In the third quarter-final of the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations, the two-time winners Ivory Coast took on Algeria. Ivory Coast, Les Éléphants, reached the quarter-final stage for the 13th time after beating Mali 1-0 in the previous round. Algeria, on the other hand, faced Guinea in the last 16 where they beat them 3-0.
As it has been the case in this tournament thus far, the standard of the game was not the highest. The build-up play from both sides was chaotic at times with physicality and individual plays being the dominant factors in the game. Baghdad Bounedjah’s penalty miss meant the teams had to go to extra-time and eventually penalties after Jonathan Kodjia’s equaliser in the 62nd minute.
Ivory Coast’s head coach Ibrahima Kamara made two changes for this game after a victory against Mali. Max-Alain Gradel was chosen in place of Nicolas Pepe on the left wing, whereas Jean-Philippe Gbamin made his way for Ibrahim Sangare in the centre midfield. Crystal Palace’s Wilfried Zaha, who scored a match-winner against Mali, started on the right flank with Kodjia as a lone striker up top.
In contrast, Algeria did not make a single change following the victory against Guinea in the previous round. Algeria’s captain and superstar Riyad Mahrez was looking for his third goal in the tournament together with Sofiane Feghouli being the main attacking threats.
Ivory Coast’s defensive structure and Algeria’s offensive shape
The Elephants’ off the ball approach was clear from the first minutes. The two-time African champions wanted to congest the midfield that would force the Algerians out wide or simply play it long. A narrow and tight midfield unit allowed the Ivorians to create an overload in that particular zone. It resulted in a 4-5-1 formation without the ball with Die sitting just in front of the back four making it 4-1-4-1 at times.
The defensive structure adopted by the Ivory Coast disrupted the North Africans initial offensive set-up. This Algerian side has the personal and seems capable of building up from the back. Thus, on the ball, they lined-up in a 4-1-2-3 shape which can be easily altered depending on how far both full-backs push up.
On certain occasions, Algeria’s 4-1-2-3 was transformed into 2-3-2-3 with both full-backs positioning in the same line with a single pivot. When Atal and Benlamri pushed even higher up the pitch, it resulted in a 2-1-4-3 shape. Then, both full-backs stayed aligned with most advanced centre midfielders to exchange the passing combinations.
The Ivorians’ attacking set-up against Algeria’s defensive structure
In terms of offensive formation, Ivory Coast lined-up in a similar fashion to Algeria. Their 4-1-2-3 shape on the ball was easily altered to 2-3-2-3. Die operated as a single pivot dropping deeper to collect the ball from both centre-backs. The remaining two centre-midfielders Kessie and Sangare were quite restricted in their offensive actions and had more of a job to support Die in defensive duties. At times, when the full-backs did not join the attack it was more of a 2-5-3 shape that left the front three on their own.
Algeria’s defensive shape was all about nullifying Ivory Coast’s strengths in wide areas. Neither of the Ivorians’ centre-midfielders are highly technically astute nor the greatest passers of the ball. With that in mind, it was predictable that The Elephants will be looking to exploit both flanks rather than play through the middle. Specifically, with Zaha out wide, it was obvious that Ivory Coast’s biggest attacking threat is down the right flank.
With Gradel also being a viable option on the left wing, Algeria’s usual shape off the ball was 4-3-3. Once Ivory Coast’s full-backs pushed forward, Algeria quickly reorganised themselves to a 4-5-1 defensive shape.
Algeria’s build-up struggles
The Desert Foxes were the first to take the lead in the 20th minute thanks to a great finish from Feghouli. Nonetheless, the Algerians struggled with their build-up play throughout the game. It lacked cohesion, positional awareness and logical patterns in terms of progressing the ball to the final third. The best chances came from occasional quality passages of play and individual qualities of certain players.
In the first image below, both Algeria’s centre midfielders and a holding midfielder Guedioura were not positioned in the right places. Firstly, Guedioura should have exploited a gap between Zaha and Kodjia by positioning himself in the centre of it. There was no pressure applied on him, therefore, a left-back Benlamri would have played an easy pass into his feet. Secondly, Both Bennacer and Feghouli should have positioned themselves in behind the Ivorian’s midfield quartet. This would have created an opportunity to perform a penetrative pass in between the lines.
