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The Egypt-Bob Bradley Adventure in Review: Part 5 (The Football Focus)
This is Part 5 of a five-parts series. Part 1 served as an introduction. Last week, in Parts 2, 3 & 4, I reviewed an assortment of general aspects of the Egypt-Bob Bradley adventure, most of which were off-the-field matters. This week in Part 5, I wrap up my series with a closer focus on the actual football that was played. From player selections to formations and tactics, this is where you will find a more technical review.
Note: This part is longer than usual because it was originally planned to be divided into Parts 5 and 6, but I decided it made more sense to have the whole football focus in one place
1. Team rebuilding
Bradley was hired by then FA president Samir Zaher for two reasons: to get to the 2014 World Cup and to rebuild an aging team, making it capable of representing Egypt for years to come. He was largely successful in the latter goal. When Diaa El Sayed was asked about Bradley as a football coach, he praised Bradley’s “good eye for players”. It was clear that Bradley was doing something right when out of the first four players he recruited from Egypt’s U-23, three were very soon the first from that U-23 team to move to Europe (and the fourth had a trial at Real Betis). These three youngsters – Salah, Hegazy and Elneny – were given many friendly games by Bradley, who patiently assumed their initial shortcomings, giving them the time they needed to grow in style and confidence. They became regular starters for Bradley and are now perfectly mature at the service of Egypt and Shawky Gharib. Four other young players shone at their clubs only towards the end of Bradley’s time but were immediately given opportunities: Al Sulaya, Kahraba, Rabia and Hazem Emam. They came through brilliantly for Bradley. Others like Temsah, Shikabala, Mohamed Ibrahim and Omar Gaber featured sporadically but too much inconsistency in their performances prevented them from becoming regulars. A couple of exceptions aside, Bradley had a knack for getting remarkable performances out of his debutants in official games – sometimes even better ones than they were putting in at their clubs: Shedid Kenawi (vs. Zimbabwe home), Ashour and Sulaya (vs. Zimbabwe away) and Kahraba (vs. Guinea) were all remarkable.
The Gharib Comparison: What is interesting with Gharib is that he keeps team changes to a minimum. Even in friendlies, he sticks as closely as possible to his preferred starting XI. Whether that could hurt us when we come to official games (with opponents studying us) remains to be seen but for now, we already have much insight into Gharib’s team after three friendlies. It appears he’s taken to heart the “rebuilding” part of the job more than Bradley. Without counting goalkeepers (who tend to skew older), more than half the players who were given at least 15 minutes in Gharib’s three friendlies were 23 or younger. In my opinion, Gharib is being slightly too eager in this matter and some of these young players will not be very useful when we come to the real tests of official qualifiers. But let’s take a quick look at Gharib’s most trusted names so far. The players who completed all 270 minutes of the three friendlies are Elneny (now a much improved player), Mohamed Salah (a no-brainer by now), Ali Ghazal (a fantastic addition after he started playing at center-back for his club) and Ouka (who has his ups and downs but looks more solid now than he was for Bradley). Khaled Kamar (given 199’) is Gharib’s choice in the centre forward position; a player that Bradley didn’t think was good enough to include in the squad during his time as manager.
2. Possession football
The US national team’s rarely changing style of play under Bradley’s leadership (defending for long periods of time and relying on counterattacks) have earned him the somewhat unflattering nickname of “Bunker Bob”. But after two years in Egypt, I can attest that Bradley is a much more tactically flexible manager than US fans have been giving him credit for. In fact, he went for the complete opposite approach in Egypt: something more akin to Barcelona’s football, with the high backline, short passes, off-the-ball pressure on opponents, patient buildup from the back and absence of a traditional striker. In Bradley’s own words, “high tempo, mobile, attacking football to take advantage of the talent here.” His preferred formation 4-2-3-1 was ideally suited to key man Abou-Treika’s playmaking skills. Overall, we had a proactive rather than a reactive team, preferring to impose our style on opponents rather than being dragged to their game. The one time we failed to do that was, of course, in Kumasi. But that was a failure of execution rather than intent according to Bradley, who said of his initial plan: “We felt that we still, with football, could control the game.” What happened instead, he said, was that “we played into [Ghana’s] athleticism.”
