
Here's another example where the ball could have been moved to the other side of the field (blue), instead the kiwi player cuts back to her right. You'll see that there are two USA defenders chasing the kiwi, so it's already a 1 v 2 situation, which isn't a good situation to enter:
And because USA always had numbers in defence, this became a 1 v 3 situation and an easy turnover with a help defender arriving on the scene (yellow).
One more! Harrison has an easy outlet pass here to Robinson, from which the ball could be moved to the other side:
Instead, Harrison gets her head down where she can't see any passes and dribbles in the exact same situation where USA have two defenders on the ball and a third arrives from in the cricle to make a tackle:
None of this is good, it's detrimental and rather concerning that Aoeteroa are routinely turning down simple passes that work wonders for them, to dribble into waiting defenders. You don't see many international teams either play such an individualistic style of hockey, or make such poor decisions and Aotearoa will be smoked in the quarter-final if they continue down this route.
This was super evident against USA because USA understood how this game would play out. They were physical, niggly and energetic, plus they were comfortable in their defence and always had defenders near the ball to snuff out any eager dribblers. Aotearoa did exactly what USA wanted and we're now left with a Black Sticks team that has shown defensive frailties against slick attacking teams and weird attacking instincts against a more defensive team.
But hey, they're in the quarter-finals.
Peace and love 27.