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The shape of the Egypt national team under Héctor Cúper
One day before Egypt takes its crucial first step in qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, KingFut’s Andrew Sidhom looks at the way the team have been lining up since Héctor Cúper has been in charge of the Pharaohs.
A very good starting point when trying to understand the shape of Cúper’s team is an interview that was conducted with the Argentinean on October 2nd. One of the most noteworthy absentees from Cúper’s team had been Al Ahly midfielder Hossam Ghaly, despite being in a great run of form. Our media too rarely presses football coaches for answers with precise questions the way TV presenter Khairy Ramadan did Cúper when he asked about Ghaly:
- Khairy Ramadan: What is your opinion of Hossam Ghaly?
- Héctor Cúper: A very good footballer, a very talented player.
- KR: Can he return to the team?
- HC: Of course.
- KR: What would be different? The opponent?
- HC: Possibly the opponent, or a change in the tactics, which would need Ghaly.
- KR: Need Ghaly to do what exactly?
- HC: We’ll start to talk tactics, which will take a long time. Sometimes for example, when I play with two strikers, I need my two defensive midfielders to be better defensively. I’m giving you an example.
- KR: In this case, Ghaly isn’t suitable.
- HC: Of course he intercepts balls; I’m not saying he wouldn’t be suitable at all, but intercepting balls is not one of his best qualities in this position.
- KR: What are his best qualities?
- HC: How he distributes the ball. His vision of the field, which is excellent.
Cúper has now called up Ghaly for the first time, for the upcoming qualifiers. There are a few possible reasons, which will be addressed later on, but aren’t that big of an indication of any major change in the Argentine’s plan. For now, let’s look at his formation of choice, which is 4-4-2. Here is how his preferred starting eleven would line up, barring injuries and given adequate playing time at club level:
Aside from the center-backs, Cúper relies on his two central midfielders do the defensive heavy-lifting for the team. As such, midfielders whose value is in building up play with forward passes but are not as solid defensively like Amr Al-Sulaya, Saleh Gomaa and Hossam Ghaly have not figured in his plans. The men for the job have been Ibrahim Salah, Mohamed El-Nenny and Tarek Hamed, and Ahmed Tawfik has served as backup. If there is a player like El-Nenny who can also at times make an important forward pass, and can occasionally fire shots from distance, that is an added bonus; but more importantly, El-Nenny carries out the defensive work that the former Inter Milan manager requires. While he’s not as good an interceptor as Salah or Hamed, he presses opponents with an incredible work rate, which has seen him named the player who covered the most distance in several of Basel’s European games this year. The one mystery in this position is why Portugal-based Ali Ghazal has never been called up.
If the central midfielders are chosen first for defensive duties, can Egypt build up play and get the ball to the wingers and forwards often enough? Looking at Cúper’s choice of left backs and right backs might help in finding the answer. Whenever possible, skilled dribblers like Hazem Emam and Omar Gaber on the right, and Mohamed Abdel-Shafy and Hussein El-Sayed on the left have been favored to players with other qualities like Ahmed Elmohamady, Ahmed Fathy and Sabry Rahil. Fathy, at his best, is also skilled with the ball but has not been at the top of his game lately. Cúper looks to the aforementioned energetic fullbacks to connect and overlap with the key players ahead of them on the flank: Mahmoud ‘Kahraba’ and Mohamed Salah.
Egypt now have two of the most talented players they have produced in years: the aforementioned Salah and Kahraba. Salah is already an established European player at 23, while Kahraba still has a promising learning curve to put his huge talent to more efficient use. Both can create the difference at any moment. They can dribble past opponents, work in tight areas or in space, cut inside or make runs on the flank. Along with the overlapping fullbacks, they are the main suppliers of Bassem Morsi and Ahmed Hassan ‘Koka’, who are both traditional strikers not used to operating too far outside of the box.
In Egypt’s last friendly match against Zambia, all three goals that Egypt scored came from a low cross by a full-back, converted into the net by a striker. Two of the goals came after a winger played the ball to the overlapping full-back, who then made the cross. In all likelihood, Koka became first in Cúper’s pecking order of strikers after that game. He has arguably been Egypt’s best striker for some time now, and was wrongly overlooked by Bob Bradley, Shawky Gharib and even Cúper, until last month.
What Ghaly brings to the game in terms of distribution, one-touch play and vision of the field has become too much to ignore, and Cúper has apparently estimated that he can sacrifice some defensive solidity to make use of him. Alternatively, perhaps Ghaly’s experience was deemed necessary in such a decisive play-off. This is assuming that Ghaly will start, but it’s more likely that the Capitano‘s presence is going to be required when and if certain circumstances call for it during the game. This brings us to the question….
Are there any alternative gameplans?
So far, even in friendlies, Cúper hasn’t played around with the shape of his team much. He hasn’t yet had to deal with situations such as falling behind, or needing to preserve a scoreline during a decisive game. Nevertheless, he made two changes in the second period of Egypt’s latest friendly when leading 2-0, that may offer some clues to his pattern of thoughts. In both cases, the 4-4-2 formation itself wasn’t changed, but players with different roles were fielded. First, Cúper tried playing a fully attacking player – Momen Zakaria – in the position of a holding midfielder. The results of the ‘experiment’ were mixed. Momen wasn’t guilty of misplaced passes but hardly passed the ball forward, probably too wary in his new position.
This may be why Cúper considered Ghaly this time, as a better distributor of the ball forward, to be used when a more attacking game is needed. The second change Cúper tried was to play Abdullah El-Said in place of a winger. The idea must have been to play more of a passing game in case Egypt need to preserve a scoreline, when holding possession is more important than making risky runs and plays forward. In this scenario too, Ghaly is a substitute that can be of help.
Egypt vs. Chad
Unfortunately Egypt begin the qualifiers with five of the eleven players in the lineup pictured earlier either injured or not featuring enough for their clubs recently. In all likelihood, Omar Gaber will replace Hazem Emam, Sabry Rahil will play at left-back – Hussein El-Sayed isn’t playing a lot at Al Ahly and Ayman Ashraf has never been tested at the international level before – while Tarek Hamed will take Ibrahim Salah’s place, and Ahmed Deweidar will slot in for Rabia. The biggest question is, who will replace Mohamed Salah? Momen Zakaria, Abdallah El-Said, Amr Warda or Mostafa Fathi?
With all due respect, Chad are not exactly a heavyweight team. They have never qualified for a World Cup finals or an African Cup of Nations. With that in mind, they enter tomorrow’s match in higher spirits than when they were thrashed 5-1 by Egypt in September. Since then, they’ve managed to overcome the higher-rated Sierra Leone in the first round of World Cup qualifiers, and they’ve brought in ex-Liverpool and Cameroon player Rigobert Song as manager. Egypt have a history of costly complacency against smaller teams, but it’s something that seems to have been largely corrected since Bob Bradley’s tenure. Hopefully, this spirit will continue for what is a crucial two-legged tie; the thought of an early exit on the road to Russia is unacceptable to any Egyptian.
How do you evaluate the way Héctor Cúper has shaped the team? Can they get past the hurdle of a playoff with Chad? Can they achieve success when facing ‘bigger’ teams? Leave any comments you have below…