The Gharib Comparison: In Gharib’s first match, Gharib followed in Bradley’s footsteps and successfully imposed a tiki-taka-like style on the Bosnians. We won an excellent game 2-0. Against Chile and Jamaica, it was a different story. We were content to sit back and hit on the counter. We played many long balls. We didn’t look very attractive. It remains to be seen which of these two brands of football will be preferred by Gharib in the long run.
3. The Abou-Treika-Salah partnership
A direct result of Bradley’s proactive approach was that we finished 2014 World Cup qualifiers with the second-best attack out of 40 teams that entered the group stage, with a final tally of 19 goals scored in 8 games (an average of 2.4 goals per game). And in each of these games, we created many more close chances than we managed to bury. That attacking power revolved around a very special partnership between one Mohamed Abou-Treika and one Mohamed Salah. The former’s incomparable vision and through balls coupled with the latter’s ability to move into the right spaces with pace and skill resulted in the pair either scoring or assisting a whopping 14 of our 19 goals. Bradley would get some mild criticism at times for his Egypt team being all about Abou-Treika and Salah. But in truth, they were far from an obvious pair when Bradley first came to Egypt, and he has to be given credit for making them the cornerstone of his team. Abou-Treika was an aging star whose playing time was diminishing at Al-Ahly yet Bradley’s trust in him was such that he gave him every single minute of the 10 official games played under his tenure. Salah was a young talent who showed much promise in the league but had his flaws (some selfishness and a tendency to kick the ball too far ahead of his feet). Not any local league talent can make the successful transition to the national team, but from the very start, Bradley put his money on Mohamed Salah, giving him lots of playing time in 2011-2012 friendlies. It soon became clear that Bradley had struck gold. With the help of Salah and Abou-Treika, Egypt soon became a formidable goalscoring machine.
The Gharib Comparison: Egypt’s elimination at the hands of Ghana marked another sad event: the retirement of Mohamed Abou-Treika, one of the most special men in Egyptian footballing history both as a footballer and as a human being. In a nod to his time spent together with Salah, mentoring him before passing the mantle onto him, Salah has inherited Abou-Treika’s special number 22 shirt. Salah has also taken a great leap in his personal career by making the move from FC Basel to English giant Chelsea, now training under Jose Mourinho. Gharib may have lost Abou-Treika but now has the benefit of a constantly improving young world star in his ranks, something Egypt has lacked for quite some time.
4. Defensive frailty
The flipside of the coin to Bradley’s attacking brand of football was a poor defence. In the AFCON 2013 qualifiers, even though we scored three goals over a two-legged playoff, we managed to concede four. And in 2014 World Cup qualifiers, even before meeting Ghana, we had the worst defence among the 10 teams qualified from the group stage, with 7 goals conceded (to inferior sides) in 6 games. Only minions Mozambique failed to score in our net. We conceded in all four other games, in three of which we conceded more than once. But our attack would always race to have the last word in these group games. However, Guinea and Zimbabwe were hardly world-class opposition. Could our attack always come to the rescue and compensate our defensive frailty when we faced an African Pot 1 team in the playoffs? Bradley thought our attacking output should not be sacrificed for the sake of a defensive game. “When we talk about being better defensively,” he said, “especially in the final round, as a coaching staff we agree 100%. But as we work to improve defensively, we can’t [lose] the good things we are doing when we have the ball, where we can control the game, the chances we create… things that have helped us in the past round in all six games.” Fair enough. Except that we did not, in fact, improve defensively for the final round. No matter how one individually analyzes each goal we conceded in our campaign (Bradley would often blame a slow team reaction at the moment the ball was lost), the numbers don’t lie: We simply weren’t solid enough at the back to be a World Cup team. It’s a pity because in football, scoring goals is always the hardest part, and we were firing on that cylinder.
The Gharib Comparison: Gharib’s solution to the team’s defensive problems was to revert back to the three-man-defence system used by Hassan Shehata. In Gharib’s first game, it seemed like an excellent decision: We were able to play with much more confidence knowing that we were secure at the back, instead of always chasing the scoreline. However, we conceded twice in each of Gharib’s following two games, raising questions about the effectiveness of Gharib’s decision. More games are needed to determine if sacrificing a midfield/attacking man for the sake of an additional defender is worth it.
