The Africa Cup of Nations is set to start on June 21st with the first match between hosts, Egypt and Zimbabwe at the Cairo International Stadium. Historically, Egypt are the most successful nation in this competition, winning it a record seven times since the tournament was founded sixty-two years ago.
However, the golden generation that was able to win three AFCON’s in a row in 2006, 2008, and 2010, a feat that no other country has accomplished, had its last member, Essam El-Hadary, retire from international duty in 2018. This generation of players made it to the AFCON final back in 2017, however, a late wonder goal from Vincent Aboubakar forced the Egyptians to leave Gabon heartbroken.
Now, with a new coach, a World Cup showing under their belt, and a lot more experience, this new generation will be hoping they can take it one step further, and win AFCON on home soil in front of millions of hopeful Egyptians. This tactical analysis will look at Egypt’s formation, style of play, and key players for the upcoming tournament.
Squad and Expected Lineup
Goalkeepers: Ahmed El-Shennawy (Pyramids FC), Mohamed El-Shennawy (Al Ahly), Mahmoud Abdel Rahim ‘Gennesh’ (Zamalek)
Defenders: Ahmed Elmohamady (Aston Villa), Baher El-Mohamady (Ismaily), Ahmed Hegazi (West Bromwich Albion), Mahmoud Alaa (Zamalek), Mahmoud Hamdy ‘El-Wensh’ (Zamalek), Ahmed Ayman Mansour (Pyramids FC), Omar Gaber (Pyramids FC), Ayman Ashraf (Al Ahly)
Midfielders: Tarek Hamed (Zamalek), Mohamed Elneny (Arsenal), Ali Ghazal (C.D. Feirense), Nabil Emad Dunga (Pyramids FC), Abdallah El-Said (Pyramids FC), Walid Soliman (Al Ahly), Mohamed Salah (Liverpool), Mahmoud Hassan ‘Trézéguet’ (Kasimpasa), Amr Warda (Atromitos)
Strikers: Ahmed Ali (Arab Contractors), Marwan Mohsen (Al Ahly), Ahmed Hassan ‘Kouka’ (Olympiacos)
It is difficult to predict the exact formation that head coach Javier Aguirre will use to set up Egypt. Having only been hired after the World Cup, Aguirre has only managed Egypt for eight games. In five of these games, Egypt had nothing to play for, as they were either international friendlies or qualifiers in which Egypt had already gone through. Because of this, Aguirre has constantly tinkered with the personnel and the formation in order to establish what works best. It is likely that he’ll use either a 4-2-1-3 or a 4-1-2-3 throughout the tournament.
This is Egypt’s expected starting formation for the tournament, and it is the formation that Aguirre has seemed to favour. It sees a back four including captain Ahmed Elmohamady as a right-back with a centre-back pairing of Ahmed Hegazi and Baher El-Mohamady alongside left-back Ayman Ashraf, who can also play at centre-back if needed. The midfield will consist of a double pivot that includes two of Mohamed Elneny, Tarek Hamed, and Ali Ghazal, as well as Abdallah El-Said as a central attacking midfielder. The front three would consist of two wingers, Mahmoud Hassan ‘Trézéguet’ and Mohamed Salah, with Ahmed Hassan ‘Kouka‘ leading the line.
This setup sees the two fullbacks, A. Elmohamady and Ashraf license to go forward to the halfway line. While the two in the double pivot sit deeper, protecting the two centre-backs, the fullbacks are tasked to create while in possession. They do this in two ways. The first is dragging out a midfielder which leaves a gap for El-Said. Once the gap is created, the fullbacks will then attempt to get the ball to El-Said’s feet. El-Said’s job will be to then combine with the front three to create goal scoring opportunities. The masterful dribbler has an excellent vision as well, which allows him to spot the runs the forward players make. The thirty-three-year-old does lack speed, as he is coming to the end of his career, yet that is more than made up for in the younger front three, their agility and clever play does not allow El-Said the burden of being the sole chance creator. This front four will often combine in quick one-twos, looking for gaps to exploit.
The second way the fullbacks create chances is by long-range passes to opposite flanks. Egypt will noticeably have A. Elmohamady, the right back, cross it far, and wide to Trézéguet, the left winger. Ashraf, the left back, will do the same towards Salah, the right winger. When a team deploys a high press, the opposition will be defending more towards where the ball carrier is. A quick flank change leaves the opposition out of possession, and leaves the winger with space to either shoot or combine with the striker to build a goal scoring opportunity.
At first glance, the formations may seem similar to the one above, but moving the one attacking midfielder slightly in front of the defence into a defensive midfielder changes the roles of everyone else. In terms of personnel, the only player that would change would be El-Said. Instead, the midfield three of Elneny, Hamed, and Ghazal would all play alongside each other, with Ghazal as the defensive midfielder.
In possession, Ghazal drops in between Hegazi and B. El-Mohamady, creating a back five. This then gives the two fullbacks much more license to roam forwards, often finding themselves in the final third. Instead of stopping in and around the halfway line, they have permission to go further, often overlapping with the wingers. The two central midfielders will attempt to maintain possession and look to get the ball to one of the fullbacks. The fullbacks then combine with the forwards using crosses to get shots on goal.
It is unlikely that we will see this formation consistently from Egypt during AFCON. However, Aguirre has used it before with this group of players, and it may make an appearance when Egypt are playing a low block team, or are in need of a late equaliser or winner.
