Salman Akbar is a veteran goal-keeper who made his debut for Pakistan’s hockey team in 2001. Termed by Olympian Shahid Ali Khan as one of the most hard-working players in the game, Akbar has won the 2005 Rabo Trophy and the 2010 Asian Games gold medal with Pakistan. He was adjudged the ‘best keeper’ in both events. Here, he reviews Pakistan’s performance against Great Britain and previews the next match against South Africa on Sunday.
Much like every Pakistani who got their hopes high after a great start by the Greenshirts at the London Olympics, the result against Great Britain (GBR) has left me thoroughly disappointed. But all is not lost and Pakistan can still make it to the semis, provided they put in that extra effort. The fans should stand together with the team at this crucial stage.
Humbled by the hosts
Pakistan were looking sharp as the two teams stood together for their respective national anthems. But when play began it was a completely different story. The term 'out of sorts' could best describe Pakistan's performance.
GB got onto the score sheet just after four minutes of play through James Tindal as Pakistan failed to get out of the blocks for a good 10-15 minutes before they settled somewhat. After that they managed to hold possession and make plays but their efforts came to nothing when, against the run, Jonty Clarke scored the second goal in 26th minute. Pakistan created some chances of their own but went into half-time with nothing to show.
They were not as sharp as they were in the first two games – average in counter control and the defense was very static. They were ball-watching on several occasions, which put them under tremendous stress. In the second-half, Pakistan played much better and created penalty corners (PCs). The first one came when the scoreline was 2-0, and the game could've changed there and then. But captain Sohail Abbas failed to convert three in a row which came one after the other. This can be put down to a lack of planning and communication from the bench because, ideally, an indirect variation was required after the first miss. After that Pakistan failed to stop GBR's incursion and they scored two more goals from PCs through Ashley Jackson in the 50th and 67th minute. It can be safely said that all departments were not up to the mark. Penalty corner defense, which was really good in the past matches, was very average as was the goal-keeping from Imran Shah. There was no connection between the midfield and strikers. Pakistan scored their only goal in the 70th minute through Abbas' low shot on a PC. There were no movements from the front line, which meant the defenders were under constant pressure and the midfielders were unable to build up the attack. When they could, the midfielders were not delivering the ball quickly enough. Unity and discipline were clearly lacking.
A much bigger effort was required from Pakistan's goalkeeper but he also failed to deliver. It was a coaching error, as they should have implemented a different, better plan after half-time. But they failed to read the situation. Even when goal-scoring opportunities presented themselves, the Greenshirts were found wanting. They failed to counter GBR's PC defense and should definitely have employed indirect variations. GBR’s goal-keeper James Fair stopped PCs with much more confidence which eventually spurred his team on to score two more goals in the second-half.
The junior-most player in the Pakistan side has been with the team for the last one and a half year so I don't think this team is an inexperienced squad by any stretch. All these players need to step up to plate now and should not rely on the performances of the big names alone. One positive from this match was the tireless attitude of the Pakistani players which should serve them well in the coming games.
Coping with South Africa's variation
They are ranked 12th in the world but they have a great fighting spirit. They don't have big names but play well as a team and don't give up even after conceding goals. South Africa have enjoyed a good run against Pakistan in the recent past, most notably when they beat us in the 2010 World Cup and then in the Commonwealth Games the same year. They have in their ranks, Justin Reid-Ross and their captain Smith, who make a very good PC attack. They are particularly good with indirect variations on the top of the circle so Pakistan should come with a solid plan and keep changing their running formation on corner defense. South Africa try to build up the game from their right side and play long balls on the line. Their strikers employ a lot of horizontal switches to receive the ball on the flank. Their captain is their main player in the build up and should be the one constantly marked. They don't force the attack from the center and enter the circle from the flanks and use the base line well.
One area where Pakistan can really make them pay is their defense. They tend to freeze on odd occasion and normally run in a 3-1 formation on PCs but sometimes change it to a 2-2. High balls from Justin Reid-Ross should be taken seriously.
Make room to attack
Pakistan should play an attacking game from the very first minute. They should not wait for the opportunities, rather make the opportunities. Pakistan should play this game with confidence but not underestimate their opponents. South Africa has looked decent in London so far and the fact that they have beaten Pakistan twice should give Sohail Abbas' men no room for complacency. South Africa's defense is weak on its left side so the game plan for Pakistan should be pretty obvious. Quick restart on free hits will be very effective against them and will help create PCs also.
Pakistan must plan the PC and defense well. The defenders need to particularly look out for the horizontal switch and high balls, which is likely to be a pattern from South Africa. Goal keeper Imran Shah should communicate with defenders to make sure that Pakistan is effective with its counter control and should also adjust the defenders in the right positions.
Pakistan's strikers really need to make themselves counted now. So far the Greenshirts have scored just one field goal. They cannot keep running the same line and should create off the ball movement and some switches to make space which will ultimately help the midfield and the defense. Once this happens the defenders and midfielders can build up play and South Africa will no doubt be left wanting.
Spirited teamwork essential
The midfielders have an important role and they should join the attack rather than just acting as a barrier for the attacking South Africans. Pakistan should play high speed, pressing hockey and get on the score sheet early. Even when that is achieved they should not sit back and, ideally, try to go for more goals and force the opponents to change their plan. This is will surely create more space for Pakistan to exploit the weak South African defense.
Shakeel Abbasi should be playing as right midfield with Fareed Ahmed on the left and Rizwan (Sr) should be placed as a left striker. Muhammad Touseeq has not been seen in action in the last two games and he should be used to give rest to some players in the midfield. Touseeq is very talented and can be used anywhere in the midfield.
Muhammd Imran should be used deep in defense and Sohail can be placed on the right-half position with Rizwan (Jr) as his replacement. Pakistan have to show good teamwork in the remaining matches and if they try to change the game individually, then the results will be for the worst. Imran Shah should give solid support to the team which will boost the confidence of the rest of the team and they will play with less fear and display more aggressive intent.
Pakistan should put the match against GBR behind them and enter the field with a new spirit and passion. They must tell themselves that they can still make it to the semis and rest assured, the whole nation is praying for a Pakistan win.
Players to watch
Waseem Ahmed, Muhammad Irfan and Rizwan (Sr).