Madagascar had progressed into the Africa Cup of Nations quarter-finals as the surprise package of the tournament, this run being their first in the competition’s history. Tunisia, on the other hand, had so far disappointed in the competition, failing to win a single game in the tournament outside of their progression past Ghana via penalties in the first knockout round.
With three goals scored in the second half, however, and a comfortable clean sheet, this tactical analysis examines just how Tunisia were able to progress into the semi-finals past this historic Madagascar side and the tactics used in the game.
Both teams lined up in matching 4-3-3 formations with the only real surprise seeing Madagascar’s top scorer of the tournament, Andriamirado Andrianarimanana, being initially dropped to the bench.
Passive defence creates chaotic tempo
The first half started frantically between the two teams which saw plenty of turnovers in possession and not a lot of opportunity for well-crafted attacks. Madagascar, in particular, were guilty of allowing Tunisian players too much time on the ball. The effect this had on the game meant that a lot of the game was played in combative spaces as both sides initially dropped off behind the halfway line when without the ball.
Whilst this also gave the players in the early part of the build-up a lot of time on the ball, it also seemed to create issues in Madagascar’s midfield as to when and who was responsible for pressing the ball. Marco Ilaimaharitra for Madagascar, particularly, seemed to struggle with this aspect, often breaking from the midfield line at the wrong time and leaving large gaps inside his own half for Tunisia to exploit.
With spaces like these exposed so high up the pitch, these penetrative passes often create a manic situation as the defending team must now quickly resolve to deal with the attacker who’s received the ball in space. This has the result of drawing other defenders away from their original positions and the shift in team shape can often create further spaces to open up in other areas of the pitch.
With Madagascar’s striker rarely venturing away from the centre circle in these defensive situations, Tunisia’s centre-backs had the freedom to drive forward with the ball and attract pressure from the likes of Ilaimaharitra.
It’s not necessarily an issue for sides to not press the ball in an aggressive manner, however, the issues displayed above suggest a lack of discipline within Madagascar’s midfield. If there’s no pressure being placed on the ball carrier, then the defending side must seek to maintain a compact shape and move as a unit in anticipation of a potential forward pass.
With a central member of the midfield pressing the ball so late, it risks opening up the side in a dangerous fashion as it allows Tunisia to receive the ball in space within Madagascar’s half.
A lack of application undermines even the best defensive systems
What made Madagascar’s exit so disappointing was the sheer lack of effort put in by a number of their players in certain situations. I’ll, unfortunately, have to identify Ilaimaharitra again as part of another issue concerning Madagascar’s defensive strategy. Ilaimaharitra and his midfield partner, Amada, were both guilty of responding slowly to when the ball was played behind their midfield line.
In the above scenario, after the ball has once again been played into spaces behind Madagascar’s midfield line, the two recovering advanced midfielders hardly break into a jog. This leaves Tunisia to attack the Madagascan backline in a 3v2 scenario, making it much more difficult for any member of the backline to pressure the ball, for fear they may open up a route for a pass to be played into the box, forcing them to retreat. This allows Tunisia easy access to the edge of the box and to keep Madagascar far away from their goal whilst they apply pressure here.
Despite Madagascar lining up in an ideally sound defensive shape (with their 4-3-3 transitioning into a 4-5-1 with a tight defensive diamond in the centre), the above scenario highlights just how useless a defensive tactic can be when players fail to apply themselves appropriately.
This passivity often meant that in the ensuing chaos, Madagascar often failed to defend the central areas outside their box, as the defensive midfielder, Anicet, was often drawn out of position.
It was no surprise then to see that Tunisia’s opener in the second half came from the above scenario where Ferjani Sassi was able to receive the ball in the space and get a shot off on goal. From the resulting shot, a cruel but deserved deflection punished Madagascar for their abject defensive display.
Madagascar’s stale possession
It seems that Madagascar’s passivity also applied to their offensive game as well with many players remaining too static in their support of the ball-carrier.
With so many players not only facing the ball but also in front, as opposed to being inside of, the opponent’s defensive block, Tunisia have an easier time of defending against Madagascar’s possession. There were too many times when the player on the ball for Madagascar faced a scenario similar to the one above, and this meant that Madagascar often fell into the trap of attempting to play the long ball to their isolated frontmen.
The structural issues of having so many players playing in front of the defensive block include the fact that it leaves the Madagascan side with no offensive overloads. This makes it harder for Madagascar to progress the ball up the field in any threatening way as the advanced players are all easily marked out of the game since the defence isn’t forced to defend against an overload of players.
Madagascar failed to improve upon their issues after going behind and once Tunisia had scored their second, the game appeared to have effectively been decided with the third goal just rubbing in the wound late on.
Tunisia didn’t necessarily have to up their game in order to secure their place into the semi-finals of the competition as Madagascar put in an extremely disappointing display despite their achievements so far. In what was a historic occasion for the Madagascan side, a few abject performances and lack of application in dangerous scenarios saw the debutants crash out at the quarter-final stage when they could’ve achieved so, so much more.
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