"Mali were runners-up in the last edition of the U-17 World Cup? Are you sure?" A fellow journalist had asked me after the African side lost to Paraguay in their opening match of the tournament. I had little to convince him on the basis of what had transpired on the pitch that evening, but three days on from that moment, Mali did all the talking and perhaps cleared all doubts.
The African champions arrived in Mumbai a week back, but it was on Monday evening that they truly showed up, much to the misfortune of Turkey, who were mere spectators to the Malian march.
The U-17 World Cup has witnessed the power, pace, stamina and athleticism of the African teams rule the roost all too often in the past, and Monday was another such episode. Fueled with desire and determination to right the wrongs of the opening day, Mali came out all guns blazing and were straight into the faces of their European opponents.
Turkey, who play a highly technical game with plenty of emphasis on attack had shaped up in a 4-3-2-1 formation with the two behind the striker tucked in-field to enable link-up play between the midfield three and the striker. It was the responsibility of the full-backs to provide the team with width and thus whenever in possession, the Turkish full-backs took up an advanced position. The centre backs, who were pretty comfortable in possession themselves often split to receive the ball from the goalkeeper and build play from there.
It was a typical shape to play quick, sharp passes and use the agility of their players to negate the height and physicality of Malian defensive players. The plan seemed perfect at least on paper to tackle a physically superior Mali side, but there was a bit of disregard towards the threat Mali posed. Turkey tried to peg Mali back with their inter-play in midfield, and thus isolate their forwards when the Africans would break, but as things panned out, the execution wasn't quite there from the Turks.
Mali, on the other hand, lined up in a more conventional 4-3-3 formation with a flat back four on most occasions. Unlike the Europeans, the Malian full-backs were less adventurous, and the width was provided by the the two players in the front three who tried to stay as wide as possible.
When in possession, one of the two wide players in the front three would join the striker up front, making it a two-man strike force and thus an additional player for the center-backs to look after, while the other remaining forward would occupy the space out wide often vacated by the marauding Turkish full-backs.
The Europeans played a high defensive line to support the link-up play from defence to attack, but that left them vulnerable to a hoofed up ball behind their defence, that Mali so often resorted to during the game. Lassana N'Diaye and Djemoussa Traore made constant runs in between two Turkish defenders creating total havoc.
It took Mali just five minutes to get behind the Turkish defence, when N'Diaye was played in on goal with an inch-perfect through ball. The forward timed his run to perfection, but failed to apply the finishing touch.
The chance should have rung alarm bells in the Turkish defence, but it didn't. Nine minutes later, N'Diaye once again sneaked into the gaping hole in between Turkish central defenders who were stretched by the other Malian forward doubling up centrally. But once again, the striker couldn't keep his effort on target.
It wasn't just the positioning and movement of Malian forwards that was causing Turkey all sorts of problems, but also the work rate and tactical discipline of Mali's three central midfielders, that was telling. Salam Jiddou and captain Mohamed Camara played as the two advanced midfielders in the three-man midfield and had a duel role. When out of possession, the duo were tasked with closing down and at times man-marking a Turkish central midfielder in their respective playing zones or areas.
Turkey's centre-backs tried to dart passes at these midfielders to initiate quick and intricate attacks. However, Jiddou and Camara made sure they always remained tight to these players, not allowing them any sort of space to turn or find their midfield partner. In the rare case the midfielder managed to get away, the other one of the duo used to get tight on the players that was most obvious to receive a pass. This way, Jiddou and Camara operated in tandem and broke up the Turkish attacks time and again. This didn't just fracture their attack, but also provided Mali with a platform to hit its forwards with long balls.
The second aspect of their role was to join the attacks. As soon as Mali entered the Turkish final third, one of Jiddou or Camara used to link-up with Ndiaye or make runs behind the Turkish defence using the him as a focal point. It was an attempt to create an overload in the Turkish box, leaving each defender with a one-on-one situation in a dangerous area of the pitch. The scenario suited the Africans perfectly who were more physical and more athletic than their Turkish counterparts, and thus had little problems beating them in one-on-one situations.
That's how Mali scored their opening goal. The movement of N'Diaye and Jiddou disrupted the Turkish defence completely, allowing forward Traore to make a run in between the full-back and central defender, latch onto Hadji Drame's through ball before finishing past the goalkeeper.
Mali's play was clockwork, both defensively and offensively. Their players understood every nuance on the pitch and executed it with perfection. A 1-0 scoreline at half time didn't do justice to the level of performance they had put, but it was down to what was their only negative point in the half—poor finishing.
