“The most important thing was to play a game that I don’t think Egypt expected us to play.”
Stuart Baxter’s take on South Africa’s shock 1-0 win over the hosts on Saturday adds a layer of intrigue and unpredictability to a fixture whose familiarity has bred contempt.
Nigeria against South Africa has happened five times in the last four years already, four of those with competitive stakes, and all boasting a common thread: Bafana Bafana have not lost in any of them. More pointedly, the Super Eagles last won a competitive match against the Rainbow Nation close to 11 years ago.
In spite of these, meetings between these sides are often preceded by the same allegations of arrogance and an inflated sense of self-worth lobbed over the fence from both sides, followed by eruptions of bluster and bravado.
In a broad sense, both sets of fans are probably halfway correct. However, both teams are coming off the back of their most impressive performances of the tournament, achieved in completely contrasting fashions.
Whereas Nigeria needed a second-half tweak to get back on track against Cameroon, scoring twice in two minutes to turn defeat into victory, South Africa produced a tremendous tactical display to leave Cairo, and the entire nation, in a state of disbelief.
Central to that was a commitment to pressing high up the pitch and disrupting Egypt’s rhythm and build-up patterns, a job to which Lebo Mothiba took excellently.
“It was difficult for the front players because, at the same time as we asked them to press, they had to also try to screen the through passes into the midfield players and strikers.”
Mothiba’s brief was to prevent the centre-backs from passing the ball into Tarek Hamed, who was the deepest Egyptian midfielder. Thembinkosi Lorch and Percy Tau played narrow, but oriented themselves on the diagonal, blocking the passing lanes to the full-backs.
The midfield three were vital as well in committing to this press. The midfielder on the ball-side would move into a slightly wider position when the forward ahead of him on that side pressured the centre-back in possession, roughly equidistant from the full-back and the midfielder in his zone, and therefore in a position to press either one.
The narrow positioning of the front three made it difficult for Egypt to progress the ball through the centre, and even when Hamed dropped in between the centre-backs and they were able to play under the first line of pressure, the player available to receive – either Mohamed Elneny or Abdallah El Said – was immediately under pressure from behind, and the prospect of facing a 3v2 in the middle meant they could only play it out to the full-backs. “The support they (the forwards) got was very good,” Baxter attests.
Even braver was that the wide forwards did not track all the way into deep, wide positions, but even when they retreated, they remained in positions to help Bafana transition quickly into attack. It was a gamble, especially on the right where Mohamed Salah and Ahmed Elmohamady have combined to good effect throughout the tournament. However, Sifiso Hlanti had a solid game defensively even when having to mind both.
Really, it was a performance founded upon taking a calculated risk: that the surprise factor of the approach would throw Egypt off so much that they would be unable to collect themselves to even properly take advantage where they could. “They would have expected us, I think, to play deeper and therefore, that way, we surprised them with that game plan. I think we did it very well.”
Indeed, they did. The question then is, will Baxter repeat the trick against Nigeria, and if so, what would that mean?
The last meeting between the sides – the 1-1 draw in Johannesburg – saw Bafana line up in a 4-2-3-1, with Thulani Serero starting as a n.10. It was a similarly brave approach then: Hlanti and Thamsanqa Mkhize pushed forward very aggressively, and contributed to two-on-one situations on the flanks against Nigeria’s wing-backs in their 3-4-1-2 system, leading to their goal.
That left them quite vulnerable in the channels, and Ahmed Musa’s pace caused them a ton of problems. In truth, for all their dominance of the play, especially in the first half, South Africa were fortunate not to lose, as two goals were wrongly ruled out for offside. It is unlikely Baxter will field a similar system, especially considering how Serero was on the day, and has been so far in Egypt.
It is more likely he will persist with the same shape from the Egypt game, however the application might change. Whereas he surprised Egypt by being aggressive, and then direct, against Nigeria it is plausible he will expect to dominate possession; the composition of the Super Eagles midfield is not exactly suitable for the purpose of patient build-up from the back on the best of days.
Then again, that is what Nigeria would expect, isn’t it? And Baxter would know that they would expect that, and so would need to come up with a contingency, but then Gernot Rohr would know that his opposite number would know that he would know, and so might be preparing something else. The knot gets even thicker, as does the plot.
Baxter puts it best himself: “The question for us is do we tweak our way of playing against Nigeria before, which has worked quite well, when on the other hand we played very well against Egypt?”
That really is what makes this such a fascinating match in prospect: if the aim is to surprise, does the level of familiarity between both sides not make that doubly difficult? And what, really, could Bafana do to throw off the Super Eagles?
On their part, Nigeria could find joy doing two things Egypt should have done more frequently: third-man runs from deep into the box on the blindside of the midfield three, and switching the play quickly and constantly from side to side and having a go directly at the full-backs.
To these ends, it would be necessary to start Oghenekaro Etebo in the more advanced role in which he figured in the second half against Cameroon; and it is providential that Jamilu Collins is now fit and available for selection; for the first time since the start of the competition, Rohr can have proper attacking impetus from both full-backs.
That said, considering it could cause issues in defensive transition – a potential three-on-three (or two!) break – a 3-5-2 might not be the worst idea: the security of having three centre-backs would liberate the wing-backs to go forward, and the outer midfielders could drift into the wider zones and combine with them.
It would be ballsy though – Rohr has not deviated from his trusty 4-2-3-1 since the start of the tournament, and that is probably how it will play out here.