In the first knockout stage of the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations, Algeria took on Guinea for a spot in the quarterfinals. Algeria, the Desert Foxes, qualified from the previous round decisively on top of their group, while Guinea was the top among third-place-finishers of the group stages.
Algeria, the winners of the 1990 edition of the competition were in pursuit of a title run with a talented squad after almost three decades of a dry spell. Guinea’s most successful result was in 1976 when they finished as runners up to Morocco. In this tactical analysis, we take a look at how both teams played out using statistics.
The Algerian coach, Djamel Belmadi, opted for the same starting lineup that triumphed over Senegal in the second round of the group stages after resting some of his key players against Tanzania. On paper, Algeria shaped up as a 4-3-3 as we discuss further.
Baghdad Bounedjah, the Al-Sadd frontman, was the lone striker up front. Youcef Belaïli and Riyad Mahrez offered technical superiority and pace on the left and right flank respectively. Adlène Guédioura was the single pivot in the midfield behind Ismaël Bennacer and Sofiane Feghouli who played more attacking roles.
Guinea lined up in a 4-2-3-1 with José Kanté as the point of focus in attack. They relied on creating overloads in the buildup and defensive phases followed by short passing to progress higher up. Although Algeria was the technically stronger side, Guinea managed to control most of the game with their exceptional work rate and immediate counter-pressing.
Algerian tactics lacked charisma
From the start of the whistle, Algeria shaped up as a 4-3-3 with Bounedjah, Belaïli and Mahrez leading the attack with Bennacer, Feghouli and Guédioura behind. Guinean tactics seemed to break their rhythm early on, as the midfield struggled to weave passes together. The midfield trio also seemed to be missing positional understanding of the system as they found themselves scattered.
Belmadi addressed this immediately by choosing to play the direct ball to their frontman, Bounedjah. Although Bounedjah’s movements against Guinea’s back four gave Algeria options on top, Guinea was strong in aerial duels and won 23 during the whole game.
Mahrez had a silent first half as he looked very passive and uninvolved in Algeria’s buildup. Guinea’s pressing strategy was intentionally directed towards the flank where Mahrez operated to contain him and it seemed to do the trick as he was dispossessed multiple times.
Problems with Algerian build-up
Algeria’s lack of cohesion in the midfield was only part of their problems. Guédioura is excellent as a defensive midfielder in his ability to read the game and make vital interceptions. In this system, however, he seemed to be isolated and outnumbered as the single pivot. He only won five out of 13 duels and managed two interceptions during the game.
The second issue was the absence of players dropping into spaces between the lines during the build-up. In Djamel Benlamri and Aïssa Mandi, Algeria had two tenacious central defenders who are adept with the ball at their feet. But as they drove up the pitch in search of options, there were big gaps with none of the midfielders coming deep asking for a pass. Forcing the long ball to Bounedjah every time, Algeria looked predictable and far from the creative side they hold a high reputation of being.
Guinea possession: A means with no end
During the game, Guinea managed 429 passes with a 74% accuracy. 401 of these passes were short passes against 259 of Algeria. Guinea was far more successful in dominating the spaces in attacking transitions and finding passing angles with each other.
Kante would often drop deeper and lay the ball off wide for runners during the buildup. But as he moved out of his central striker position, there was nobody from the midfielders or wingers to fill the void. As a result, the buildup that Guinea constructed found itself easily broken down by the qualitative superiority of the Algerian defence. The lack of penetration in the final third and the over-reliance on Kante was a handicap for Guinea throughout the game.
Algeria’s successful exploit of throw-ins
Both the goals that put Algeria ahead, one in the first half and the second at the hour mark, came as a result of throw-ins. Their open play failed to create significant chances as Bounedjah missed an early opportunity to convert a goal for Algeria. However, they were very effective in capitalizing on the speed of reaction and pace of Belaïli.
The first goal for Algeria came as a result of a quick throw-in followed by a give-and-go between Bounedjah and Belaïli, with the latter finishing it neatly put the Desert Foxes ahead. The second goal was yet again a product of Belaïli’s vision to pick out Mahrez who was the free man across the pitch. Mahrez’s technical brilliance to get past his marker with the first touch and clinically convert it almost secured the game for Algeria just before the hour mark.
Tactical changes to the second half
A big transformation to Algeria’s attacking transitions was Feghouli, the former Valencia midfielder, playing deeper to assist in the build-up. This gave Guédioura a lot more support at the back and the spaces in the midfield were not as obvious for Guinea as in the first half.
Adam Ounas, the promising youngster from Napoli, was brought on in the final quarter which added to Algeria’s pace in transitions. He managed to create a name for himself by adding in the final nail in Guinea’s coffin with a brilliant run in Algeria’s counter-attack to score the third. Ounas added a lot of surprise and variety to the lacklustre midfield and this run was a perfect example of how he was a challenge to mark.
Guinea looked to take more risks in the second half with Fodé Koita coming on for Kante. Their biggest cripple in this game was the inability to maintain their attacking phase in the final third after building up through the middle. The lack of penetration in the form of key passes and runs in behind cost them, despite playing the more attractive football of the two
Algeria’s 3-0 win against Guinea was the most decisive of all the games in the Round of 16. The Desert Foxes are still top contenders for the title with Egypt crashing out against South Africa. However, there is still plenty of work to do as their game model, as we saw in this fixture isn’t devoid of flaws. As they face Ivory Coast in the quarterfinals on 11 July, Belmadi must look to fix the midfield dissonance that Algeria is struggling with and extract more creativity out of his technical players.
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