Free Man Hockey: Black Sticks Women World Cup #1

 Doozy.

Doozy.

Aotearoa's Black Sticks got their World Cup campaign off to a strong start in beating Belgium 4-2 and in terms of a first up performance, you can't really ask for much more. There is plenty to work on though and areas for concern that could offer some problems as the kiwis get deeper into the tournament, but getting the W, scoring a few goals and easing the World Cup nerves is all that matters right now.

Kelsey Smith and Shiloh Gloyn scored the first two goals, pretty much the same penalty corner scheme remixed; low drag flick deflected on the left in front of the Belgium goalie. There are a bunch of options available to the Black Sticks and I don't think it's any coincidence that their first few PC's of the World Cup were deflections on the left as they'll work their way through their variations as the tournament progresses. Olivia Merry also swept for a deflection with a PC later on, perhaps we'll see less deflection variations in the next few pool games as they switch things up.

Merry scored the key goals, getting the kiwis up 3-2 after Belgium bounced back after conceding the first goal to go up 2-1. Merry pounced on midfield turnover and then received a lovely bounce pass from a Belgium player having tried to pass through the Belgium player, then hitting a reverse through the goalie's legs; reasonably lucky, clinical nonetheless. A scramble in front of goal then gave the kiwis a penalty stroke, which Merry converted.

Both Belgium goals came from some strange defending, I'll put it down to first game chillin'. Despite having plenty of defenders in the vicinity, Belgium repeatedly won possession in goal-face scramble and the ball ultimately fell to a striker on the post. There was a slight lack of urgency to command the ball in that situation and then, Anita McLaren missed a trap at the top of the circle, with an opponent behind her and Belgium were suddenly up 2-1.

The best thing about the Black Sticks in their game is also something that could trip them up as they move through the tournament and teams are better prepared; McLaren and Michelsen charging through the midfield. So many chances came from these two bursting through the midfield - McLaren with her pace, Michelsen with her nek level skills - and it's bonkers to think how easily they can slice through international defences.

McLaren low key through a 30m overhead on the move, across the field to Michelsen. That's not normal and this type of x-factor is the driving force of almost everything the kiwis do in attack.

McLaren and Michelsen are truly world-class, Mark Hager is an experienced coach. Thus, I don't doubt that there will be adjustments made throughout the tournament and with Michelsen especially; knowing that she'll dribble is one thing, stopping her is another thing. I'm weary of how effective this will be moving forward for a few reasons, most notably against teams like Netherlands, Argentina, or maybe even Australia in pool play.

First of all, McLaren and Michelsen are always running up the guts, meaning there is little width in the attacking movements. Then there is a predictability to this reliance on McLaren and Michelsen that better teams will pounce on; Michelsen always cuts back in-field from the right and soon you'll find multiple defenders there waiting for her.

This comes with little creativity ahead of McLaren and Michelsen. Everyone works hard, get to good positions in the circle and PC goals are a sign of a slick team. The Black Sticks strikers aren't going to eliminate defenders 1 vs 1 though, nor do they link up with swift passing combinations. Hence McLaren and Michelsen are so important and vs Belgium, they were on fire.

In terms of how the Black Sticks lined up...

Defence: Rutherford (GK), Keddell, Neal, Thompson, Gunson, Davies.
Midfield: McLaren, Michelsen, Smith, Charlton.
Strikers: Merry, Harrison, Doar, Gloyn, Robinson.

Those midfielders had a huge workload, with Lulu Tuilotolava not used off the bench as Hager obviously wanted to ensure they got a win first up. Now they come up against Japan on Wednesday morning NZT, after Japan went down 3-2 to Australia before their final pool game against Australia after a few days rest.

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Peace and love 27.