5. Drawing Ghana
In Part 4, I talked about Africa’s qualification system and about FIFA rankings. But these factors would have been forgotten if only some luck had fallen Egypt’s way in the playoffs draw. Ghana was the worst possible opponent for Egypt to face, and I’m not only saying this in hindsight after the 6-1 scoreline. Ghana is not only the best African team at the moment; it was also the most ill-matched for Egypt as our weaknesses played directly into their strengths. Ghana’s lethal set pieces was met by Egypt’s historical struggle in defending them; Ghana’s brand of direct football (long balls) coupled with athleticism up front was met by an Egyptian defense dependent more on skill than physical strength; and finally an attack that had netted the most goals in the group stage was to face a defense that was the weakest among the 10 nations disputing the playoffs. Counterattacking teams like Algeria and Tunisia that used to give Egypt a hard time in the past would have actually been easier for Bradley’s team, which was better at breaking down opponents’ defenses than facing an onslaught of attacks.
6. The Shikabala factor
“All of us that know Shika, we see something,” Bradley said of the playmaker’s great skill. Could this something translate on the bigger stage of national team games? “Shika is like rolling dice on the table.” “So for a long time he wasn’t part of [the team]”, Bradley continued. “But if we had more that took advantage of the opportunities in the same way as Mohamed Salah, then we don’t give 2nd and 3rd chances to Shika. But we felt that in and around the last game with Guinea, Shika was showing more. So we included him [in both Ghana games] because we felt if we need somebody that can maybe produce a moment of skill, a moment of deception… that’s why we used Shika as a reserve in both these games.” As it turned out, it was the worst decision Bradley had taken in his Egyptian tenure. At a time when we were desperate for a reversal of fortunes in Kumasi, being down 1-3 at halftime, Shikabala came on. It was Bradley’s only unforced substitution in a game that saw two Egyptians off for injury. Shikabala had an astounding amount of mispasses, couldn’t control a ball in acres of space near Ghana’s goal, and wasted a sitter in the return leg. Bradley seemed not to discern that Shikabala is a player of poor tenacity who performs as long as conditions are favorable for him and the team. Introducing him at a time when the World Cup dream was starting to fade was a mistake, and we paid a price for it.
The Gharib Comparaison: Shikabala has just received his first call-up to Gharib’s team for the upcoming qualifiers in September. I wished Gharib had waited a little more as Shika is now a player in Sporting Lisbon and Gharib could have used that move as a test for Shika’s ability to grow and improve his mentality, playing for a big European club. So far, the playmaker has only featured once for Sporting. I hope Gharib uses Shika judiciously in the upcoming games, if he uses him at all.
7. Six goals in Kumasi
It was a fateful day. I talked earlier of our defensive weakness, but on that day, fortune played as much of a part: a very contestable penalty, two Egyptians injured (Ashour’s injury allowed Essien to charge on freely, resulting in the 2nd goal), two goals going in off the post, two goals from set pieces, and one own goal were the final, heartbreaking tally. Going into the match, there was little disagreement about the lineup. As did most people, Goal.com’s 15 editors chose the exact same starters as Bradley did with the exception of Moawad in the place of Shedid Kenawi. And Bradley’s decision to switch Ghaly to the defense after 10 minutes was logical. But it was a day when our worst tendencies had the say: our defenders allowed too many dangerous Ghanaian attacks, our inability to defend set pieces cost us twice, and Ghaly’s occasional risk-taking with the ball caused the 5th goal. A month later, in Cairo, Bradley was allowed to stand with the team one last time and he made good on his promise to show that Kumasi was an exception, just like every great team from Bracelona to Brazil suffers a great defeat at one point or another. A miracle was not in the cards, but in Cairo’s stadium, Egyptians played their hearts out and outplayed the Ghanaians in every department, giving us a performance to cherish. It prompted Jeff Bradley to tweet that Egyptians “will be champions of Africa again.”
This is it for me. I thank every reader who stuck with me through this long series or checked out a few sections here and there. I’d be glad to receive any comments you might have. I thank my brother who supported me throughout this project. I thank Bob Bradley for his very interesting tenure that motivated me to write. And I thank Kingfut for the opportunity they gave me to make public things that were in my head.