Hockey World Cup: Germany’s aerial attack strips Belgium’s invincibility in 2-2 draw

Long after the final hooter and the fans emptied the Kalinga Stadium, Germany formed a circle near the half line close to the dugout with an emotional Niklas Wellen in the centre as the rest clapped and roared, and broke the huddle with a hug.

Wellen was one of Germany’s stars in the 2-2 draw against Belgium. But that’s not what they were cheering for. Just before he stepped out on the field for this crucial Pool B match, Wellen received a message from back home that he’d become a father. At half-time, he saw the pictures of his newborn on his phone and broke down.

And then, he came out in the middle, and made the day even more memorable by scoring a goal and turning in a man-of-the-match performance in a gripping encounter.

There are a couple of ways the 2-2 draw between the two European heavyweights can be interpreted.

One would be to note that a day after Australia survived a massive scare, the aura of invincibility was lifted ever-so-slightly around another title favourite. Like Australia, who were held to a 3-3 draw by Argentina the previous evening, Belgium, too, it was expected would not face a lot of resistance.

Not just on form – they have won nearly every title that’s up for grabs in the last four years – but also in terms of experience: collectively, Belgium have more than 4000 caps compared to Germany, who stop just short of 1800. From that point of view, Germany – like Argentina did with Australia – showed Belgium aren’t bullet proof.

The other way to look at the draw would be that Belgium, despite playing with just three outfield players as options from the bench, still managed to find a way out and did not lose.

Either way, the Indian team management would have watched this match with great interest. Unless India implode against Wales in their final group stage match on Thursday, they are likely to take on either Germany or Belgium, who played without their two injured stars – Arthur van Doren and Simon Gougnard – in the quarterfinals.

And Graham Reid’s side, which defeated Germany in the bronze medal match of the Tokyo Olympics, would have observed how they made life tough for Belgium, a team against whom they have repeatedly fallen short.

India would have found Germany’s strategy fairly familiar.

The Pool B encounter in front of approximately 10,000 spectators was a classic tactical battle. Belgium, as they often do, pressed high and quick, pouncing on the Germans as and when they got the ball. They attacked more, enjoyed a greater share of possession, were patient with the ball inside the attacking third but shifted gears the moment they entered the ‘D’.

And when Cedric Charlier’s ninth-minute shot thudded into the hardboard, it felt as if this would be a routine day in the office for the defending champions.

But Germany had a plan, and stuck to it. Andre Henning’s counterattacking unit crawled their way back into the match and began to put Belgium under pressure with fast transitions, wasting little time to reach the attacking circle and taking quick shots from inside the ‘D’, not giving the defence much time to cover ground.

Crucially, it was Germany’s smart use of the high balls from the midfield that made Belgium uncomfortable. India have often used a similar strategy in the past against Belgium, who are immaculate while intercepting the ball that’s played along the ground but do not look so assured when dealing with aerial deliveries.

Realising that Belgium were pushing them deep into their own half and blocking everything that was played along the ground, Germany started to go aerial and vertical. Most of their high balls were played in the direction of the two forwards, who were stationed on either side of the Belgian goal, along the byline.

Because of the 5m rule – when an aerial ball is played, the opponent cannot come within 5m of the receiver until it is completely brought under control – defending high balls is tricky, especially inside the ‘D’ because it could lead to a penalty corner.

Germany combined this strategy with clever stick-to-stick play to pushback Belgium and managed to comeback from a goal down to go 2-1 up, with goals from Wellen – who forced an error from a usually flawless Belgian keeper Vincent Vanasch – and Tom Grambusch.

But a green card late in fourth quarter proved costly as Belgium, after suffering for short spells, took advantage of the extra man on field to salvage a point with a 55th-minute equaliser by Victor Wegnez.

Long after the final hooter, as the Germans celebrated the birth of Wellen’s child, the Belgians didn’t look too distraught either with the draw. For, they know that with the return of their star players, their aura of invincibility could return as well.

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