Image: Wikimedia Commons / Igor henry92
Image: Wikimedia Commons / Igor henry92

Team GB men’s hockey: tournament review

Team GB lost 3-1 to India in the quarter finals of the Olympics, meaning they leave the tournament having previously finished third in Pool B.

The tournament started well for Britain, who won their first two games 3-1 against the lower-ranked sides of South Africa and Canada respectively.

However, their first real test came against Germany, where Britain were thrashed 5-1 by a much better outfit.

With the massive defeat now behind them, Team GB went into the Netherlands game with a chip on their shoulder, especially given that a point would secure their progression to the knockout rounds.

After going 2-0 down and being on the back foot for most of the game, it seemed that Britain were going to have to wait until the Belgium game to secure their progression. However, the team demonstrated its character and dug deep, clawing back level through fan-favourite Sam Ward’s brace in the fourth quarter to clinch a 2-2 draw.

Having secured their progression to the knockout rounds, Britain were seeking to gain the best seeding possible for their quarter final fixture. First place was out of reach – Belgium had secured that honour and so the main aim for Britain was ensuring that they did not have to face the winning machine that was Australia (undefeated in their pool).

A 2-2 draw that ended somewhat bizarrely meant that Team GB settled for third place, dodging Australia but setting up a tough game against India, nevertheless.

Having started the tournament with two wins, Team GB were favourites to become medallists. However, with some weaker results against some tougher opposition, their frailties began to show, and they went into the India game as the underdog.

With that said though, Britain gave their all in the India game, and started as energetically as you would hope. India did, ultimately, prevail. They won the affair 3-1 after capitalising on British mishaps in their own 25 to score their first two goals and have a significant grip on the game. Harjit Singh added the cherry on top with a beautiful solo goal.

The win sent India through to the semi-final, where they lost to Pool B’s juggernauts, Belgium, as Team GB bowed out in disappointing fashion.

Britain came into this tournament as dark horses – nothing was expected of them, but they had the talent to be medallists. Their strong start against South Africa and Canada elevated them above this status, however, as they began to garner winning momentum and looked like one of the strongest outfits in the tournament.

The game against Germany, then, can be viewed in two ways: a foreshadowing of Britain’s downfall or the necessary character-building of Britain as a victor.

The 5-1 thumping exposed Britain’s struggles at the back. With the need to chase the game, they were cut open by Germany’s counter attacks and efficient transitions as defenders appeared all over the place and marking assignments essentially vanished.

Germany simply wanted it more, and they were the classier outfit

Julius Weigand’s goal was demonstrative of Britain’s inability to stick with Germany’s runners, as he was left with an easy finish from a simple cross. This was the first major sign of Britain’s shortcomings in this tournament: lapses in concentration in their own defensive third.

Florian Fuchs’ third (and Germany’s fifth) goal of the day showed just the chasm between Germany and Britain as Fuchs was first to a rebound and flicked the ball into the goal between post-man Tom Sorsby and goalkeeper Ollie Payne. Germany simply wanted it more, and they were the classier outfit, boasting 21 shots compared to Britain’s five.

Following their second-half collapse, there is no doubt that some strong words were spoken by Danny Kerry to his men.

Team GB came back stronger against the Netherlands, though it seemed that they would be condemned to a similar fate as a lovely goal from Thierry Brinkman and a set-piece finish from star-man Jip Janssen put the Netherlands up by two.

The Dutch maintained their lead through the game until a small attacking spark from Ward put Britain back in the game, leading to a dramatic finish.

Despite their attacking momentum from two goals within five minutes in the fourth quarter, Britain were once again pinned in their own third but this time, they proved their character and strength at the back to hold the Netherlands out and secure their quarter-final spot.

The Netherlands game contrasted starkly from the Germany game – Britain demonstrated their resolve to come back despite going down by two rather than losing their focus. It seemed it had been a sign of better things to come, even if Britain were shaky and struggled for most of the match.

Against Belgium, who had won four out of four coming into this game, Britain started well, sparked by the knowledge that they had already secured progression.

Captain Adam Dixon stressed the need for physicality and character in his speech in the team huddle, and Britain started with bundles of both.

Taking the lead twice through Rupert Shipperley and then Ward, it looked as if Britain could secure a favourable matchup against Argentina. However, it was not to be as Belgium’s Sebastien Dockier scored a lovely reverse hit to force Britain to settle for a draw.

The game’s final eight or so minutes ended with Belgium passing the ball around and Britain watching them as both teams were happy to take the point and not risk injury heading into the knockout stages.

Barring a fiasco regarding their video referral, Britain had played a great game and would have deserved all three points as Belgium failed to generate any sustained attacking momentum. There was little to criticise, though the India game did seem a tough task ahead.

And a tough task it was as India’s tactics appeared to counter Britain perfectly, resulting in a tough loss.

Brendan Creed and Ian Sloan were at fault for India’s first goal, as Creed gave the ball away through a scuffed aerial under no pressure before Sloan recovered and was dispossessed in his own D, allowing Dilpreet Singh to finish from a one-on-one.

The second goal can be pinned on a mistake from the second of the ‘Twin Towers’, Liam Sanford. Sanford’s attempted long ball from the back was intercepted at the 25-yard line, giving India a short field to attack and thus resulting in an easy goal for Gurjant Singh.