Turkey reacted to the Malian forward's doubling up, by pulling their full-backs back a bit. To fill up the spaces in their defenders that the Malians exploited, they presented a compact back four in the second half, surrendering the wider areas of the pitch to Mali.
Mali then altered their strategy accordingly. Instead of doubling up, the two wide forwards stayed wide to stretch the compact back four of Turkey. With Turkey struggling to breach the Malian midfield wall, they were often caught back-peddling when the Malian midfielders launched the ball wide to its forwards.
The full-backs were forced to close down the wide forwards, thus providing space for Mali's advanced midfielders Jiddou and Camara to make runs into the box. Mali eventually doubled the lead through a corner, where their superior physicality showed. The African champions ensured the Turkish forwards were made to feed on scraps especially with the full-backs being kept engaged in their own half by the wide forwards of Mali.
Thereafter, it was just a exhibition of what Mali truly represent. A strong, physical and athletic team that can play at a required level and intensity for full ninety minutes. The third goal in the 86th minute scored by their full-back Fode Konate highlighted the difference between the two sides.
Konate who had been in his own half for most parts of the game, got on his bike, made a marauding run at the tired Turks, who greeted him with a number of tackles, but all of them too weak if not too lazy to stop the rampant Konate. Once he got into shooting position, the full-back was never going to let go a rare opportunity to get on the scoresheet. He wrapped his left foot around the ball that ricochet off the crossbar into the back of the net.
While Mali celebrated with an enthusiasm one usually associate with a breakthrough goal, Turkey were down on their knees, almost pleading the referee to bring down the curtains on the game. However, there were four additional minutes for Mali to toy with an exhausted Turkish side, and further add gloss to what had been an exhibition of power and guile throughout the ninety minutes.
Turkey coach Mehmet Hacioglu made no attempt in hiding the fact that his side had been undone by Mali's physical superiority. "Before the tournament my biggest worry was the physical differences. The fact is very clear, we don't possess enough physical and fitness capabilities and it affected the result. Our biggest strength is technique but due to lack of physical capabilities we also lost our technical strengths," he said after the game.
Mali sent out a strong signal with an authoritative win over Turkey after the loss to Paraguay in the opening match. The Africans didn't just provide a glimpse of their strength and athleticism on Monday, but also showcased the tactical maturity of its players who were able to nullify opponent's strength and impose their own on the game.
Later in the day, Mali's conquerors on the opening day, Paraguay, booked a place in the knock-out phase of the tournament with a creditable 4-2 win over a resilient New Zealand side.
Unlike the first match, the Paraguay-New Zealand match wasn't as engrossing a tactical battle as the first one, neither did it have an exhibition of physical strength, but it did tell us a lot about the mental aspect of the game.
Every player went through a varying degree of emotions in the game. From ecstasy at one point to agony at other, the game was a roller-coaster ride. In the end, Paraguay, who managed to deal with it better, emerged winners.
Having taken the lead in just the second minute through an astonishing free-kick from Alan Rodriguez, Paraguay were stunned by the Kiwi rally who responded to the early setback with two goals of their own before half time. What was even more damaging for the South Americans was that the scorer of the two New Zealand goals was their own captain Alexis Duarte.
But it wasn't uncharted territory for Paraguay who had squandered a two-goal lead against Mali in the first half of their encounter, only to win it 3-2 after a resolute second-half display.
While it had just taken them ten second-half minutes to score against Mali, New Zealand—a team keen to make the most of a high-level tournament that they are usually devoid off—were proving to be a hard nut to crack.
It was a case of who blinks first, and it was to be New Zealand. Paraguay, a team with good work ethic and also great mental strength as displayed in their previous game, wore the Kiwis down physically and mentally. The goals came in form of substitute Anibal Vega who struck twice in the 75th and 78th minute to turn the result on its head.
New Zealand were deflated and showed little endeavour in the final minutes for Paraguay to feel threatened, but that didn't put the South Americans off guard. They were ruthless in approach and knocked a fourth past the Oceanian champions. Their celebrations after each goal were vibrant, their performance even more so.
"We try to teach them to be physically and mentally consistent despite the result of the game. They are disciplined players. We are trying to develop them mentally as they are the future of football in Paraguay," coach Gustavo Morinigo said after the game.
On Monday, the men separated themselves from the boys in Group B. They did it in style, with displays of distinct strengths—one physical and the other mental.
Updated Date: Oct 10, 2017 16:38 PM