Despite a first up win, Aotearoa's Black Sticks showed a few concerning signs against Belgium and in their second game of the Hockey Women's World Cup, Japan exposed those weaknesses and snatched a 2-1 win. With Australia and Belgium playing out a 0-0 draw, Aotearoa now sit in 2nd, on equal points with Japan and a +1 goal difference, while Australia are 1st.
In what could be a worrying sign, Japan were far more enthusiastic than the kiwis, they were faster and their endless running ensured that they always had numbers in defence while also posing a threat in attack. This isn't such a bad thing though for Aotearoa as you'd have to assume that they won't churn out another performance like that against Australia, if not because of the trans-Tasman battle then simply because the kiwis won't want to be out-ran again.
Both of Japan's goals came directly from rather silly turnovers from Aotearoa. The first was scored off a penalty corner, stemming from Anita McLaren running into a cul de sac of Japanese defenders further up-field. The second goal came from a Brooke Neal overhead that went straight to a Japanese player who then worked in into the kiwis circle and scored.
Aotearoa finished strong and played their best hockey in the last 5 minutes. Their goal came from a penalty stroke - their second in two games - which came from a penalty corner shot.
The injection of Lulu Tuilotolava off the bench in that final quarter gave the kiwis a boost, with Tuilotolava winning the initial PC and offering plenty of energy up front, as well as distributing the ball further back as the kiwis worked out of defence.
It took until the final 2mins for Aotearoa to showcase a fine passing movement up the right flank, the type of hockey that they have shown they can play but we unfortunately see little of. Japan's chemistry and combinations were sizzling all game, moving the ball with short passes that flowed together seamlessly and these combos ensured they always had pockets of space as the kiwis chased the ball.
That all comes from Japan's willingness to work short passes and their running. Without the ball, Japan pressed high up the field, putting the kiwi defenders under pressure and if Aotearoa did work through that press, Japan worked super hard to ensure that they had numbers behind the ball.
On the other hand, Aotearoa looked tired. They didn't have many passing options and many of the passes they made either went to a Japanese player or, were not trapped by the recipient. Given that Japan were buzzing and Aotearoa were lethargic, to finish strong and almost emerge with a draw is a positive for the Black Sticks.
The concerns from the Belgium game revolved around the kinda one-dimensional attack from the kiwis and Japan limited the influence of McLaren and Stacey Michelsen well. Most of the runs forward from McLaren or Michelsen from midfield positions resulted in turnovers, which not only stopped the flow of the attack for Aotearoa but then allowed Japan to counter attack.
With little creativity or connections up front, Aotearoa rely heavily on their midfielders to create and as Japan have played against Aotearoa a lot recently, they knew what was coming. Passing combinations and working the ball through the layers works best for Aotearoa, especially if it means that Michelsen is receiving the ball with just one defender in her area.
In the last quarter, the kiwis moved the ball from the left, through Samantha Charlton and Rose Keddell to Michelsen who was wide right where she had space to work with and a scattered defence. Too much of this game featured hopeful passes either into congestion or through a Japanese player, instead of picking out the easier passes and working the ball through the Japanese press to get to the attacking weapons like Michelsen.
Aotearoa is basically guaranteed to slide into the next stage of the World Cup, so this loss won't have any drastic consequences for their campaign. Hopefully it will offer a point of reference of what not to do, how the Black Sticks don't want to play their hockey and they can learn from this. Next up is Australia on the weekend.
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Peace and love 27.