What I’ve Seen in Twelve Months of Hockey
Over the past year, we have had a lot of hockey mull over. Teams and players have made names for themselves, even causing the FiH and others to rethink a few things – world rankings for example. The Women’s World Cup in London was a particular delight, giving Irish sports fans something else to be noisy about. At this point in time, Perhaps most people have forgotten that we had pushed back at the start of the calendar with the Indoor World Cup, and I think that some things that have happened in the outdoor game can be traced to our small sided game. It has been an interesting twelve months of hockey in terms of tactics and changes in fandom. Here are some of my thoughts and observations of how things have gone.
Style of Play – Learnt from Indoor
A pass and move style of hockey is dominating International events. Teams are looking to exploit the spaces created by movements made by players off the ball and then using the pace of a pass to get in behind the defence and this is something that we can trace to indoor events. The national teams that can develop this style in the small sided version of the game and then take it to the larger 11-a-side game tend to dominate over sides that want to show off their individual attacking abilities. Germany and the Netherlands are experts at this and their dominance over indoor hockey in both the male and female categories has, surely, helped to develop their efficiency, precision and quickness in both technique and thought at the outdoor World Cups. The English on the other hand, who no longer compete at international level in the 6-a-side game have struggled to show a pass and move, space creating game, that can compete consistently at the sharp end of a World Cup, for both men and women, in a way to dominate an opponent.
One of the main criticisms of the English national sides has been a desire of individuals to ‘win it off their own stick’. This is something that can be improved upon from a technical point of view in hockey 6’s, without leading to over-reliance. Individual skills are honed at Indoor, but learning to do so at the right time and in the right place is essential and finding a balance between one and group is a big part of the game at elite level.
4 – 3 – 3 is King (or Queen in the Women’s Game)
The formation that is held most dear by hockey teams and coaches on the international stage right now seems to be to setting up with four defenders, three midfielders and three forwards. At the two outdoor World Cups we have seen this year, most teams set up with a variation of this formation.
Normally the sweeper plays behind three backs setting up with basically a one and a three. Depending on how defensive a midfield a team plays with (either two holding midfielders with one higher up the pitch, or one deeper and two higher) the backs playing in front of the sweeper have a number of variations to play with. With one sweeper three backs further forward and a holding midfielder, there are basically five defensive players over two lines in the defensive half, providing depth and width when bringing the ball out from the back. When going forward teams seem to enjoy playing with the three forwards playing very tightly together inside the opposition circle, looking to play off each other, find space for drag backs after drives along the baseline and deflections from crash balls at angles outside the circle. This means that width (in this formation) has to come from either left, or right full-back, or left or right half-back in central midfield – being allowed to advance forward by the holding midfielder. On paper this is a 4-3-3, but in practice a 5-5, or a 1-4-2-3
For me, I’d like to see some more variation. I have a suspicion that bulking out the midfield will have positive consequences for teams with a hard running midfield. We don’t need so many forwards, as long as the midfielders are fit enough to be involved in more than one phase of play – not a problem with today’s elite players, especially with the modern rolling substitutes rule allowing players to basically rest for half the game, sipping Gatorade. In a lot of game that I have seen there is a huge gap in the midfield, admittedly prompted by a lack of an offside, which moves defensive lines back to the circle. This, basically, means attacking teams can exploit the space by creating fast paced 1 vs. 1’s, or 2 vs. 1’s attacking overloads in the middle of the field. If an extra player is dropped back from the attack, defensive lines can push up higher to deal with this opposing attacking threat as well as create overloads themselves.
An Increase in Spectators and TV/Internet Coverage
Over the Women’s World Cup in London the number of spectators for women’s sport in the UK broke a new all time high record. According to BBC Sport ticket sales surpassed the previous record for the year to hit 682,000 and has reported a 38% growth since 2013, as stated by Sports Marketing Agency Two Circles. It came on the back of the English Football Association’s Women’s Super League, Women’s Cricket World Cup at Lord’s in 2017, as well as a women’s test series held at Twickenham. This is great news for British sport, as it means that there is an ever increasing variation for fans and participants to be involved in. Sport as a spectacle can easily become monotonous, or homogenous, but it’s good to see that the culture in the UK is starting to take a leaf out the books from North America and the Oceanic regions by including a variety of sports, instead of just Association Football, but in our own way. By making the spectacle of hockey an ever greater focal point in the mainstream media, our sport has a platform to increase the potential for financial income and promote participation at the grassroots level.
BT Sport seems keen to buy the ‘product’ of hockey and then sell it for advertising revenue. There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as the job they do was as good as it was during the Women’s World Cup in London – personally, I think that the British broadcasters did a better job than that of the Indians during the Men’s World Cup. Where pay per view and terrestrial television and radio is dropping the ball, the internet is picking it up. YouTube and Facebook streams are using the democratic powers of the modern technologies available to us to show the world our magnificent sport. The only criticism of the internet feeds I can make is that it can put even the most avid hockey fan (of which there could be a lot more) into a stupor of boredom. The camera angles are often poor, making it difficult to follow the ball and therefore the action – I recently saw an Open Series game played in Lahore, where the cameraman found it difficult to keep the camera straight, let alone the ball inside the frame. Below the elite level FIH games, there is often no commentary and if there is, it’s not of a particularly entertaining, or enlightening standard. Surely, we can do better! Surely, we can make this more professional! This year, we have seen a surge in the popularity of podcasts and viewership of field hockey – check out Talk Hockey Radio and The Reverse Stick on either iTunes, or Spotify. The job of potential entrepreneurs now is to bring a sense of professionalism that has been lacking in the coverage of club hockey and the international game played below that of the World Cup. A multimedia platform product can be taken and sold to clubs, leagues and National Governing Bodies in order to promote hockey. This is the time to push on from the progress we have made so far. I think that there is money to be made here, barriers to be broken and frontiers to be explored, all of which can be good for hockey. Watch this space…