A beaming Craig Fulton was arm-in-arm, embracing his old mates in the Belgian men’s hockey team following their Pro League match against India in Antwerp. The South African had spent five years as an assistant coach, guiding the European side to become the benchmark in world hockey, winning gold at the 2018 World Cup, 2019 EuroHockey Championship and the 2020 Olympics.

Craig Fulton(Twitter)

It was obvious when the 49-year-old was appointed India chief coach a little more than a year back that he was going to bring his own set of ideas and implement his style of hockey at his new job. And his style is quite different to that of his predecessor.

Now catch your favourite game on Crickit. Anytime Anywhere. Find out how

Graham Reid was a typical Aussie. The Australian style of playing the game is all about constant attack and forward press. Their aim is to pound attack-after-attack, bully the opposition, score as many goals, dismantling the structure and self-belief of the opponents.

Belgium, on the other hand, play a very European style hockey, centred around ball possession, short passes, structured play with players sticking to their zones, not letting the opposition get through defences and scoring at the opportune moment with a goal or two more than enough to secure a win, similar to tiki-taka of the Spanish football.

Indian hockey experts were left surprised when Fulton expressed that his mantra was ‘defend to win’. But he silenced his critics when an unbeaten India claimed gold at both the Asian Champions Trophy and Asian Games to directly qualify for Paris Olympics.

After a little more than a year under Fulton, the players now seem to be buying into his ideas.

“India’s ball possession is certainly better. They are holding on to the ball more than they have in the past and trying to shift it around well. There’s a bit more of European style. That is evident,” says Shane McLeod, former Belgium head coach who guided them to gold at both the 2018 World Cup and 2020 Olympics. Fulton was McLeod’s assistant.

“Craig has very good game knowledge and that comes through the players. India players now look like having the ability to play different strategies. These are new things. Craig has got the players enjoying a (new) style, but it takes a while to build that. Some areas resemble how Belgium play.”

India have always been a quintessential counterattacking side with flair in their attack, relying heavily on individual skill and brilliance. But that also left India vulnerable in defence, giving away many goals especially towards the end of the match – a traditional Achilles heel.

But Fulton’s ‘defend to win’ tactic tightens the defence, primarily maintaining a zonal structure, pressing forward as a unit without any gaps, holding possession, trying to find gaps and pouncing on the opportunity. The idea is to first slow down the opposition, poach the ball and then dominate play. Importantly, players have wholeheartedly welcomed Fulton’s methods.

“Graham was about full press on counterattack. If it worked, then great, but if not, we had to run back to our defensive positions each time to cover the counter. The boys used to get tired and we could not play at the same pace,” says India midfielder Nilakanta Sharma.

“Craig is tactically very sound. Now even if we are behind, we still have to follow structure and not panic. When you attack like this you, you will get for example get five chances out of which 1-2 will be successful. I like his style. Also, earlier, I never gave too much importance to defence. Under Craig, my ability to win the ball, do double tackling, knowing when to press and defend has really improved.”

India vice-captain Hardik Singh seconded his teammate. “Craig was with Belgium for such a long time and knows their strong points. Earlier, we used to focus more on attacking but Craig says to keep the ball, tire the other team out and we will get our chance, not be desperate and grab our opportunities. I have learnt a lot of game sense under Craig.”

India’s seasoned defender Amit Rohidas says interchanging of positions in the backline has also increased under Fulton with extra emphasis on communication. “Our defensive technique has changed under Craig. Now, if five are attacking then five are defending too. Also, the number of structures and formations have increased from 1-2 to 3-4. If one is not successful, then we try others.”

Last year, with India easily beating all Asian teams, Fulton’s tactics seemed to be working brilliantly. But it hasn’t been the case this year with Australia whitewashing India in a five-match series in Perth before an average Pro League season where India earned only five outright wins in 16 games. But McLeod, who is now a consultant with Belgium, said there’s nothing to worry about.

“We are yet to see the finished product. We are seeing a team in the development stage. Craig’s been working really hard. The team is going through a high-performance process. He is not looking at the results at the moment. He is trying to get his game in order. You will see the finished product on July 27 when India play their first game at the Olympics against New Zealand,” concluded McLeod.

Source link