As the biennial Africa Cup of Nations kicks off, several teams will go into the tournament hoping to seal the title of champions. One of the teams vying for success are Algeria. The 1990 winners performed poorly in the last edition of the tournament and failed to qualify for the round of 16. A successful qualifying campaign will bring confidence that the nation can dispel the disappointment of 2017 and perform better as the seventh favourites in the Egypt based tournament. This article will act as a tactical preview analysis for Algeria at this summer’s major tournament.
Manager: Djamel Belmadi
Goalkeepers: M’Bolhi, Doukha, Oukidja.
Defenders: Mandi, Zeffane, Bensebaini, Halliche, Tahrat, Benlamri, Atal, Fares.
Midfielders: Bennacer, Abeid, Feghouli, Guedioura, Boudaoui
Forwards: Ounas, Mahrez, Slimani, Brahimi, Bounedjah, Belaili, Delort.
Whilst the nation is the seventh favourite to be crowned AFCON champions and they are only one time winners, in comparison to AFCON powerhouse Egypt who have seven titles, Algeria have many recognisable names to those who follow European football. Some examples include Riyad Mahrez, Yacine Brahimi, Sofiane Feghouli, Islam Slimani, and Adam Ounas, even Adlene Guedioura, who has played at numerous English clubs, is easily recognised by many. 43% of the squad play in the so-called ‘top 5 leagues’ within Europe and 13% play regular UEFA Champions League football, this suggests there are talented players in the squad.
Some of the players highlighted will be key to Algeria’s success, as well as some of the lesser known players, for example, Baghdad Bounedjah, who could be one to watch out for at the tournament. Surprisingly, former Tottenham and current Schalke midfielder Nabil Bentaleb is not in the squad.
There are no media reports as to the reasoning of his omission, although he has had repeated disciplinary actions against him this season at Schalke. Napoli left-back and usual Algeria regular, Fouzi Ghoulam, has had injury problems and failed to prove his fitness. Rachid Ghezzal of Leicester City was also left out, presumably as there are multiple wingers in the squad which the coach prefers to him.
Algeria are a pot one team and topped their group featuring Benin, Gambia, and Togo with three wins, two draws and just one defeat on their way to accruing 11 points, they finished one point ahead of 2nd placed Benin.
Within the qualifying stages, their most common formation was a 4-2-3-1, which was used most often during that period. Although, a 4-3-3 shape was also frequent, highlighting Algeria’s flexibility. While rotation was evident, the most frequently used team selection in qualifying and recent warm-up friendlies is highlighted below within the 4-2-3-1 shape.
The style and philosophy of Algeria within their selected 4-2-3-1 will now be discussed and compared with numerous competitors at the Africa Cup of Nations. Overall, Algeria like to dominate possession. Their qualification average was 61.64%, with their typical style involving a controlled passage of play as they progressed up the pitch until they could play wide to a dangerous winger.
Playing out from the back?
While Algeria like to control possession and play a less direct passing game, they do not play out from the back. I believe this stems from Algeria not having a goalkeeper who is technically adept enough to play a short passing game with his teammates while under an intense press. Unlike club football, Algeria cannot buy a goalkeeper of this modern style, they need to develop one or hope that a club can train and improve an Algerian goalkeeper with the ball at his feet.
When analysing video, it appears that the outfield Algerian players are happy to manipulate the ball around a press. However, when M’Bohli has the ball at his feet, we can see that he lacks the confidence to play and opts for a safety-first approach. In the image below we can see four examples where M’Bohli has received a pass from a teammate, with a large enough time window to pick a pass using the options highlighted. On all occasions, he chose to clear the ball or play a long ball into an area, rather than prioritising ball retention and trying to beat the press. This was even the case at 3-0 up and into the second half, where risks could have been taken without undermining the winning result of the team.
In terms of Algeria’s full-backs, as opposed to a pair of offensive full-backs advancing into the final third, overlapping their winger and delivering crosses into the box, Algeria’s full-backs appear to have different responsibilities. Right-back, Atal and left-back Fares’ heat maps from qualifying can be seen below.
