Cuper has Egypt back on world stage but debate on style of play rages on
Guest writer, Andrew Sidhom gives his side of the judgement on Cuper guiding Egypt to the World Cup and how he has achieved this goal.
KingFut recently published a well-reasoned opinion piece, by Omar Morsy, arguing for Hector Cuper’s successes in getting more results than what was possibly expected of him. If these results came at the expense of beautiful football, the argument goes, so be it. We’ve had enough of the frustrations of beautiful Egyptian football being confined to the local and African scene.
While I am in agreement that Egypt desperately needed to get back on the world stage whatever it took, I will contend that there is an important difference between two phases: qualification to the World Cup on the one hand, and the seven months leading up to and including the global showpiece on the other.
Cuper’s style of play
First, let me say a few words about Cuper’s chosen style of play in recent times.
We have become a very direct team under him. There is no patience, no build-up. It is all about attempting again and again a direct pass, especially in the opposition’s half of the pitch and near the touchlines. The pass forwards is always encouraged, even if it’s usually too ambitious, with a low probability of completion.
If it works one time out of ten, we get a goal in quick fashion. If it doesn’t, we don’t lose our well-disciplined shape or expose ourselves. It makes for a very unattractive, frustrating watch because you see something repeatedly fail but being attempted again and again.
It stands in direct opposition to Cuper’s predecessor Bob Bradley’s style of football with Egypt. We would try to play our way from the back. We would dominate many matches. But we would go on to lose the ones that mattered and the ones against relatively strong opposition. A friendly loss to Tunisia in 2012 comes to my mind as an extreme example in which we did everything but get a result.
That kind of football makes for another kind of frustration: that of being deserving something and getting no product.
World Cup qualification: the long search for product
In order to break a 28-year-old jinx since Egypt’s last appearance at World Cup finals in 1990 (which is something that adds a lot of pressure on all involved in the qualification process), all that mattered at that point when Cuper was hired was getting the results. We desperately needed substance, even if it came at the expense of style. In the past, we had style but no substance.
Under Hassan Shehata, the missing substance was the mentality. We were inconsistent. We had the potential to come up with world-class performances but could also be seen producing horrendous displays against low-tier African opposition.
Away from home, we played poorly more often than not, so that it became an accepted standard. Also as part of the mentality problem, we had a bad habit of celebrating things before getting them. When we got level with Algeria in 2014 World Cup qualifying, thanks to a famously dramatic stoppage-time goal, forcing a play-off, we believed we had made it. Momentum was with us and the play-off was almost seen as a formality. We went to Sudan to celebrate, put in a terrible performance and blew our chance.
In the 2009 Confederations Cup, we believed progress to the second round was ours after two world-class performances and three well-earned points out of encounters with Brazil and Italy. Sure enough, we managed to lose by such a difference (0-3) that placed us below the United States on goal difference, and we bowed out. Led on by Bob Bradley, the US team hadn’t given up even though they needed a small miracle to advance.
When he came to Egypt, Bradley instilled the same mentality in our players with great success, which was no mean feat given our struggles in that very department. Just listen to Mohamed Elneny, who came through the ranks under Bradley and his pep talks, talking about the moment the penalty which sent us to Russia 2018 was awarded:
“It was 50/50 and everyone was celebrating already and we haven’t scored it yet!”
Under Bradley, we could finally be seen imposing our character playing ground passes away from home.
But Bradley came with a different lack in substance: that of the balance between defense and attack. Under the American coach, Egypt scored 19 goals in 8 games, but conceded as many as 14. Bradley’s critics tend to forget the first part. We scored in every single competitive game. We were eliminated from AFCON because of the concession of 4 goals, but we did score 3, enough to get us through in normal circumstances.
In our heavy defeat to Ghana, we scored 3 on aggregate and missed a good number of chances even in Kumasi. It also must be said regarding the second part of that statistic – our defensive frailty – that Bradley’s hands were tied when it came to options.
He didn’t have the luxury of having an available Hegazy, Rabia, Gabr and Saad Samir. I distinctly remember that he’d desperately play them as soon as they got a few minutes of game time at club level. But enough of the past. Cuper got the balance right. We’ve had a low goals ratio (12 goals scored in 8 games, 4 of them against Chad in the first round) but one that produced the most points (only 5 goals were conceded).
Post-qualification: a different phase?
Having qualified, two things are now different: a huge load of pressure that was on every team since 1990 is lifted, and the world’s eyes will now be more aware of how Egypt is doing. This doesn’t start in June but has started last month. I believe these two factors call for a change of approach.
Yet, watching like many others around the globe some of the international games of World-Cup-bound nations earlier this month, including Egypt vs. Ghana, I couldn’t help thinking that we’re a team that doesn’t have the basics right.
We play our throw-ins directly to the opposition. Alright, we try to play them forwards to a teammate but nine times out of ten it’s a wasteful giveaway to the opposition. For Cuper, playing a throw-in level or backwards and building up play from there is not the way to go. I suppose it’s part of the direct football game plan I talked about above, but the impression we give is that we have no desire to play football.
Against Ghana, Ekramy was seen time-wasting on a number of occasions, which would befit the qualification stage but which now begs the questions: why the unwillingness to play and prepare for what’s ahead? I suppose Cuper would argue that he is preparing, by playing exactly the way he will play in competitive games. And the game ended with yet another positive result! Some would say: is it not time to stop complaining?
My argument is the following. We are entering a phase in which we will face much tougher opponents than Ghana is at the moment. There’s no hiding from the fact that we have shortcomings in a number of key areas such as a central forward and a somewhat creative player to partner Elneny in deep midfield (no, Elneny is not a shortcoming, but let’s save that debate for another day). Qualifying to the World Cup is a step in the right direction. We need to feature there continuously. But whether we play defensive or attacking football, we are not about to win the World Cup this time. In a sense, this is not a negative, as it means we can play with little pressure.
The question then becomes, having achieved qualification, what can we feel good about in the coming period? Will the world see through our “anti-football” performances at the World Cup and remember that we drew, maybe barely won a game or two, and lost one or two, but not by much?
How many will see our throw-ins and think they are part of a brilliant game plan? Won’t they better remember an attractive team that reminds them of the 2009 Confederations Cup – one that in its first World Cup appearance in 28 years put in respectable displays, got some players noticed, but unfortunately didn’t make it very far? What about us fans? Wouldn’t we feel the same way? What about the players? Would they feel better playing for tight results even at a global showcase or would they rather play without pressure as the underdogs and enjoy their football as those who played in 2009 did, as well as the youngsters who went to the 2011 U-20 World Cup?
Cuper has changed his system in the past, beginning his tenure with a 4-4-2 formation instead of the current 4-2-3-1, and has even tried a more possession-based approach in some (albeit short) parts of past games. But it’s been a while since we’ve seen any change from him, and from recent interviews, all signs point to the fact that he is not likely to change anything right now. When a journalist recently mentioned the fact that there is no more pressure in the upcoming period, he immediately exclaimed “No pressure?!” It’s rather clear that he means to approach what’s coming as he did what’s passed. He may not be willing to change (and he doesn’t deserve to be replaced) but he should, if our team is to exhibit its best qualities.
Follow Andrew Sidhom on Twitter.
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