On the defensive: Analyzing Cúper’s Egypt
It’s been a little over a year since Héctor Cúper took over as manager of Egypt’s national team. In that span, his charges have played 12 matches, six of which were for official competitions; ample time to get an idea of how the 60-year-old Argentine is attempting to mold the Pharaohs in his image.
It is said that “the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.” Not a perfect harbinger of course, but certainly more accurate than many others. For that reason, it’s important to understand Cúper’s history when attempting to decipher his plans for Egypt.
Let’s face it, his winning percentage and trophy cabinet are not impressive. Cúper’s once-promising career seemed destined for stardom in the late 1990s and early 2000s before quickly heading downhill with poor results, multiple resignations and sackings.
That said, there was one aspect of his teams that remained relatively consistent; stout defense. And though the Egyptian Football Association probably could have hired a more promising manager if it wanted to pay for one, Cúper’s defensive record was a small glimmer of hope for a team that seemed to make at least one embarrassingly amateurish mistake at the back every match, for far too long.
The deficiencies are a somewhat ironic given that defense was once the backbone of the national team, particularly in the 1990s under the tutelage of the late Mahmoud El-Gohary. The Pharaohs boasted defenders like Hany Ramzy, Samir Kamouna, Mohamed Emara, and Yasser Radwan, all plying their trade in Europe at one point. And the locally-based talent it relied upon, players like Medhat Abdelhady and Mohamed Yousef, were big, physical, reliable and relentless. They were the foundation of the 1998 Africa Cup of Nations winning side that conceded just one goal the entire tournament, an unstoppable bicycle kick from Moroccan legend Mustapha Hadji.
And if you think defense is just one aspect of football commensurate in value to all others, think again. Statistically speaking, defense is a better correlator to qualifying for World Cups from Africa than scoring goals is. Stay tuned for an upcoming feature from KingFut dissecting the numbers behind this.
Modernizing Egyptian defense
Egypt’s defense is beginning to show a slow but steady improvement under Cúper. He doesn’t offer many ideas in attack, but given the serious defensive woes suffered in recent years, it’s a trade-off we should be happy to make in principle.
Cúper isn’t necessarily reinventing the wheel or incorporating anything revolutionary. He is, however, bringing Egypt’s defense into the 21st century by employing basic tenants found within any successful four-man backline in the world.
The image above is a simple illustration of just how paramount Cúper’s emphasis on defense is.
Early in Egypt’s most recent match vs. Nigeria, still scoreless in a contest the Pharaohs needed to win to put it on the verge of qualifying for the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations, he has all 11 players behind the ball and in their own half before Nigeria even crosses midfield in this foray forward.
One word you’re going to notice me repeating often in this analysis is “equidistance.” The reason being that it is a fundamentally vital aspect of successful defending and one of the telltale signs of tactical discipline.
In its most elementary form, defensive equidistance limits the opening of passing and shooting lanes, and makes defenses more difficult to break down.
The snapshot below from the Nigeria match is the quintessence of what Cúper ideally wishes to instill in the team on a consistent basis. For defensive purists, it’s a sight to behold.
Notice how perfectly equidistant from one another the highlighted Egyptian players are. If you were to measure how far each one is from the other, there probably wouldn’t be more than a three or four-foot difference.
Cúper’s defensive scheme, at least to this point, has been predominately zone-based. With each player executing properly, i.e. covering the distance within their allotted zones (indicated by the yellow circles) and maintaining their spatial integrity, it’s exceedingly difficult for most teams to find passing and shooting lanes, and break the defense down.
Cúper’s system is also based on the principle of gap control. Notice that in front of the back four is a line of three comprising Mohamed ElNeny, Ibrahim Salah, and Ramadan Sobhy. The players in the odd-numbered line are in perfect position to fill the natural gaps created by the back four. The red arrows illustrate how that three-man line fits into the gaps in the back four. All seven Egyptians highlighted are in perfect position to eliminate any passing, shooting, or aerial lanes Nigeria may present in this particular attack.
