How Germany rediscovered their mojo in the U17 World Cup
There's a tiny opening at Kochi's Nehru Stadium, where the parking lot-style ramp coming down from the media gallery intersects with the section leading to the media centre, where the U-17 World Cup press conferences happen.
On Friday, after the Guinea-Germany Group C game, there was a primal scream that came through the other side, which serves as a walkway through the dressing rooms on to the ground.
A quick peek confirmed it was the German team, 3-1 victors on the night. It looks one-sided at first glance, but they were made to work hard for it, often thinking on their feet and changing plans to accommodate a tricky opponent."
The pressure on Germany
"It was very hard for us coming into this match from the defeat to Iran," German coach Christian Wuck later said. "We were very poor in that game, and the reaction back home wasn't good. The pressure on the boys was very high."
Guinea -- a powder keg of superb individual ability married with inexcusable errors at clutch points in their first two games - promised to be an unpredictable team to face, though Thursday's results in Group B had meant Germany basically had to avoid defeat, and even if they had lost, they would have been assured of qualification for the round of 16 unless Costa Rica pulled off a win against table-toppers Iran in Goa.
The changes to the eleven
Wuck made five changes to the side that lost 4-0 to Iran on Tuesday, and two of them were later singled out from praise by the coach -- Hamburger SV left-back Josha Vagnoman and 6'2" FC Cologne centre-back Yann Bisseck. "Josha was playing his first game on the left side, it was his first match. Bisseck was just in his third game with the team, and he did a great job as defender. They didn't make many mistakes," he said.
Two of the other switches brought attacking flair to Germany's wings on the night - Hertha Berlin's Dennis Jastrzembski was electric on the left, while Nicolas Kuhn of RB Leipzig played his role on the right to perfection, sometimes dropping deep behind captain Jann-Fiete Arp and switching places with Arp every now and then for variety.
Germany began with electric pace, and Wuck would say later that the key points discussed were to "to start well", "to win tackles" and "to stay cool" while doing so. With fifth and final change in the XI, the intelligent playmaker Elias Abouchabaka pushing forward into what often looked more like a 4-1-1-4 than a 4-2-3-1, Germany brought some mistakes to bear on the Guinean defence, and Arp capitalised on one such error to give Germany an early goal. The assist came from the industrious Jastrzembski.
Changing formations midway through
Guinea hit back the only way they could have, with more bodies being committed forward, and that's where Germany's tactical nous kicked in. The only Bayern Munich player in the squad, defender Alexander Nitzl, who had been playing as the central defensive midfielder up to that point, pushed back a bit further to make a temporary five-man defence. It was during this period of containment that Guinea got their equaliser in the first half, but coach Wuck later said he was "satisfied" with his defence.
With Guinea producing 24 shots to Germany's 17, and dominating possession, the goal was one of only two on target for the Africans. That was proof of how well their attacking players were getting closed down, with the other central midfielder Yannik Keitel also playing a containing role in the second half.
The second-half switches that worked
Early in the second half, Jastrzembski got into an unnecessary argument with the referee and saw a yellow card. Wuck reacted by immediately pulling him off and putting on Jessic Ngankam. The Hertha Berlin attacker swapped wings with Kuhn, that also allowed Arp to drop deep from time to time, and on one such break, the German captain set up Kuhn for the second goal. Realistically it was the point where the match seemed over for Guinea, even though they fought hard for the remainder of the game, even playing with effectively four strikers at one stage, when midfielder Elhadj Bah was replaced by Djibril Sylla.
With the clock winding down, Wuck played another couple of cards, though one was enforced by an injury to Vagnoman late in the game. Jan Boller, who replaced him, had already played three halves of this World Cup, while the highly-rated Sahverdi Cetin replaced Abouchabaka.
Germany's main thought for the second half was keeping it tight at the back, and hitting Guinea on the break as often and as quickly as possible. "I think we have a team that is strong in offence. Against Costa Rica we won 2-1, but we could have scored five or six more. So was the case tonight," said Wuck, and it was hard to argue that Mohamed Camara in goal for Guinea was kept busy through the second 45 minutes. Much of it had to do with Arp's work rate, dropping deep to help the midfield, and then powering ahead to meet with the return balls sent his way. Guinea coach Souleymane Camara would later call him the best player on the pitch, both "tactically and physically".
Eventually, Germany got a goal from a penalty in injury time, and the entire squad's body language when they earned it spoke as much of relief as elation.
Lack of rest will make the knockout tricky
Germany now meet Colombia in New Delhi on October 16, and will get one day less to rest for that match than their opponents. Unlike the Colombians, they will also be playing on the third surface inside four games, going away from a venue they took a liking to.
"Kochi is actually better than Goa. There's less heat and humidity. Guinea is a very fast and strong team, but we also matched them," said Wuck. "(This) stadium is bigger, and the pitch is a bit different. My players played better here, and it is something I can't explain. The pitch here is a lot like what we get in Europe."
"Colombia is a very good team, and we saw their last game on the TV yesterday. We are happy to get to the Round of 16, for the moment. First we have to sleep and recuperate over the next two days."