Obviously, right? Mohamed Salah is easily the best player in the current generation of Egyptian footballers. He has even made a case for himself to be considered the best Egyptian footballer of all time. While his European career started in Switzerland with FC Basel in 2012, his at time at Liverpool has given him the most success. However, unlike many African footballers who cannot seem to replicate their club form for their country, Salah has continuously performed for the national team. With 39 goals in 62 appearances, he is already the third highest goalscorer in Egypt’s history and will be looking to slide into second this tournament, as he is only three goals off.
Unmistakably, football is a team sport, however, when a player is much more advanced, talented, and all around a much better footballer than his teammates, the system will be built to get the most out of the best player. No matter what formation Egypt are playing, Aguirre has made sure that Salah’s best abilities will be maximized.
Both formations allow Salah to play in his favoured right wing position. In the 4-2-1-3, Salah has an attacking midfielder to combine with creatively, to help him create chances. One of Salah’s best qualities is his ability to spot space and holes in defences. His runs in behind are a staple part of his style of play, and one that he’ll look to use at AFCON when having an attacking midfielder who can spot these runs early, and put him through on goal.
In the 4-1-2-3, Salah has a fullback on his right side that is there to provide width. Similarly to how Trent Alexander-Arnold plays alongside Salah at Liverpool, this set up allows Salah to move more centrally, closer to the goal. Quick one-two’s with the fullback to create space allows Salah either shots on goal or a chance to assist a teammate.
No matter the formation, Salah sometimes will drop a bit deeper for Egypt, something that he does not do at Liverpool. He leads for both club and country in most key passes per 90 and most chances created per 90. Occupying the spaces of a traditional number 10 allows Salah to showcase the more creative element to his game. He’ll often use through balls or crosses to set up chances.
Salah’s presence on the pitch also benefits Egypt massively. He is often double-marked, with defenders playing particularly close attention to him. This frees up the other forwards, as well as the fullbacks and runners from midfield.
Mahmoud Hassan ‘Trézéguet’
Trézéguet is expected to start on the opposite wing for Egypt this AFCON, having been a part of the senior team since he was nineteen years old. However, he did not start consistently making the starting lineup until the 2017 AFCON. From there he went on to have two great seasons with Kasımpaşa, being nominated for the Süper Lig player of the year after the 2017/18 season.
Trézéguet has similar qualities to Salah, but it’s their differences that make them a difficult duo to play against. Trézéguet is much more direct in his attempt, often wanting to dribble around defenders to either make space for himself or others. He relies less on his pace, and more on offensive take ons, something that he is clearly comfortable doing, having the second-best dribble completion in Egypt after Salah, but having attempted far more than the right winger.
If there is one thing that Egyptians will hope Trézéguet has sorted before the start of AFCON, it’s his finishing. At the World Cup, he was looked at as Egypt’s main attacking threat because of Salah’s injury, yet in three games, he took seven shots, ending the tournament with zero goals. Of course, it is difficult to judge him on three games in which he had immense pressure on him. However, in his last twenty-five games for club and country, he has three goals with 46 shots, 15 of them being on target. A poor return rate for a starting winger, and something he needs to improve on if he wants to make the next step in his career.
Ahmed Hegazi has consistently played at a high level for Egypt as a centre back since 2011 when he was just twenty years old. After an unsuccessful stint in Italy, Hegazi went on loan at West Bromwich Albion, and cemented himself as a starter, playing a total of 83 matches in two seasons. A leader in central defence, Hegazi is often seen organizing, and commanding the back line. He played every minute during Egypt’s run to the 2017 AFCON final, and his performance led to him being a part of the team of the tournament.
His best attribute regarding the national team is his flexibility in terms of playing in a low block or a high line. Some of the other Egyptian defenders have struggled in terms of adapting to from Hećtor Cúper’s low block to Aguirre’s high line; Hegazi has not.
For being such a big guy, Hegazi is surprisingly fast, and agile. Bigger defenders will often struggle against quick forwards because they cannot seem to handle how fast they are, and will often resort to fouling. Instead, Hegazi uses his pace to catch up with forwards, and his build to outmuscle them, always attempting to force the forward to foul him.
Hegazi has also greatly improved his skill on the ball. His forward pass accuracy in the last two years has been at a solid 83% for Egypt, while the previous four years saw it at a mere 67%. His time in England has seen him more confidently be able to play out from the back, something that has greatly benefited Egypt.
At over 190 cm, Hegazi is a massive aerial threat for Egypt. Winning an average of 75% of his aerial duels makes it difficult to hurt Egypt with long balls, as he is likely to head them away. It also becomes an asset offensively, as most of his goal involvements come through headers from set pieces.
Expectations for Egypt
Egypt have hosted the Africa Cup of Nations four times in its history, coming in third the first time, and winning it the next three times. Expectations will be high for the host country, however, this team’s circumstances are much different than those of previous generations. While Egypt do have a good team, they are not the favourites they once were, and the new AFCON format will see a record number of teams partake in the tournament, which means more competition for Egypt to get through.
Many other African countries also bode strong squads and will come into this tournament believing they can win. Egypt must take their hosting rights and turn it into an advantage. If Egypt start their matches strong, the spectators will only start to get louder, making the opposition hesitant to play their game. Egypt got to the final in 2017 by playing passive football, that was not entertaining and rarely was effective; often times only getting through because of moments of brilliance from Salah. This time around, they must be much more active and aggressive, using the system Aguirre has set up to get the most out of their best players. If Egypt can do that, they have a great chance of making yet another final appearance, and going one step further and winning their eighth Africa Cup of Nations.
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