Usually, if you limit your opponent to just one shot on target in the entire ninety minutes, you’ve done a good job of defending. If that one shot was blocked as well, that’s even better. However, the Africa Cup of Nations final between Senegal and Algeria ran contrary to this, much to the woe of Senegal. Algeria were very fortunate to have scored off a deflected shot in the very first two minutes of the game. For the rest of the ninety minutes, they only had one job – to defend.
In this tactical analysis, we’ll analyse how the match between Senegal and Algeria played put and what both teams did tactically to outwit each other and what they could’ve done better.
Senegal – structure and tactics
Senegal lined up in a 4-2-3-1 but their structure on the field had some differences worth discussing.
Senegal undertook a more structured possession-oriented approach, unlike Algeria. They rarely went log during goal-kicks and preferred building out from the back. The centre-backs split up and one of the deepest midfielders slotted in or provided a staggered passing option. The other midfielder from the pivot moved up to position himself behind the first line of press from Algeria. Above the defensive midfielders, Henri Saivet played in the central number #10 role.
Building out was usually down the flanks. The central midfielders weren’t the main creative outlet and were only responsible for achieving overloads during the first phase and getting Senegal into the middle third. After that, they passed it to the full-backs – usually the right-back who’d then play up the pitch using a few different methods.
By using analysis, one of the approaches we can noticed was to get the winger to drop to receive. The other approach was to play long to the striker who’d try to hold up the ball and lay it off. We’ll talk more about those below.
Rotations and asymmetry
In most offensive situations, Senegal’s attacking and defending blocks looked very disconnected. Their structure resembled a 3-2-5 with the two centre-backs and the right-back comprising of the back three, Badou Ndiaye as the deepest midfielder.
Despite playing with a central midfielder dropping to support the centre-backs, Senegal didn’t push both of their fullbacks high up the pitch. Generally, it was the left-back who’d move high and wide. The right-back, on the other hand, would stay relatively deep, with the centre-backs. When coupled with the deeper midfielder, it created a solid diamond in the first phase. This can be seen in the picture below. Also, notice the lack of pressure by Algeria.
Since the right-back was not providing width on the flank, Ismaïla Sarr – the right-winger stayed wide to maintain the structure for Senegal. The four players at the back eased ball circulation but that came at a price. Due to the extra player expended in their own third, Senegal had difficulty achieving overloads in-between the lines. Coupled with Alegria’s committed defending, Senegal found it very difficult to retain possession in their midfield or even win second balls due to being outnumbered by the Algerians.
On the left flank, it was Sadio Mané who moved in-field from the wing. Theoretically, the Liverpool forward can be very destructive with his line-breaking dribbles and the threat of running in behind in the half-spaces. However, he was too isolated in the area owing to Senegal’s focus on the right flank. As can be seen in the picture, the dynamics on both the wings were different as different personnel took on different roles.
One of the ways of building out was using rotations to free up the players. Algeria used a man-marking system in midfield so this was necessary for the Senegalese players to receive without pressure on them. The most common rotation and counter-movements was of Saivet with Sarr. When the right-back – Lamine Gassama – received the ball, Sarr moved deeper to receive. But more often than not, they hit lobbed balls over the top to the striker – M’baye Hamady Niang. This resulted in inefficient possession sequences for Senegal and a lot of possession overturns in the final third.
Algeria had clear tactical intent to foul up the pitch. They got their lead very early in the game and once that happened, their intent was to shut down the match for Senegal. They tried to stop Senegal from entering their own third, whatever the cost. In the entire match, they committed a whopping 32 fouls and only four of them were in the defensive third.
Algeria defended in a 4-1-4-1, pretty much similar to their lineups on the sheet. They didn’t press up the pitch and instead held a line of engagement at the halfway line. The single forward – Baghdad Bounedjah was responsible for preventing passes into the central areas – he did that well enough using a combination of cover-shadows and curved runs. Indeed, Algeria tried to ensure that the passes were only made to the wider areas. Once the ball was being passed to the wide right-back, the Algerian left-winger – Mohamed Youcef Belaïli – would start pressing. This was simultaneously followed by the defensive midfielder – Adlène Guedioura – moving up to cover for the space Belaïli left behind.
This exact scenario happens in the picture below. Notice how when #8 moves up to block a passing lane, #17 leaves Mane and fills in the gap in the midfield line.
Due to clever pressing tactics, Algeria were successful in containing Senegal and ensuring they didn’t have space or the time to play in-between lines or break their defensive shape.
When defending the flanks, Algeria doubled up to ensure that overloads were not achieved. The winger – Belaïli and Riyad Mahrez would support their wingers. If the wingers were stranded up the pitch, one of the centre-backs would step up or one of the midfielders – Sofiane Feghouli or Ismaël Bennacer would move out wide to cover for the wingers. However, as mentioned earlier, they preferred to foul the player up the pitch instead of taking chances and have them enter their third.
In possession, Algeria turned into a 4-1-5 with a single pivot and the #10 joining the other players higher up the pitch. They preferred to create central overloads and then play to the striker so that the nearby players could win the second balls. However, like the Senegalese, they also used the flanks – although not to the same degree. Both full-backs stayed deep even when Algeria had possession for lengthy durations of time. It was clear that their first concern was to defend well and they were ready to compromise on their attacking duties for that.
Algeria didn’t have possession for a long time. They were hardly able to enter Senegal’s half due to them being too deep in their own during defensive phases. They lacked someone who could retain the ball under pressure while the teammates took up more offensive positions. Even during goal-kicks, they opted for the longer direct option to the forwards.
Senegal pressed in a 4-4-2 as evident from the picture above. They pressed from a wider angle so that the pass to the central pivot could be the only option. The reason for this was two-fold. One that it allowed for predictable passing lanes which were easier to press. When that pass was made, the Senegalese midfielders would immediately tackle the player from the blindside. The other reason was that although a risk to leave the central option open, they realised that the Algerian midfielder – Guedioura was not the most capable ball player. Indeed, his job was purely a defensive one – having made nine out of 32 fouls of the Algerian team. Hence, any poor touch on his part led to turnovers in dangerous areas and Senegal were able to counter-attack from those situations. This can be seen below: the ‘DM’ is apparently under no pressure and hence receives the ball. However, as soon as he does so, multiple players converge on him and the forwards simultaneously close down the back-passing lanes.
Although not a match of the highest quality and frequently interrupted by fouls and bookings, Algeria will take the win with both hands as they snatched a win from a star-studded Senegal side. Senegal lacked attacking balance as well as a lack of alternatives as none of the substitutions brought any effect on the offensive end. Algeria also had offensive deficiencies but had a clear defensive plan which they executed to perfection and in the end ran out as winners, not without help from a good deal of fortune.
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