While Ward did manage to score from a well-worked short corner routine, Britain’s attacking efforts soon became their downfall as they conceded to a swift Indian counter attack.

“I felt that a couple of errors in the first half knocked us out of our stride. We regrouped at half-time and did enough to get back into the game. Unfortunately we weren’t good enough to convert those corners,” said coach Kerry.

The defeat was disappointing, though perhaps not unexpected. Against the Germans, we had seen a side to the Britain defence that lacked focus under pressure and, in their biggest challenge yet, they were not up to the task. The defeat against India ultimately came down to the mistakes at the back from Creed, Sloan and Sanford.

Britain’s defence had been their weakest part in the tournament

Overall, it was apparent that Britain’s defence had been their weakest part in the tournament, and it showed as they were eliminated due to their own errors at the back.

With Dixon retiring from the game after a staggering 280 total caps for Britain and England combined, it remains to be seen what sort of back line Britain will opt for to prepare for the next Olympics and World Cup. Dixon’s service to the team cannot be understated and, as the captain of the team for the last two years, history will treat him well. His absence will undoubtedly be felt, though it gives Britain a chance to revise their defensive strategy and personnel.

There should be full faith in Britain to bounce back from this disappointing tournament exit as they are a young, inexperienced side who have been happy to adjust on the fly throughout their games.

Against Belgium, Zach Wallace used the team video referral early in the first quarter in a bid to win a short corner. The challenge was ambitious and there was nothing clear-cut about it, and so Wallace’s aggressive challenge backfired as Team GB lost their referral for the rest of the game.

The decision would backfire even more as Jack Waller had seemingly scored in the end of the second quarter. The ruling on the field was that the ball had not crossed the line. However, the replays showed it had and, with no video referral, Britain were unable to challenge and get their deserved goal.

While it may be a small adjustment, Britain were much wiser with their referral against India. With no rash challenges, Britain won two short corners off correct referrals in the second half, one of which led to their goal.

It is this kind of micro adjustment that can put Britain out of the ‘dark horse’ category and into the ‘favourites’ category. And their willingness to adjust suggests that Kerry (or whoever the coach will be) will most certainly find a solution for the defensive shortcomings, whether it be in tactic or player.

Despite the criticisms of Britain’s back line, these will not be extended to 22-year-old goalkeeper Payne, who had a terrific tournament. His heroics during the Netherlands and Belgium game were imperative in keeping Britain on track for progression and favourable seeding.

Another positive for Team GB? The attacking set pieces.

While Britain did not boast the biggest range of attacking arsenal when it came to their short corners, their few routines were executed effectively. Converting short corners is a wonderful asset for any team – and it seemed that Britain had found a good rhythm for them, with Ward being the primary sharpshooter.

Ward was one of the feel-good stories of the Olympics. Even though Team GB fell short of a podium finish, the story of Ward’s journey to the Olympics was inspiring, nevertheless.

His story did not end with his appearance at the Olympics, though – he wanted more than that. His six goals in six games were crucial to Team GB, and he provided a creative spark for his teammates when it was needed.

Against Belgium, Ward picked Creed’s long aerial exceptionally, tapping the ball over his head before laying the ball off to Liam Ansell for a succulent goal.

The thing I’m most proud of is them being men, looking after one another. They stick together

– Danny Kerry

Ward was also a menace to oppositions from short corners. He was the primary shooter at the top of the D and was able to score from a few short corners, as well as create for others with some nice deliveries.

Outside of his attacking duties, Ward was also effective at setting up Britain’s high press at the start of games to suffocate opposition possession. In defensive short corner routines, he was also occasionally deployed as Payne’s post-man.

At 30 years old and with a huge injury lingering from before, it will be interesting to see how long Ward’s international career will last for. However, his experience and cool headedness was important in guiding Team GB’s fiery front line.

Having lost their referral in the Belgium game early, some of the forwards and midfielders began to crowd the umpire, demanding for a self-referral on his ruling on Jack Waller’s ghost goal. However, the umpire was having none of it and, as tensions rose, veteran Ward stepped in, dispersing the pack and simply stated their argument for the self-referral. While the umpire rejected Ward’s request in the end, it was his leadership that ensured that Britain would not suffer any suspensions in the heat of the moment.

“Everyone here has had their own incredible journey and inspired one another day in day over the last few years. I am incredibly proud of everyone and honoured to have taken the turf with them,” said Ward via Twitter.

While the team will undoubtedly be disappointed to not have become medallists at Tokyo, the tournament was still an improvement from their ninth-place finish in Rio five years ago.

They demonstrated that they have the fight and determination to compete with the best teams on the biggest stage. Even if they did, ultimately, fall short, Britain leave this tournament with their heads held high and knowing that they will have another chance at Olympic glory in three years.

“When I took the job I talked about men, magic and moments. The thing I’m most proud of is them being men, looking after one another. They stick together, understand each other, try to hold the judgement of each other, they are good guys and they will come good,” said Kerry.

“I am very proud of the lads, but I’m a bit upset. It’s difficult to explain but when you see the lads support each other after the game as they are now, it’s pretty amazing. In many ways that’s as amazing as winning a gold medal. I’m proud of that and what the group have become.”

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