This is in stark contrast to the system employed by the previous regime, led by Shawky Gharib.
Gharib is an attack-minded manager that actually had some innovative ideas going forward, but couldn’t reconcile them with what he needed defensively. Despite his poor tenure in charge of the Pharaohs – which may have been a product of bad timing as much as anything else considering league stoppages and political instability – he played a significant role in Egypt’s Africa Cup of Nations threepeat between 2006 and 2010 as manager Hassan Shehata’s top assistant.
Under Gharib however, defenders were routinely out of position, communicated poorly, and didn’t seem to have any coherent assignment aside from the occasional man-marking.
In this example during Gharib’s final match in charge, a must-win 2015 Africa Cup of Nations qualifier in Tunisia , Egypt’s defenders are not only pitifully positioned, but completely lose gap integrity, creating gaping holes that any halfway capable squad would exploit. This is about as poor an example of defensive equidistance as you’ll find at this level.
Moments later, Tunisian striker Yassine Chikhaoui is through on goal, taking the open invitation offered by Egypt’s defense to score a back-breaking second-half equalizer.
In fairness to the backline, the scoring play began from a bad pass in the defensive midfield, but a more disciplined defense would have been able to overcome this, and likely would not have made the errant pass to begin with given how the midfield works in unison with centerbacks and fullbacks in a well-drilled, gap-control zone.
Under Cúper, a former centerback himself, Egypt’s defense consistently has numbers in position to defend. This second-half Nigerian counter-attack with the match still scoreless is a prime example.
Egypt has six players in position to defend against a four-man attack. Spacing is nearly perfect, with players maintaining gap integrity and protecting their assigned zones. In this system, passing and shooting lanes within assigned zones dictate player movement and positioning, as opposed to following individual players or stagnating at a specific point on the field.
Later, another wave forward from Nigeria that is again outnumbered and met with six equidistant defenders.
Egypt’s present scheme is actually not unlike the back-four zone employed under former manager Bob Bradley. The difference being that Cúper’s is a bit more disciplined – with an emphasis on gap integrity, equidistant positioning, and dedicating a few more numbers from the midfield to support the back – namely to fill the natural gaps in between the back four, as illustrated before. Bradley also has more of an attack-minded background and was largely focused on offensive intricacies during his time with the Pharaohs. That’s not a bad thing – Bradley is a disciplined, determined, charismatic leader that players gravitate towards – but Egypt didn’t have a problem scoring goals. It did have a serious problem conceding them.
In conjunction with his defenders, ElNeny can decide which of two gaps requires more immediate support, since he’s the defensive midfielder closest to the ball. Based on where he goes, Ibrahim Salah then fills the adjacent gap.
Of course, these are highlights of Egypt’s defensive performance, but it’s important to remember that Egypt’s tactical restructuring is still a work in progress. Cúper has limited time with the national team, and employs a system that’s foreign to clubs in Egypt, which is where the entire starting Pharaohs backline plays. As a result, his scheme isn’t something that’s drilled and reemphasized to players on a consistent basis, but is instead only taught when they camp for the national team.
In this shot, Egypt’s spatial integrity is compromised on the right side. Either Rami Rabia or Ibrahim Salah should have filled the gap indicated by the red cone.
However, Ahmed Hegazy notices the gaping hole to his right and immediately shouts for Salah to fill it. It’s no surprise that Hegazy was the one to correct the problem. Having played for Italy’s Fiorentina, the towering ceneterback has more experience in zone-based back fours than his partners in the Egyptian defense. Under many past Egyptian regimes, this space would not have been considered an issue since there wasn’t an attacking player filling it.
Egypt’s blueprint: Romania?
So, what’s the next phase in the evolution of Egypt’s defense, which it is hoping becomes a stingy, consistent, and systematic staple of the team? The unit that comes to mind will play at this summer’s Euro 2016 finals in France, but may surprise some.
