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 talks about Pakistan's performance against Argentina and previews the next match against hosts Great Britain which will be played on Friday at 20:00 (PST).
Great team work and a well-deserved victory for Pakistan over Argentina.
Although Pakistan started the game on a slow pace, they gradually managed to speed it up and were rewarded in the 30th minute with an angular drag-flick from Muhammad Imran after winning their first penalty corner.
Once again, the performance from the midfield was commendable. Young players like Rizwan Junior and Muhammad Rashid played an excellent game. It was great to see rookie Rizwan taking the attack to the opponents without any fear and with some great skills. Rashid was equally solid on the left side.
It was heartening to see the players get together in numbers every time they had to defend. Umar Bhutta, especially, worked really hard at the back, which was a great sign for the team.
Possession is key
Pakistan were unable to hold on to the ball for longer periods and gave away possession very easily. They seemed to struggle in creating build-ups and for me, this was a worrying sign. Another area of concern was a complete lack of field-goal attempts, not even half-chances. While it was good that the Greenshirts created four penalty corners, the strikers still have to do their job of making serious goal-attempts in the remaining matches.
There is an urgent need to show more aggression while putting pressure on the ball-carriers and the players need to communicate better while defending. Imran Shah managed to make some easy, but important saves and this performance will do his confidence a world of good. Pakistan’s 50 per cent conversion rate from penalty corners is a big improvement from the previous performances and I credit our defence and penalty-corner attempts with getting the team all three points in this must-win game. An empty goals-against column is an apt depiction of the quality of our defence.
Do or Die
Rehan Butt has termed tomorrow’s match a “do-or-die encounter” for Pakistan and he is not wrong. Great Britain are ranked fourth in the world and while their Olympic berth was secured on the basis of hosting the event, they have come out as strong contenders for the podium by finishing third in the European Championship, where they beat Belgium in the bronze-medal game.
Expect a physical game
Great Britain have played on the new blue turf more than any other team at London 2012 and it is bound to have helped their preparations for the big showdown. Apart from that, they also hold an advantage of playing at home and having an unmatched crowd support. Here, I would like to add that it was nice to see a good number of Pakistani fans and flags in the match against Argentina. Going back to the hosts, they have now been playing under the same coach for almost five years. Still, they faced mixed results in the run up to the Games. They finished fourth at the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup and ended last year’s Champion’s Trophy at the same position. Nevertheless, I expect them to be fully prepared to give Pakistan a tough challenge tomorrow.
Players like Barry Middleton, Ashley Jackson, James Tindal and Jonathan Clarke are top quality and form the core of their team. Great Britain like to keep their opponents under constant pressure, with high-speed attacks. A peculiar GB tactic is to smash the ball from the sides in front of the goal to make connections for goal-attempts. In addition to that, they play with a lot of short passes to beat the opponent’s defence and the combination of Middleton and Jackson is key to their attacks. In turn, this means that Pakistan’s defence has to be very alert and to play a more physical game than they usually do. For GB, penalty corners are a key component of attacks. Ashley Jackson is their go-to man for drag-flicks and his favorite angle would be from the left and high of Imran Shah, but they like to vary their attacks on the top of the circle. British players are particularly good on penalty-corner rebounds and Pakistan have to plan well and in great detail to defend penalty corners – something we are already doing quite well. Having drawn against South Africa, Great Britain will count on their fighting spirit and attack Pakistan with full power in this match to get all the three points and Pakistan have to be fully prepared.
First real test
This match will be a tough test for Pakistan and it will highlight their strengths and weaknesses. The Greenshirts will have to do give more than what have been doing so far and show some fighting spirit to get a favourable result. No individual player should try and change the game on his own. Pakistan will have to rely on teamwork and all the boys will have to count on one another.
Pakistan should play with more courage. They need to start the game with half-court press. Putting pressure on the ball-carrier will be a good tactic but we should go for attacks from the side pockets so that Great Britain also have to work hard to get the ball out of the press. Pakistan’s defence is already playing really well with great support from the midfield and strikers, and this practice needs to continue in a more dedicated manner.
In order to improve an already well-knit midfield, we need our strikers to show moments of inspiration to create gaps and then come out of with a full-press on the opponents. Pakistan should avoid giving away penalty corners as Great Britain are always on the lookout for chances to create PCs.
Goal-keeper Imran Shah's performance may eventually dictate the result for Pakistan and the 23-year-old is likely to come out of this battle a much more mature man. Pakistani defenders have to watch the movements of their strikers carefully and should mark the British to the man instead of playing a zonal game.
Pakistan should once again start with three strikers and maintain a triangular shape to their attack with one man high up and two on the flanks. This will not only help in keeping the pressure up on GBR's defenders when holding possession but also allow the Greenshirts to start their attack from the flanks and move in centrally. GBR defenders are most often than not found guilty of ball-watching and this formation will utilize the space they tend to leave in the back effectively. Pakistan should also try to create plays in the front that create the maximum number of PCs to keep the hosts' defense occupied and weary.
Three midfielders and four defenders will serve well against GBR. Muhammad Imran should be deep in defense and Sohail Abbas should be playing as a right half. Abbas, as I mentioned earlier, could prove extremely useful in that position. Rizwan Junior should be the replacement on the right side. Shakeel Abbasi should be in the starting line up and should be on the pitch for maximum time. He is in the mould of Italian footballer Andrea Pirlo, and can not only hold the ball but also orchestrate plays in addition to making great runs. With him on, Pakistan will be strong in offense and defense. Veteran Waseem Ahmed should lead the midfield as he has been doing consistently so far. Waseem, ideally, should help in building up his replacement now as Pakistan have quite a few guys with 4-5 years of experience under their belts.
Sohail and Mohammad Imran did well in the last match and it will l be great to see them getting on the score-sheet once again. But surprise variations are a must to get the most out of PCs.
Communication will be vital as it will be a high-paced game and Pakistan will need to show great fighting spirit until the last second to ensure a good result against GBR.
Both teams are with the same points on the table so the winner of this match will be very close to get the entry in the half finals.
Players to watch
Shakeel Abbasi, Waseem Ahmed and Rizwan Junior will be the players to watch.