Based on the analysis, it appears that Fares is offered more offensive freedom than Atal, this may be due to Fares’ experience as a winger and wing back at club level. His average position is much higher, although he still spends a lot of game time within his own half in the defensive line. It is clear to see that Atal is an out and out defensive full-back. These slightly varied responsibilities within the full-back positions help Algeria stay compact when attacking.
As seen below, if Fares wants to go and join the attack, then Atal can join the CBs and create a back three which covers the majority of the pitch. Space in the flank areas can be easily covered by the LCB and RB turned RCB, Atal. Fares earns more offensive freedom, this can be seen when compared to offensive full-back Baba Rahman, the Cameroon LB, whose average position is in the opposition’s half. Atal’s heat map is much deeper.
In addition to the heat maps, crossing stats can also identify full-back play. The full-backs for Algeria only attempt 0.76 (Atal) and 1.86 (Fares) crosses per game, compared to Rahman’s 3.46 or Ivory Coast’s Serge Aurier’s 5.05, suggesting that Atal’s interests are more defensive than offensive. In general, he remains in shape, helping to nullify general attacks and counter-attacks as his starting position is generally between the opponent and the goal. This positioning will also aid Atal’s physicality when defending as he will be fresh and ready to match an opponent, in comparison to an offensive full-back who has just completed a 50-yard recovery run after their team has lost the ball.
Although Fares goes forward, he rarely overlaps the winger, he mainly supports, this can be seen via his heat map and low crossing output. With Riyad Mahrez and Yacine Brahimi directly ahead of the full-backs, their offensive responsibilities are likely lessened due to the calibre of teammates in the areas where other full backs would support and overlap.
Double-pivot central midfield
In the two central midfield players, it appears Algeria utilise the double pivot system, with one anchoring, ball winning midfielder (‘number 6’) and one player with more creative freedom (‘number 8’) who supports play where needed. Guedioura is the anchor, while Boudaoui is the more advanced of the two. The data reinforces this along with the heat maps, Guedioura made 12 ball recoveries on average per game in the qualifying rounds, compared to Boudaoui’s five, suggesting Guedioura’s role is to win the ball and play it simply to a teammate. Boudaoui gets involved in play more, executing 88 passes on average compared to Guedioura’s 44.
The top of the pitch
In the final four positions, Algeria play with a CAM (Central attacking midfielder or ‘number 10’) (Feghouli), RW (Mahrez), LW (Brahimi) and CF (Bounedjah). These four are the attacking spearhead for Algeria and will be central to any success via their creative and goal scoring skills. The players operate in the stereotypical areas for their assigned positions. The ‘number 10’ is given freedom to roam and create within the final third and support where needed, the RW operates high up the right flank, the LW the same on the left flank and the CF generally plays within the width of the penalty area, ready to run off the defence and pull the trigger. All of these players will be discussed in detail within the key players section.
After analysing the pressing statistics and match footage, it is evident that Algeria do not utilise a high energy press. The top 10 favourites for the Africa Cup of Nations 2019 were analysed for PPDA. PPDA stands for passes per defensive action and tracks how many passes a team allows their opponents to make before conducting a defensive action or trying to win the ball back.
Algeria ranked 6th for PPDA with Morocco pressing the opposition the most and Tunisia the least. There is also a sizeable difference between Morocco and Algeria, with Algeria pressing at a rate more than 50% slower than Morocco. Algeria tend to retreat back into their shape and lure the opposition out. The team has a trigger distance on the pitch that the opposition can carry or pass the ball too, once the trigger distance is passed, the team start pressing. Algeria are happy for the opposition to have the ball, as long as they are in an effective defensive shape and all options are picked up. This causes the advancing defender(s) to have a lack of options and usually resorts in a long ball or a risky pass which Algeria can intercept. If the defender is brave enough to keep dribbling, the press will then start.
The key player for Algeria is Riyad Mahrez. The 2015/2016 Premier League and African player of the season won the Premier League with Leicester, before leaving for Manchester City and winning the domestic treble in 2018/2019. It is hard to argue with the notion of Mahrez being Algeria’s best player in regard to reputation and ability. He scored 2 goals from a right wing position in qualifying (22% of all team goals in qualifying), ranking him second behind Algeria’s number ‘9’, whose primary aim is to score goals.
