Free Man Hockey: Black Sticks In Jo'burg #4

 Cheers for the heads up, boss.

Cheers for the heads up, boss.

It wasn't just a semi final spot up on the line for the Black Sticks Men against Belgium, there was also a spot in the World League Final and a guaranteed spot in the World Cup. There's still a high chance that Aotearoa will qualify for the World Cup if they can finish fifth at the World Hockey League Semi Final, but damn; after two strong performances, they saved a reasonably average effort for a massive game of hockey.

Aotearoa went down 2-0 to Belgium and did well not to concede any more goals. Richard Joyce was given the goalkeeping duties and looked impressive stepping in for Devon Manchester. Joyce was at ease making saves with his glove up high, his stick down low and made some strong saves with his boot as well. The variety of saves made by Joyce is what stood out, yet that variety came as Belgium enjoyed plenty of chances and peppered the kiwi goal.

Both Belgium goals were scored in the opening quarter and both came from some horrible turnovers. Nick Haig tried to overhead the ball from sideline to sideline and barely made it three-quarters of the way before it was intercepted and slotted home. Then Nic Woods slipped a mediocre pass into the midfield, Hayden Phillips couldn't control it and Belgium burst forward to grab their second.

Here's some US hockey players dancing...

And here's an Aussie who can't beatbox or dance...

In all honesty, while the Black Sticks gritted their teeth and fought hard to keep themselves in this game and not let in any more goals, they were incredibly sloppy in possession. Belgium set up their defensive press efficiently and were as impressive without the ball as they were strolling forward, but for whatever reason the likes of Woods, Haig and Kane Russell saved their worst performances for a quarter final. 

This was also evident in the midfield where Phillips couldn't trap much in congestion and everyone sat with the ball, inviting Belgium to snatch it away. Sloppy touches and the desire to play direct hurt the kiwis as they repeatedly tried to pass through Belgium players, which is just a bit silly.

Belgium were slick in winning turnovers and moving the ball to the other side of the field, scrambling Aotearoa's defence and enjoying plenty of space. Aotearoa on the other hand simply plugged the ball into further congested areas which either resulted in an interception by the Belgium defender sitting right in front of the passing kiwi, or a bad trap in traffic.

The commentators highlighted how Belgium defended super well by controlling angles and that played its part. Belgium were able to shut down passing lanes by defending off each other's shoulders, cluttering passing lanes and Aotearoa played right into this by playing what I'd suggest was a rather 'agricultural' style of hockey; get ball, charge forward. There was also some fairly agricultural defence, with Haig giving away inexplicably cheap penalty corners and the field players should be putting in a kind word for Joyce as he saved their backsides a fair bit.

Flipping this to when Aotearoa were defending, they did the opposite of Belgium's effective press. Instead of splitting the field in half by forcing Belgium to play towards a sideline, Aotearoa set up with three strikers in a flat line across the field more often than not. Behind these strikers was either Phillips or George Muir, with Muir also featuring heavily in the striking line and the amount of passes that Belgium were allowed to make from their defenders into the midfield, where a Belgium midfielder could receive, turn and pass forward, basically resulted in the kiwis being torn to shreds.

This wasn't the best performance from the players, nor was it Darren Smith's finest hour as coach and after showing off some nice tactical ploys in earlier games, this quarter final was a bit of a reality check. Having inexperienced players in such a crucial position, sitting behind the strikers where they have to mark space and keep pressure on the deep Belgium midfielder was strange. As was a rather passive press, which was made to look weak as it let Belgium fiddle with the ball while Belgium put the kiwis under immense pressure with an aggressive press.

Smith also kept Jared Panchia on the bench for much of this game and while I doubt that Panchia would have helped other players trap the ball, make accurate passes and generally play better than they did; Panchia was the most creative threat for Aotearoa. That says a lot about how ineffective the kiwis attacking movements were as Panchia was the most threatening with less than five touches of the ball. 

Coach Smith must have his reasons for keeping Panchia on the bench, yet Panchia has been a lively figure up front all tournament. This just had a funky smell and while Smith's tactical decisions were shown up by Belgium's kiwi coach Shane McLeod, he kinda shot the team in the foot by not really playing his best team as much as possible.

Aotearoa now face Egypt on Friday night and they should win that game. That's the issue though as Aotearoa need to graduate from fighting hard against 'better' teams to beating better teams, playing their best hockey against better teams in knockout stages of major tournaments. This loss to Belgium was a combination of a lack of skill, execution and enthusiasm from the players along with some weird coaching decisions. In other words, the Black Sticks fluffed aspects of the game that they can control, hence it's rather disappointing.

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