While Aotearoa didn't start the World Hockey League Semi Final in Johannesburg as they would have liked, they re-grouped and dismantled Japan to win 3-1. Goals came via Jared Panchia, Nic Woods and Stephen Jenness, as the Black Sticks Men looked a lot better in control of this game, holding possession and attacking directly when they decided to pounce.
Coach Darren Smith made some minor adjustments like pushing Hayden Phillips into an attacking midfield role and dropping Marcus Child back to spend more time working in conjunction with Nick Ross. Shea McAleese only featured later in the game and I had thought that we might not see him after he left the field with an injury against France, he came on though and with McAleese on deck the kiwis have very strong defensive group.
Japan only really posed a threat on the counter attack and skipper Blair Tarrant dropped the 'counter control' bomb at half-time. It's a fantastic way to describe defending a counter attack and Aotearoa's counter control was impressive, even though the best examples of their defensive efforts came as they struggled to convert their penalty corner opportunities.
Missed traps, bobblin' drags and wide flicks saw Aotearoa struggle to convert their PC's. It wasn't until Woods flicked one home in the 28th minute that they finally sussed things out after being 0-5 at one stage. This shouldn't be a major concern though as these are more weird mistakes, or things that are easily fixed; they'd rather experience these woes early in the tournament, learn and then fix them.
Bumbled PC's gifted Japan attacking opportunities and their speed saw them boost down-field, only for six or seven kiwis to get back and clutter the circle. Counter control isn't just about getting numbers back, but jamming them in the middle of the field so cross-field passes don't happen and then when they approach the circle, they have low-percentage options from rough angles.
With and without the ball, Aotearoa looked impressive. This got me thinking about how this group is developing and it's great to see a level of chemistry in conjunction with clear plans, or patterns. You can only get lots of numbers involved in counter control, if everyone knows their role and is willing to bust their gut to get back, ya know?
Flip this to their attack and the kiwis looked super comfortable holding possession, while creating space at the same time. One example of this was early in the game when Aotearoa had a long corner and took the ball all the way back to their own 25m line. This could be frustrating to some, or casual fans will be all WTF, however with the strikers staying deep in Japan's half, this opens space in the middle of the field for strikers to lead back into, or for midfielders to move around in.
This often involved midfielders staying out of vacant space though, so Hugo Inglis for example could make a lead and pick the ball up running forward, with speed. The defenders need to slide their opponent's strikers from side to side for a few passes, combine with a midfielder who lures in a few Japanese players and then offloads back to a defender, as this creates space and allows time for strikers to set up their leads.
Woods and Ross were great at picking the ball up, having a fiddle, getting numerous Japanese defenders involved and then finding a wide comrade who had plenty of space.
Perhaps this is a specific element of Coach Smith's game plan. It also involves the likes of McAleese, Tarrant, Arun Panchia and Woods playing direct; they were willing and eager to hit 20-30m passes and executed nicely, or carry forward into vacant space. You can only hit such passes if you know where the receiver is going to be, before they get there and this seems to be a well-drilled system - judging from a small sample size.
And it helps when you have Inglis, Jenness and Jared Panchia playing much of the game as the lead striking line. Inglis simply has to be on the field as much as possible as my kiwi bias has him as one of the best strikers at this tournament, yet these three are forming a strong combination where they are able to connect based on instinct.
Inglis and Jenness have been key figures in Aotearoa's top striking line for the past few years, while Panchia has had to battle injury and wait for his opportunity. Kiwi hockey fans will know the sort of wizardry that Panchia is capable of, in this game against Japan though he simply showcased his hockey instincts. He won turnovers pressuring Japanese defenders, made slick passes back to midfielders and pounced on two rebounds to score the opening goal.
There's a severe lack lack of video footage and it's so dumb, however hockey tragics will appreciate the movement of Jenness so far this tournament. To score his goal against France he dipped in front of the French defender at the last moment to get better positioning and to score his goal against Japan, he drifted away from the goal as the kiwis attacked down the right channel, to the top of the circle where he fired of a shot into the bottom left.
Aotearoa don't play their next game until Saturday as they have a bye while the next round of matches go down on Friday. They'll take on Australia who beat France 3-2 and then drew with Spain, setting up two big games for the Black Sticks Men to round off pool play.
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Here's some cool hockey videos that I did manage to find...