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Tactical analysis: The Black Stars of Ghana, Egypt’s final hurdle
With the Black Stars of Ghana the last team standing in the way of Egypt’s first World Cup finals appearance since 1990, KingFut’s Hosam El-Aker breaks down how they may approach its all-or-nothing clash with the Pharaohs.
As Egypt and Ghana gear up for their do-or-die tussle and the right to represent Africa at next year’s FIFA World Cup finals in Brazil, I decided to study some film of the Black Stars’ road to the final qualifying phase.
Since highlights are virtually useless for tactical analysis, I try to watch full match videos, which I’m usually able to do thanks to YouTube. Due to time constraints, I had to limit my viewing to two matches, so I wanted to choose which to watch carefully. I initially didn’t care to re-watch Ghana’s last qualifier – a home win over Zambia – as I didn’t think it would offer the most pertinent information. Ghana went into that game knowing a draw would be enough to win the group. They also played almost the entire match with a lead, a very different circumstance from the one they’ll face in the first leg of their playoff against Egypt in Kumassi, where they’ll be looking to not only win but accumulate as many goals as possible. Aside from one other full match video however, it was the only one available.
For the purposes of this tactical breakdown I’ll be concentrating on the other match I watched, Ghana’s home win over Sudan. Ghana’s tactical and mental approach to that match is likely a much more accurate depiction of how they’ll approach the first leg against Egypt. The Black Stars were still looking to keep pace with Zambia at that point, and nothing short of a win against a game Sudanese side would suffice.
Much like Egypt, the Ghanaians switch between a traditional 4-4-2 and a 4-3-3/4-5-1. In the match against Sudan, which was still a game until late (2-0 with 10 minutes left to play), the Black Stars looked to be in a hybrid 4-3-3/4-5-1. They were in a similar formation against Lesotho in a prior World Cup qualifier, winning 7-0.
While a number of these regulars will be missing for various reasons, including the entire back four, Ghana’s depth means there likely won’t be many tactical, formational, or strategic changes… mainly just alterations to the starting lineup.
The dotted arrows represent common movements I noticed on film. Wakaso is given a largely free role in attack, while the the left and right backs advance deep into the final third of the pitch, particularly in set piece situations. It’s worth keeping an eye on how often manager Kwesi Appiah sends his centre-backs forward, something he liked to do with Isaac Vorsah, who is out of the Egypt tie due to injury.
Their speed on the flanks is terrific, though that’s admittedly accentuated when playing less pacey sides like Sudan that like slower, build-up play. The Black Stars have a diversified attack and can come at teams in myriad ways, but from the game film one notices that they prefer to knock the ball over the top to their flankers, relying on them to catch up to and be first to the ball. Attacking, central, and even defensive midfielders then rush up the middle of the field toward the 18-yard-box awaiting either a short, low pass or an overhead cross from the flanks.
In the screenshots above you’ll notice Vorsah, a defender, getting behind the Sudanese defense as Gyan knocks the ball onto him. This is a perfect illustration of how dangerous man-marking would be against Ghana, as it’s quite easy to lose track of an attacking defender. In a man-on-man scheme, it’s likely the centre-backs would be assigned to mark strikers, and a sweeper could easily get swept up (pardon the pun) in worrying about an advancing midfielder instead of an advancing defender. Defending in zones is difficult enough against Ghana, but man-marking is borderline suicidal. As porous as Egypt’s defense is, I’m still more comfortable seeing Egypt play the zone scheme manager Bob Bradley has implemented over the traditional man-marking systems of past Egypt teams. To be successful in man defense in the modern game, your centre-backs need to be exceptionally athletic. If they aren’t, too many one-on-one situations, and at times gaping holes, can be created with minimal movement. Suffice it to say, the athleticism in Egypt’s central defense is less than stellar, which is where zone marking could help them compensate.
Watching the way Ghana attack, I was immediately reminded of the injury to Ahmed Hegazy, the influential Egypt and Fiorentina centre-back. Ghana likes to cross the ball when they have numbers in the box, the type that a towering centre-back like him would have devoured. Conversely, both Sudan and Zambia had some aerial opportunities of their own, the kind in which coach Bradley would have sent Hegazy forward into the box to meet.
The Ghanaians don’t hesitate to shoot from distance (meaning outside of the 18-yard box) if a clearer, closer path toward goal is unavailable. That said, it’ll be vital for Egyptian defenders to cut off passing lanes and shooting angles in the final quarter of the pitch, and not just play the ball. Sound positioning will be crucial to achieving this, as the film shows that Ghanaian attackers like to utilize fakes to create shooting space.
Zonal systems are typically more effective against squads that push forward with traditionally non-attacking players (i.e. defenders) since they account for a space, not a man. Modern attacks are simply too complex for man schemes to enjoy consistent success against. Hopefully there won’t be many more of the growing pains Egypt has experienced moving from man-marking to zone defense.
