The opening match day of the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations has come to an end, to decidedly mixed reviews.
The sweltering heat in Cairo has made most of the early kick-offs a bit of a slog to get through, and much of the entertainment has come from other centres, especially in games played in the evenings.
Here, however, are a couple of tactical points of interest that have jumped out after the conclusion of the opening group matches at AFCON 2019.
ELEVEN DONKEYS – (DR CONGO VS UGANDA)
The great Austrian manager Ernst Happel once said that man-to-man marking was like “sending out eleven donkeys”. The implication was that, in so doing, agency and intuition are stripped away from the players.
Of course, there is no perfect marking scheme, only perfect execution. However, it was particularly frustrating – or amusing, depending on what side of the fence one was sat – to see the ease with which Uganda got the upper hand in the middle of the pitch against their more experienced opponents.
DR Congo coach Florent Ibenge required his midfielders to track their direct opponent extremely closely. Uganda took advantage of this by having their two deepest midfielders, Khalid Aucho and Michael Azira, drift into really wide positions when their centre-backs had the ball, essentially widening the playing area that DRC had to cover.
As a consequence, the middle of the pitch was ridiculously open, and Farouk Miya revelled in that space, drawing in Bokadi Bope before then skipping past him and going at the exposed backline.
There seemed little clarity to what DRC were trying to do in terms of their marking scheme, especially as they then conceded twice from set-pieces when they seemed to be marking zonally. It just heightens the sense that Ibenge is out of ideas, having been in state for so long.
SCAR TISSUE (MOROCCO VS NAMIBIA)
Coming into the competition as one of the favourites is not a burden that has traditionally sat well with Moroccan teams down the years.
However, the tag is impossible to shake: they possess some exciting talent, and an accomplished attacker in Hakim Ziyech. Also, Herve Renard has won the competition twice, and has shown himself capable of mastering its rhythms.
That said, he let his fear get the better of him in the opening game against Namibia.
Morocco came into the AFCON on the back of some poor results, losing back-to-back home matches against Gambia and Zambia. These exposed a weakness at the base of midfield: first-choice pairing Karim El Ahmadi and the excellent Mbark Boussoufa are the wrong side of 30, and no longer have the mobility to screen the back four adequately.
Renard’s solution was to start an ultra-conservative midfield of Youssef Ait Bennasser in front of the defence with Mehdi Bourabia and Boussoufa slightly advanced on either side. Granted, Younes Belhanda was unavailable, but perhaps the stronger option might have been to play only one of Ait Bennasser or Bourabia, field Ziyech in a central role and start Sofiane Boufal.
His decision hampered his side in a major way: Ziyech took an ill-advised amount of shots, but a lot of that was down to the fact there was no one to combine with in the central attacking midfield zone, and Youssef En-Nesyri struggled to get good service in the box beyond the occasional cross. The passing was also much too slow in deep areas where it could not do any damage.
Namibia were far too comfortable for much of the game, and in the end Morocco were fortunate to get the win with a late own-goal.
MAN, KNOW THYSELF (SENEGAL VS TANZANIA)
Tanzania’s return to the big-time after 39 years was supposed to be an occasion for celebration. Instead, their opening game provided the tournament’s first mismatch.
Perhaps there was some misfortune in meeting tournament favourites Senegal first off. The gulf in quality was already eye-watering, and so the odds were stacked against the Taifa Stars from the start. However, they did not make it any easier for themselves.
Inside the first couple of minutes, Feisal Salum was caught sleeping on a square pass in midfield, and Senegal tore forward and saw an effort saved by the feet of Aishi Manula. The midfielder endured a horrid game: continually caught in possession, booked, and substituted inside the first half.
However, it was instructive he started at all. Emmanuel Amuneke clearly wanted his side to pass out from the back, but their lack of quality was further exacerbated by that nervy opening, and they never recovered.
There were loose touches, passes played short, poor decisions, the works. It did not help that they often happened when the team was spread over the width of the pitch, and this led to some desperate tackling: part the result of frustration, but also of the need to rapidly get back into position.
This is a bit of a conundrum Amuneke faces: his work with the youth teams suggests his remit in charge of Tanzania is a holistic one, as he seeks to build not just a team, but a mentality. However, if his side is to avoid disgrace in the here-and-now, he might need to introduce a little more pragmatism, and acknowledge the lack of technical ability in his own team.
WIDTH (ALGERIA VS KENYA)
This was the second mismatch of AFCON 2019, as Algeria were a lot more comfortable than the 2-0 scoreline suggested. However, what was interesting here was the North African side’s use of width in their possession phase.
Youcef Belaili and Riyad Mahrez started on the flanks for Les Fennecs in a 4-3-3, and remained extremely wide in order to stretch Kenya and open up spaces.
The Harambee Stars came through an admittedly kind qualifying group conceding just once in four matches, and held DR Congo in a pre-tournament friendly. Here, however, their robust defensive unit was unable to remain compact: the space created by Algeria’s width multiplied the quality gradient almost cartoonishly.
A fine example came in the first half: as Algeria drew the Kenyan press, Mahrez dropped deep and pulled out to the touchline, drawing out his marker and opening up the channel. Baghdad Bounedjah made a run into it and brilliantly flicked a header into the path of the onrushing Sofiane Feghouli. Belaili maintained discipline on the far side, staying wide to pin the defence and allowing Feghouli time to pick him out, and his first-time shot drew an awkward save from Patrick Matasi.
Interestingly, it is a concept with which Mahrez is familiar, as it is an important facet of Manchester City’s dominance in the Premier League. On an individual level, he was a lot less flashy here than he usually is for the national team (even though he did score); however, the discipline he and Belaili displayed was crucial to perhaps the most coherent performance of any team so far.
GET BEHIND ENEMY LINES (TUNISIA VS ANGOLA)
Whereas Algeria put on a clinic in posing difficult questions to a weaker opponent, Tunisia did the opposite when they faced Angola in their opening AFCON 2019 Group E match.
Granted, Angola is much stronger than Kenya. However, they should not have been able to play out this game in as much comfort as they did, and by the end, it was the Carthage Eagles who were happier to hear the referee’s whistle.
A midfield of Ghailene Chaalali, Ellyes Skhiri and Wajdi Kechrida seemed a bit too workmanlike, but the real problem was further forward. Tunisia started with Wahbi Khazri upfront, but then by the half-hour mark, Youssef Msakni was playing a kind of false-nine role.
The upshot was that there was not enough movement in behind the Angola defence, which was stationed quite high up the pitch. With Mskani, Khazri and Naim Sliti, Alain Giresse essentially strung three n.10s across the attack, and there was no penetration whatsoever.
Whereas in the first half Angola were content to hold their shape and remain solid (the move that led to Tunisia’s penalty was perhaps their one lapse in the game), they increasingly grew bold as the game progressed, confident they would not be breached. With no proper striker to force them back either with outright pace or clever runs in behind, they were good value for their equalizer, even though it required some charitable goalkeeping from Farouk Ben Moustapha.