Alexander Cox is hoping the evolving tactical approach he is looking to implement with the Irish senior men will serve the side well at the FIH Series Finals in Le Touquet.They start their campaign on Saturday morning against Scotland before facing Egypt on Sunday and Singapore next Tuesday. The equation is the same as the women’s competition in Banbridge – top the group and go straight to the semi-finals, second and third go into Thursday’s quarters.
A top two finish is the target, bringing with it an assured place at the direct Olympic qualifiers next October.
Cox took on the role a few months before the World Cup in the wake of Craig Fulton’s move to Belgium – which ended up in a gold medal for him – but the short timeframe and limited contact time due to the European club season meant they travelled to India under-cooked.
It was something the side recognised in their post-tournament debrief but, with a longer lead-in time, more tactical input and variation is in place to be implemented now.
“I’m very happy with how we are evolving because our normal style is man-to-man,” he said after the recent series win against France. “I thought we should also add a zonal defensive structure because that gives us more opportunities to play counter attacks from certain areas on the field.
“We also need to mix it up against different opposition so it is more difficult for them when they outlet. All of a sudden, we play a zone or we play man-on-man.
“The way we play now with a 4-4-2 or a 3-5-2 system, we are in control most of the time so the opposition has to find a way through it and I’m really happy how we are playing that zonal defence now.”
The adjustment in approach has also seen a number of personnel changes; notably Olympians Alan Sothern and Kirk Shimmins will not play a part this week in France.
“It was a tough decision; the reason for the guys who are not included now like Kirk and Alan, with the experience that they have, I want to see more from them on the field – as simple as that.“So they need to step up their game to give the team more on the field, especially. I also chose a different forward line. Two guys who normally play midfield, Sean Murray and Michael Robson, play in the forward line now and it gives me the option to play a bit different from what we used to – a little more attacking, a little more freedom and the connections from midfield to attack.
“That’s important for the way we play on the ball and that’s also the reason why I picked the forward line that we have at this moment.”
Chris Cargo is unavailable for this tournament while Eugene Magee will miss the Euros for work reasons. On the flip side, John Jackson comes back in after being unable to take part in the World Cup.
It is part of the ongoing issues the management team have to cope with. Cox, though, says the contact time with the panel was good for this preparation to get a few things in place.
“We have to work around the whole group and that means we have a lot of players who play overseas and we have a lot of players who also have a job next to hockey.
“We have to work with the situation that we have and until now we’re doing that in a good way. It is tough. The position we are now in the world rankings, that is a position that is good but it’s really difficult to get a better position because you’re fighting against a lot of teams who are fully professional.
“That’s why I am proud of the boys that they make all the space and room in their lives to train hard despite the fact they also have a family, like Eugene, and they also have jobs. So I take my hat off to them!”
In Le Touquet, the targets for the competition are clearly defined. Ireland will be the top-seed and will definitely be the team to beat in their group. They are unbeaten in 20 games against Scotland who will be without Chris Grassick and Alan Forsyth due to their call-ups to the GB panel.
Egypt showed in 2017 they can cause plenty of problems with their powerful approach but Singapore are – like their women – rank outsiders.After the group stages, though, Ireland will likely meet either Korea or France, both of whom are very tough opponents. The French hosts reached the World Cup quarter-finals while there will certainly be no shortage of motivation against the Asian side who denied Ireland a ticket to London 2012 in heart-wrenching fashion.
Nonetheless, two wins over the US and a series win against the French at Lisnagarvey suggests Ireland are in good form.
“The aim is to get to the top two to get to the qualifiers and if we don’t reach that then we will be disappointed,” Cox continued. “It will be tight. France has the same quality as we have and Korea is a quality team but we have one aim and that is to finish in the top-two.
“I am confident that we can especially if we play well. If we have a big volume of that, I have a lot of confidence that we can succeed in France.”
** Interview with thanks to John Flack; all games from Le Touquet will be streamed live on https://fih.live/
Men’s FIH Series Finals, Pool A (all at Le Touquet Paris Plage, France – Irish times)
Saturday: Ireland v Scotland, 10.15am (Irish time); Egypt v Singapore, 12.30pm
Sunday: Scotland v Singapore, 10.15am; Ireland v Egypt, 12.30pm
Tuesday: Scotland v Egypt, 12.30pm; Ireland v Singapore, 2.45pm