One of the aspects of the Black Stars’ attack that makes them unique within Africa is the versatility of their approach. They demonstrate the ability to either build up through shorter passes or play the long ball and use their strength and speed to control possession in the final third of the pitch. Typically, Africa’s elite are either characterized by their strength as a unit – their whole being greater than the sum of their parts – or by the skill of their individuals. Studying Ghana, you see a combination of both styles, making them a uniquely dangerous side. Ghana can’t and won’t be completely shut down by Egypt, but the Pharaohs do have a chance to win the tie on aggregate if it at least forces Ghana to be as one dimensional in its approach as possible.
It’s easy for less capable goalkeepers to make mistakes against Ghana, since they send plenty of high balls into the box. A keeper that’s poor at deciding when to and not to leave the six-yard box can easily get caught in no man’s land. Conversely, a net minder who’s good in the air can single-handedly take away one important dimension of Ghana’s multifaceted attack. As none of Egypt’s goalkeepers are particularly strong in the air, this aspect bears close, worrisome watching.
Mubarak Wakaso, who as mentioned seems to have a largely free role in attack, was the most dangerous man on film for my money. His left-footed volley for Ghana’s second goal against Sudan was the type of thing you just can’t defend against. Ghana will have their chances no matter what you do defensively, but Egypt will have a shot so long as they don’t help them and give anything away cheaply. Defensive mistakes are the only sure way to lose.
Defensive-midfielder Rabiu has an exceptional workrate. Think Ahmed Hassan’s energy (in his prime) combined with Hany Ramzy’s efficiency. Even though all-time Ghana great Michael Essien is set to replace him, I can’t see Rabiu’s unfortunate absence from the first leg as anything but a positive for Egypt.
Black Stars defenders shouldn’t simply be left to comfortably do their work in space, especially given that this won’t be their regular defensive unit Egypt faces in Kumasi. Pressuring Ghana high up the pitch could result in some unexpected opportunities, as the slides below demonstrate.
In these pictures, we see a Ghanaian defender pressured (I couldn’t identify him, but it might have been Afful) deep in his own half, leading to an aimless pass and a clear chance on goal for Sudan, which they squandered.
Plenty of teams are predictable when it comes to set pieces, Egypt under both Hassan Shehata and Bob Bradley is one of them. We know these teams will either be taking a direct or indirect shot on goal. Ghana, on the other hand, keeps you guessing every time.
The four-time African champions have plenty of set plays for these situations. In fact, the breadth of these plays reminds me of the Pharaohs under the late legend Mahmoud El-Gohary. Each of these set piece plays are meant to get opposing defenders out of position, creating spaces inside of the box for an attacking player to fill. I hate to harp on it more, but this is where zone/gap discipline will be key for Egypt defensively. If Egypt is able to keep Ghana from opening up such spaces in the defense, the Black Stars will be forced to shoot from distance – which they can do well – but a shot from 20 yards out is preferred to one from just 10 yards if you’re the defense. Trying to stop everything can often result in allowing everything, so it’ll be a game of percentages for Egypt; concentrate on stopping what’s most dangerous and highest percentage.
Ghana’s first goal against Sudan is a prime example of how well-drilled they are with set pieces in attack. They isolated Warris along the right flank. Wakaso found him before knocking the ball back into the box where no less than four white shirts were waiting to pounce on it against just two defenders… never good odds for a defense.
This isn’t an overly-complicated set-piece play design, and perhaps some naivety on the part of the Sudanese defense contributed to its success, but it’s a reminder nonetheless that defenders need to stay disciplined and not get dragged out of their respective zones. This play didn’t happen by accident, it was the result of careful design and repetitions in training.
Both Sudan and Zambia had a couple of free headers in attack of their own. Ghana can get a bit discombobulated with heavy box rotation on corner kicks. Though filling the box could leave slower defenses like Egypt’s susceptible to counter attacks, doing so could result in an unmarked attacker, especially given that Ghana also likes to keep at least one man on goalpost duty on corners.
In the snapshot above, you’ll notice very conventional movement within the box by Sudan that results in a free, wide-open header. Unfortunately for the Sudanese, the ball was headed the wrong way, but they nonetheless did well to confuse the Ghanaian defense and open up space.
Another piece of information to note on the set piece front is that Ghana often plays to win free kicks around the 18-yard box. This isn’t a surprise considering how many set piece plays they have and how well they execute them. If there’s no clear path to goal, whether by shooting or passing, Ghanaian attackers will try to draw a foul. This will probably be especially prevalent in the home leg, where getting the benefit of the doubt from the referee is more likely.
In the end, there isn’t much separating these teams tactically or on paper. The most important point I can possibly emphasize from studying Ghana is the need to play for all 90+ minutes. It sounds cliché, but never will this point have to be emphasized more than now. We know that Egypt has an odd tendency to go into a lull when playing with the lead, even if they also have a flare for the dramatic by scoring some late goals. If the Pharaohs get complacent and go into a shell, the film and the stats both show that they will get burned. Seven of Ghana’s goals in the group phase of World Cup qualifying have come in the final 10 minutes of matches. Seven! That’s easily the most such tally of any group winner in Africa. Ghana does not quit. They play from whistle to whistle and never feel like they’re out of a game.
For every tactical and strategic point brought up, there’s nothing I can harp on more than the intangibles: character, desire, relentlessness (for all 90+ minutes), and coming through in the clutch. When the dust settles, this will ultimately be the difference between Egypt and Ghana.