Senegal and Benin kicked off the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations quarterfinals. Benin reached the last eight for the first time after claiming a shock penalty shootout victory over Morocco. Meanwhile, Senegal were looking to avoid becoming the latest victims of a knockout stage upset. Some of biggest names were eliminated in the previous round, leaving Senegal as the clear favourites to become champions. This was a clash they fully expected to win.
This tactical analysis looks at how the Senegalese managed to end Benin’s fairytale run and move a step closer to lifting the trophy. The tactics and some key moments of the 1-0 result will be discussed in the analysis.
Aliou Cissé set out his men in a familiar 4-3-3 formation. The only personnel change from their previous game being Baldé coming in for Sarr. Otherwise, the team was as expected. N’Diaye would be the deepest of the midfielders with Gueye and Saivet in more box-to-box roles. In attack was the pair of Mané and Baldé on either side of Niang.
Benin started out in a 4-5-1 formation. Michel Dussuyer made several changes to the starting lineup from the previous round. Most notable was the introduction of striker Mounié and one less outright defender starting the game. This would suggest a tactical shift from the conservative approach of their last game was potentially on the cards.
Benin’s defensive structure
From the outset, it was clear that Benin would look to frustrate their opponents. They sat back in either a 4-5-1 or 5-4-1 at times. They were reluctant to send men forward to press the Senegalese. It wasn’t an uncommon sight to see all the Benin players behind the ball in their own half.
Senegal’s setup with the ball
Since there was little threat of a quick counter-attack if they lost possession, the Senegalese would have their fullbacks push up to join the line with the midfield.
N’Diaye would often drop to collect the ball from the centre-backs and start play from deep. Either of Saivet or Gueye could drop to join him as well. Mané and Baldé would switch between occupying the flanks and drifting centrally into the half space areas. From the half-spaces, they could make runs between centre-backs and full-backs or drop into midfield to draw the opposing full-back. Thereby creating space for their own advancing full-back teammates.
The full-backs attacking the wide areas is certainly a strength of Senegal’s as they have demonstrated in previous outings. This trend continued in this game where they repeatedly found their full-backs moving up high.
Senegal’s transition defending leading to Benin chances
This openness did lead to Benin finding themselves in promising situations in transition after winning the ball back. They were unable to fully capitalise on these though but generated some scoring opportunities while Senegal were reorganising. This was most evident after halftime. Senegal didn’t seem to be particularly focused after the break and were almost punished for it twice.
Long balls were a feature of both sides’ gameplan. Senegal and Benin attempted a whopping 70 and 62 long balls respectively. Both these teams used this tool but with different goals in mind, each suited to the differing characteristics of the players.
Senegal’s direct play
With there being little space in front of them, Senegal had to find ways to stretch the Benin shape. So in the beginning stages, Senegal primarily attacked with long balls in behind the Beninese backline. This approach would allow them to bypass the congested midfield area and send the Benin defenders moving backwards. This was a more fruitful approach, with any build-up from the flanks leading to them facing a compact block of Benin players.
Mané and Baldé, in particular, found themselves in threatening situations via these long balls. Saivet would also make the runs from his advanced midfield position to try to get onto the end of balls played over the Benin defence. Senegal would also play long to Niang and later Diagne, who would try flick the ball into the path of their fellow attackers running into space.
Benin’s direct play
Senegal would defend with Niang alone up front and the five players behind appearing in multiple combinations. Either in 2-3, 1-4 or a straight line of five. Usually, N’Diaye would patrol the area behind his compatriots, in case Benin managed to find a pass between the lines. Senegal wouldn’t press too aggressively. They would apply enough pressure to the Beninese in possession to induce the long ball. And with physical capabilities of Kouyaté and Koulibaly, they were comfortable letting them battle for the ball in these situations.
And sure enough, Benin’s main approach going forward was the direct ball to their physical forward players, especially Mounié. He was tasked with either holding the ball up and waiting for support from his teammates. Or at least generating second balls in areas where his teammates could collect. To this end, Benin would surround him with a number of teammates before sending the ball towards him. He performed admirably and the stats show he won his fair share of duels. He won 9 aerial duels to the combined 13 of Senegal.
Both sides also threatened from set-pieces. This fits in well with the strategy Benin tried to employ with their physically strong players and limited scoring opportunities. But the quality of Senegal’s deliveries also meant that they could’ve grabbed a goal from a set-piece. One of Mané’s two narrowly disallowed goals was scored from a free-kick swung in by Saivet.
Senegal finding the passing lanes
Senegal were finding a man between the lines with more regularity as the game wore on. Mané, Baldé and Saivet at times would float around in these areas looking to create the passing lane for their teammates to find them.
The three-man combinations managed to get players behind the Benin midfield line. Direct passing lanes to the free man were hard to come by so the use of a layoff from a marked man was used often. The strength and skill of players like Niang ensured that these layoffs were good enough to find their intended target.
Senegal would still try to find the free man directly though. This is how two men who play their club football for Merseyside rivals combined brilliantly to break Benin’s resolve. Gueye received the ball and Mané immediately drops more centrally. Gueye finds him and darts forward. Mané keeps the ball under pressure and waits for the right time to feed Gueye. The Everton man then bursts through the heart of the Benin central defence and produces an emphatic finish.
And once Senegal took the lead, the game opened up and Senegal could’ve grabbed a second on many occasions. Late in proceedings, Gueye receives the ball running towards a two-man backline with a teammate in tow. He immediately attacks Verdon one-on-one and some great skill from the midfielder leaves Verdon scrambling. The defender eventually commits the foul that gets himself sent off.
Senegal walked away with what was ultimately a deserved victory. They controlled most of the contest and offered an attacking threat through a variety of ways throughout the game. On the other hand, Benin’s efforts were thwarted by a more talented outfit with small margins being their difference in this tie. They had their moments and will rue wasted opportunities. The Senegalese are now two games away from being crowned champions. And can look forward to a semi-final clash with Tunisia next.
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