Burundi make their bow at the Africa Cup of Nations against Nigeria on Saturday in Group B.
There is a huge gulf in terms of quality and accomplishments between both sides, but Olivier Niyungeko’s side lay down for no one, and will look to create an upset at the very least in their debut appearance.
Although they occasionally wheeled out a back three for tougher games on the road, recent friendly outings suggest they will stick with a back four during the competition. As such, the starting shape is a 4-4-1-1. Fiston Abdul Razak leads the line, and moves in such a way as to maintain direct access to Saido Berahino just behind; rarely will they split across the width of the pitch.
Two banks of four would suggest a stodgy, defensive set-up, but Burundi are quite keen to get in their opponents’ faces, getting tight in midfield and harrying the player in possession. While they can batten down the hatches when they need to, usually the solid centre-back pairing of Frederic Nsabiyumva and Omar Ngandu handle themselves well enough; the former, in particular, is a superb tackler, both in timing and execution.
In possession, Burundi play at a steady tempo, and will calmly move the ball from side to side at the back, before playing out wide to the wingers. Far from being chalk-on-the-boots wide men, they have a brief to funnel the play back inside, and then orbit around Berahino to feed Abdul Razak.
The JS Kabylie striker is a battler, and puts himself about, but he is also excellent at laying the ball off first time, a quality crucial to Burundi’s attempts to transition from defence to attack. However, while he may have been the team’s topscorer in qualifying, winger Cedric Amissi is arguably the biggest threat: his striking technique is remarkably refined, and he is capable of the spectacular, and of catching goalkeepers napping.
There are two glaring chinks in the armour that Nigeria might be able to exploit, however.
At left-back, Christophe Nduwarugira is a bit of a liability. Despite being far less aggressive in his positioning than right-back Moussa, he can be got at by clever movement, and is easily flustered when pressed. Usually, Nsabiyumva plays on the left of the centre-back pairing, and will mop up his spills, but he was substituted in their final friendly against Tunisia, and Niyungeko might well be tempted to drop him here.
The split of their midfield pairing also offers an opportunity. While Burundi like to close down in the middle of the park, Gael Bigirimana plays a more withheld role in front of the defence, and adjusts his positioning according to his partner’s more intense pressing actions.
However, that leaves the former Newcastle United man with a great deal of space to account for, and an intelligent n.10 can take advantage of that space behind either of Gael Duhayindavyi or Pierre Kwizera to receive the ball and attack the backline immediately, or combine with a wide player and open up space for him to dribble into and shoot at goal.