All that really matters from Aotearoa Black Sticks' first game vs France at the Men’s Hockey World Cup, was that they grabbed a win and 3 points. Outside of the result, this performance could only be described as niggly and it nearly didn't end so positive with scoring a goal late to peg the score back to 2-1, yet the kiwis hung on to start their Hockey World Cup with a win.
Coach Darren Smith said at half-time that the kiwis were nervous in possession and the lack of accuracy with the ball saw the Black Sticks struggle to control the game. An early goal from Kane Russell put them up 1-0 early in the 2nd quarter and then Stephen Jenness scored in the 4th quarter, to give the kiwis a buffer. Their niggly, nervous performance however was reflected in their passing accuracy which finished at 58.51 percent and when you then chuck in the amount of turnovers from carrying the ball, the Black Sticks were constantly on the back foot with 47 percent of the ball.
France on the other hand, enjoyed 72.15 percent passing accuracy. Turning that much ball over to France would definitely not have been part of the plan, what did appear planned was to sit back in defence and allow France to create their forward movements before pouncing on defence. Of course that starts with giving France so much ball, yet throughout the game in all situations, France were allowed to build into their attack.
That's not a negative for Aotearoa and it will now be interesting to see how this applies to their next game vs Argentina. Aotearoa would have been confident in their work rate and defensive nous to force France into contests down the field, but against Argentina the kiwis may have to be more aggressive in pressing further up the field.
When the Black Sticks did have the ball and strung a few passes together, they looked their best hitting the flanks to go around France. Both goals came from aerial passes, into wide pockets and whether it was going over, or around the French, there was plenty of time and space to be had in those pockets. Russell's movement from defence, forward into these pockets on the right is crucial to the Black Sticks and they definitely lean towards the right over the left.
Here’s Shea McAleese (x) passing to Russell, which first and foremost was a nek level overhead as McAleese did so in confined space with limited vision:
Russell is the traditional right-half, while McAleese is a central defender. Russell’s found space, pushing up the flank where he sits ahead of his marker.
Then, once Russell receives that nek level pass from McAleese, the Black Sticks strikers have cleared out to allow Russell to isolate the French defender and Russell gasses him around the outside:
Much of this applies to Jenness’ goal as well - including some fairly shabby goal-keeping. Starting with another nek-level overhead, this time on the run from Nic Woods:
Which is put into space, a wide pocket where Jenness has the jump on his marker:
Again, looking forward to the game vs Argentina (who beat Spain 4-3) the freedom to pass into the wide pockets and receive in those areas most likely won't be as profound. Argentina present a whole new challenge for the Black Sticks, however the kiwis looked as though they simply needed to escape that first game with a win and not let the first game jitters de-rail their campaign.
That means that the kiwis should be better for getting the game vs France out of the way. Any negatives here were via the Black Sticks, not from France doing something crazy or playing at a super high level to influence the kiwis performance. Unforced errors and general sloppiness definitely isn't ideal, yet understandable for this group in their first World Cup game.
As for how the Black Sticks lined up, Russell sat on the right with Blair Tarrant and Shea McAleese in the central defensive roles. Corey Bennett, Arun Panchia and Dane Lett featured on either flank and the Black Sticks primarily played with four defenders, then three midfielders as opposed to three defenders and four midfielders. This could be a feature of their style as it allows them to push Russell up higher, on the right without losing any defensive structure; push a defender up the flanks instead of through the middle.
Nic Woods and Nick Ross handled the defensive midfield role, with Marcus Child, Hayden Phillips and Aidan Sarikaya playing in more advanced roles. Up front, Hugo Inglis, Stephen Jenness and George Muir started, while Jared Panchia and Dominic Newman rotated through.
Both goals were well taken and if you are to win these niggly games, taking your chances is mandatory. France's goal came from a drag-flick, after the kiwis had defended a bunch of penalty-corners strongly via their first two runners and Richard Joyce who was in goal. A super funky thing to watch out for moving forward is how the Black Sticks sent two runners out to block France's drag-flicks, essentially blocking half the goal to Joyce's left.
Prior to this, they did go with the traditional one runner:
Either way, this is a beautiful sign of some creativity in different schemes. Argentina have one of the best flickers in the world in Gonzalo Peillat and while Argentina will do their homework on Aotearoa's PC defence, funky set ups could play a role in limiting Peillat's influence.
Ideally, we see the Black Sticks build on this win over France. The errors and lack of accuracy can be put down to nerves, anxiety and eagerness to get this World Cup underway. They escaped with 3 points and now face a slick Argentina team on Monday morning, who will pose a far greater threat than France.
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Peace and love 27.