Romania, a squad that conceivably isn’t much more talented than Egypt, allowed the fewest goals of any team in Euro 2016 qualifying, conceding just twice in 10 matches en route to an undefeated campaign. Two goals in 10 matches… let that simmer in your brain for a second. It’s almost unfathomable, particularly in the tough neighborhood that is UEFA. They’re also unbeaten in their last 17 encounters.
So, what do they do that Egypt doesn’t? Let’s examine.
This image speaks for itself and doesn’t require any marking. Romania’s spacing is simply superb. Gap integrity is maintained at every level, which is needed when contesting the likes of Spain as they were in this friendly international last weekend.
But what I especially want to show from the Romania example is an added dimension that I hope Egypt can eventually add to its own repertoire.
Romania employs an extremely disciplined gap control, zone scheme just as Egypt is attempting to. But with that tactic fully entrenched and consistently executed to perfection, Romania has had the luxury of amending and adding to what is already established. In this case, a zone trap.
Frustrated with their inability to break down the Romanian defense, the Spanish try to overload one side (see the red box), hoping to compromise the hosts’ impeccable spacing and drag some defenders out of position. It doesn’t work… Romania doesn’t waste a single defensive resource, ignoring the unbalanced numbers and maintaining their shape.
Sergi Roberto was hoping to swing the ball to the opposite side of the field, but Spain’s attempt to overload the near side failed to create the passing lane he was looking for. When Romania notices this, they begin closing on the ball with three players. Roberto looks to pass back to his closest option after receiving the ball, but that option is now surrounded on either side and to his front. Spain is dispossessed seconds later and Romania is well-positioned to launch a counter attack.
Again here, the Romanians put on a clinic that defensively deficient teams should study closely. Everyone is involved in Romania’s zone trap, including striker Florin Andone. Gerard Pique (circled in red) has his eyes on the attack, as one would expect. The moment he slows down and hesitates – unable to pick-out any passing lanes – Andone closes-in from the blind side, unbeknownst to Pique and seemingly out of nowhere.
Pique is now trapped (white box) and dispossessed (black circle). With nowhere to go with the ball, he falls to the ground and feigns injury hoping to win a foul. The trapping players are again well-positioned to not only intercept the ball, but instantly transition into counter-attack mode at the moment of dispossession.
While there’s no reason why Egypt’s defense can’t continue to evolve and incorporate elements like Romania’s zone trap, one advantage Romania enjoys to that end is that the majority of its squad plays in leagues in which basic, modern defensive tenants are standard, including Romania’s own Liga I.
Next challenge: Building depth
Along with perfecting principles already installed and incorporating new ones such as the zone trap, Egypt’s next step to ensure continued improvement, development, and consistency on defense is building depth.
Cúper’s choice of centerback tandem is the best Egypt currently has to offer, and one myself and others in the KingFut family have advocated for ad nauseam. The Rabia-Hegazy duo has size, strength, athleticism, and while their European careers didn’t pan out as planned, they benefit from playing together at the club level as well, with Cairo giants Al Ahly.
But what are the chances they’ll be available for every match? While he’s bounced back about as well as hoped, Hegazi has a history of injury. And then there are suspensions, always a reality as yellow cards add up in World Cup qualifying.
Cúper and his staff need to identify suitable second and third-teamers to fill the centerback role without the team missing a beat. Perhaps versatile C.D. Nacional defensive midfielder/centerback Ali Ghazal is a candidate.
Building depth at the back is easier said than done, but a must if Cúper wishes to build on the promise shown during Africa Cup of Nations qualifying and reverse his managerial fortunes. In fact, Egypt’s hopes of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia depend on it.
Regardless of how his tenure plays out, the chief strength Héctor Cúper brings to the table as a manager is an emphasis on defense. Fortunately for Egypt, that’s aligned with what the team has been missing most for a disturbingly long time.
Whether it’s enough to reverse the once promising fortunes of both Cúper and the Pharaohs, however, remains to be seen.
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