A similar situation can be seen below. In this case, Algeria was somewhat forced to play the ball out-wide due to Ivory Coast’s centre-oriented press. However, the positioning of certain Algerian players was not great in spite of it. Algeria’s left-winger Belaili and right centre-midfielder Feghouli placed themselves in front of the Ivorians’ midfield line. Yet again, there was nobody in between the defensive and midfield lines to receive a potentially penetrative pass. Consequently, Guedioura played it out to the left flank where two Algerians were outnumbered by three Ivorians and eventually dispossessed.
In the second half, the North Africans build-up play remained quite ponderous offering little penetration. At times, Algeria played more direct, straight into the feet of Bounedjah. However, he usually lacked support from his team-mates ending up laying the ball off back to his team-mates.
Another example can be seen below. None of the Algerians had moved into an empty space on the far left side. It made it fairly easy for the Ivorians to force Algeria back having three against two numerical superiority on that side.
Yet another occasion when Algeria’s build-up play failed is illustrated below. The only player to position himself in between the back four and midfield was Belaili and even his positioning was poor as he was cover shadowed by the Ivorian midfielder. In addition, Mahrez looked up expecting a run from a left-back on the far side that did not happen either. These few episodes highlight Algeria’s build-up struggles throughout the game.
On more than a few occasions, Algeria’s most advanced midfielders and attackers did not position themselves properly. It resulted in difficulties of creating good passing lanes for the player on the ball to be found. Consequently, Algeria found themselves circulating the ball from side to side with little penetration quite a lot.
Ivory Coast’s one-sided and individualistic offensive approach
Like in most games so far in this tournament, The Elephants possessed the biggest threat by playing direct and down the wings. Gradel and Zaha were often the targets to receive the ball on either flank. Then, they usually tried to dribble past their direct opponents and get the ball into the box. An important thing to note is that both Ivory Coast’s full-backs were not constantly bombarding either flank. On quite a few occasions Gradel and Zaha were left alone and given the freedom to run directly at their opponents and try to beat them one against one.
When the full-backs did join the attack down the flank, depending on the side either Zaha or Gradel would shift slightly inwards to provide a room for the full-back to run into.On occasions, the Ivorians also managed to produce intricate plays down the wing after an unsuccessful set-piece delivery.
The Ivorians’ goal was a product of pure individual effort. Gbohouo played a quick ball into the feet of Die with the majority of the Algerian players still in the Ivory Coast’s box. Die found Zaha who dribbled past a couple of opponents before finding Kodjia on the right side. The Aston Villa’s man went around the outside Algerian defender and slotted it home with his left-foot.
Manchester City star had three great chances in this game and none of them were converted. The Algerian captain has been renowned for his selfishness at times throughout his career. This game was no exception as in at least two occasions the two-time Premier League champion could have played a pass to his teammate instead of going for glory himself.
The first image below illustrates Algeria’s rare attacking move through the middle that resulted in Mahrez’s missing the target with his stronger left-foot. It was a quality inter-play between Belali and Mahrez. Manchester City winger was through on goal and did not have any other option as to pull the trigger.
However, the other two missed opportunities are an indication of Mahrez’s selfishness. In the image below, we can see Feghouli making a run in behind that was ignored by Mahrez. Manchester City’s player decided to go all alone that eventually ended in his shot being blocked by the Ivorian defender.
The last episode again involved Mahrez and Feghouli. This time the Algerian captain was in a better position to unleash the shot; however, it was on his weaker right foot. The more logical decision would have been to cut it back on his stronger left-foot and simply roll it into the patch of Feghouli. The Galatasaray midfielder would have been through on goal potentially scoring his second goal of the game.
Extra-time and penalties
The additional 30 minutes did not give the supporters a lot to cheer about. According to the statistics, Algeria dominated the extra-time by having 66% of ball possession. The North Africans also had eight shots, one of them almost turned out to be a winning goal. Leicester City’s Islam Slimani was denied by Gbohouo after his header was palmed away by the Ivorian goalkeeper.
The game reached an absolute climax when it went to the penalty shoot-out. The first five spot kicks were successfully converted by the players of both teams. However, Wilfried Bony missed the next one and had his nation on the brink of elimination. Soon, Algeria’s Belaili hit the post and gave Ivory Coast a lifeline that was soon diminished by their captain Die who hit the post as well.
It was not a pretty game by all means as explained in this analysis. Both teams lacked coherence and quality in their build-up play. Nevertheless, Algeria looked a bigger threat of the two. If not for a missed penalty and some poor finishing, Algeria could have put this game to bed a lot earlier.
Despite that, the 1990 Africa Cup of Nations champions are very closing to end their 29-year drought by winning the biggest prize of African football at the home of their fiercest rivals.
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