CHENNAI: Janneke Schopman is explaining the selection process she will use to pick the squad for the women's World Cup. She illustrates it by citing the skillsets of two of the four defenders that were ultimately picked in the 18-women squad, Nikki Pradhan and Deep Grace Ekka.
"We need to have a team that complements each other," she says. "(...) but not have too many players (doing the same thing). If that's the case, we become easy to defend. We need to have different strikers, midfielders and defenders... Grace is a very good defender but she also has a high ball and has a good hit on her (dragflick exponent). I also think Nikki is an excellent defender but she doesn't have a high ball. That doesn't make her a lesser player than Grace, she just has to play a little bit different. She has that ability to dribble past defenders and join the attack. That's what I'm looking for."
This conversation, which took place a week or so before she finalised the squad for the World Cup beginning in Netherlands and Spain on Friday, gave an insight into how she has modelled the team in her own image after Sjoerd Marijne's tenure ended post-Olympics. In Tokyo, the women's team was a sleeper hit and could have walked away with bronze if they had finished on the right side of a seven-goal thriller against Great Britain.
If they repeat that performance over the next two weeks, India will equal their best-ever World Cup showing (fourth in 1974). Coincidentally, they begin their campaign against England. Twelve of 18 from GB will play for England and a good start against them could put them in contention for qualifying directly to the quarterfinals.
What Schopman's charges have done in the Pro League over the last few months suggests they do have the ability to spring a surprise. Why? The work the team has put in in training sessions has helped them evolve. Schopman keeps using the word 'ownership' as well as 'pace' multiple times during the interaction and it's a fair idea of how they play.
"Looking hard at how we can create more attacking opportunities," she says when asked about what they have been working on over the last 2-3 months. "Really focusing on using our speed... we are moving nicely during our training. The challenge is can we do that when the match happens."
To help the team in that aspect, she has drilled it into the players' minds — something Marijne used to do a lot — about the importance of awareness, looking over their shoulders and having a lot of the ball.
"Really busy with awareness and decision-making on the field," the Dutchwoman says. "For me, good players are able to make those decisions in a split second by themselves. What I have tried to do is give them ownership but also training specifically... looking at each other, establishing eye-contact, checking your shoulders, playing fewer touches and so on."
Schopman also installed four sets of cones with LED lights — a training tool known as SMART goal — to develop the players. She explains what it does. "You connect these cones and form a goal. If it's lit up in blue, you can score a goal, if it's red, you cannot score. So they have to constantly keep moving, seeing what goal is open and what is not. All this stuff informs the players. It's a tool that gives us a different way of playing in training sessions," she smiles.
The rehearsals and training sessions are over. The team has scored some belting goals and now, like Schopman says, the real challenge begins. Can they replicate it during the World Cup?