Mahrez is required to and has the ability to score, create and contribute in defensive phases and game management. His ability to dribble and play the ball with his left or right foot is a nightmare for defenders. Opponents are often left trying to predict Mahrez’s play, if they gamble that Mahrez is going to take the ball a certain way, for example cutting inside, Mahrez can manipulate the ball and beat his man on the outside. Overall, his pace, trickery, passing and crossing ability allows him to obtain effective shooting positions and create them for teammates, making him a key contributor to the team.
While traditionally a right winger, due to the quality of Mahrez, Feghouli often finds himself playing inside as an advanced central midfielder. This role is extremely important as his job requires him to link the midfield and attack to maintain the flow of positive play. The central attacking midfielder or number ‘10’ is required to utilise their creativity, vision and technical ability to play passes in behind for more advanced forwards and break the opposition defensive line if possible, as well as running beyond the defensive line to cause uncertainty in the defence and receive a cross or attack a loose ball in the box.
Feghouli played the role successfully in qualifying and finished on two assists in six matches. He also attempted 6.8 passes into the final third and 2.6 passes into the penalty area per game. Feghouli was involved in 15 goals in 29 appearances for Galatasaray last season and therefore should come into the tournament and play with confidence in his ability.
Another high profile star for Algeria is Yacine Brahimi, a left winger. The Porto man has 13 goals and 7 assist for the recently completed 18/19 season. Similarly to Mahrez, Brahimi plays on the opposite side of the pitch in comparison to his footedness. He is right-footed but a natural left winger, Brahimi, therefore, like Mahrez, tends to cut inside the pitch onto his stronger foot before passing, crossing or shooting. As stated, such prominence within previous play can be beneficial as opposing players try to stop that specific movement, providing the opportunity to exploit the opponent in other areas.
Baghdad Bounedjah (One to watch)
The players described above have big reputations, and if they enter the tournament in good form will, therefore, be key to Algeria’s success. Another reason why they are likely to be key, either positively or negatively depending on the outcome, is the fact that they are the main supplier for Baghdad Bounedjah. Whilst the player is 27 years old and has played for Algeria since 2014, his participation in the Qatari league will make his name a surprise to some, hence the one to watch description.
Bounedjah scored 39 goals for Qatar champions Al Sadd over the season just passed. While the league involves a lower calibre of player, to score 39 goals and register 12 assists within a season indicates a high level of goal scoring instinct and link up play. His actual number of goals exceeded his xG by 10, meaning Bounedjah operated at a finishing rate much higher than the average player. However, regression to the mean usually occurs, meaning Bounedjah’s actual and expected goals should become closer, although, he has produced high actual to xG values consistently over multiple seasons, therefore, he can be considered a very effective finisher.
The lower quality of opposition may inflate his stats, but, his data is still impressive, and it is a surprise that European clubs have not taken a gamble on Bounedjah, whose estimated value is only £7 million. Bounedjah’s goal-scoring prowess was confirmed further during qualifying as he scored 3 goals and held the number one rank between his teammates, and such scoring record resulted in a ratio of 3 goals in 4 starts. If Bounedjah can continue his fine form for Algeria, with help via balls in and around the box from Mahrez, Feghouli, Brahimi, and others, the striker could have a very productive tournament and aid Algeria’s claim for success.
Algeria are in group C with one of the tournament favourites in Senegal, along with Kenya and Tanzania. Algeria are predicted to finish 2nd in the group behind Senegal. When the teams face each other in the group stages, it will be a repeat of the domestic rivalry between stars from both teams in the form of Riyad Mahrez and Sadio Mane. Despite missing a penalty at Anfield, Mahrez reigned supreme as part of Manchester City in England, while Mane won the Champions League with Liverpool.
Should Algeria finish 2nd, they would play the runner up of group A in the round of 16. This looks to be a favourable tie as group A consists of Egypt, who are likely to finish 1st as tournament favourites, DR Congo, Zimbabwe and Uganda. Algeria would be favourites going into a match against the latter three, should the group stages finish as predicted.
Overall, Algeria appear to be in a positive state going into the tournament. They have had a successful qualifying campaign and will be confident of reaching the round of 16. The main foundation of their success lies in the attacking talent looking to transfer club form into winning performances for their country. We will now have to wait and see how the competition pans out and what Algeria can achieve.
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