In the semi-finals of the African Cup Of Nations 2019, Algeria faced Nigeria in the last match before the final. Algeria had previously eliminated Ivory Coast after a 120 minutes match in the quarterfinals, winning by penalties while Nigeria knocked out Cameroon and South Africa, with a last-minute header, in the road to the Cup.
It was a closely contested game, decided by a free-kick by Riyad Mahrez in the last minute, giving Algeria a place in the African Cup Of Nations 2019 final. After a 90 minute battle with different tactics; Algeria were looking for ball-control and opening spaces with rotations, while Nigeria waited patiently aiming to attack with fast transitions. In this tactical analysis, we will see the differences between the two tactics and how they’ve worked.
Algeria started the game in the usual 4-1-4-1 formation, confirming 10/11 of the last match won after 120 just three days before. Only Youcef Atal sat on the bench injured, being replaced by Zeffane as a right-back, with Bensebaini on the left, and Mandi and Benlamri as centre-back. As usual, Guedioura was the holding midfielder, with Feghouli and Bennacer at his side, while the wings are Mahrez and Belaili, supported the striker Bounedjah. The striker has scored 39 goals in 22 games with his team, Al-Sadd.
Gernot Rohr set his team in the same 4-2-3-1 formation of the quarterfinals, with attacks based on fast transition. Chukwueze, Alex Iwobi, and Ahmed Musa, the trio behind Shangai Shenhua’s striker Odion Ighalo, being the main threat for Algeria. Defensive midfielder Wilfried Ndidi and Etebo work as patrols in front of the defensive line, supporting the back four in protecting Akpeyi’s goal.
Algeria’s ball-control orientated play – build-up phase
This analysis will underline how Algeria began the game proactively aiming to control possession and be the dominant side. With long phases of patient build-up between the back four, the central midfielder Guedioura, and at times left midfielder, Bennacer, often drop deep to collect possession and create.
Sometimes Mahrez, drops deep himself to get the ball earlier than usual, with Zeffane overlapping over him.
Algeria’s attacking overloads, rotations, weak side attack
One of the most important parts of Djamel Belmadi’s tactics was manipulating Nigeria’s defence and breaking through pressure more easily with various rotation between the midfielders; in particular, Mahrez went inside many times to receive the ball in the half-space, while Feghouli went down on the flank to open space for the former Leicester player.
Often during the match, the right-back Zeffane attacks down on the flank, creating positional superiority against the Nigerian defenders.
When the ball was secured, and Nigeria’s defence was attracted by the ball on a flank, Algeria then switched play on the weak side, searching Belaili, isolated against the Nigerian right-back, trying to put into the box dangerous crosses for Mahrez and Bounedjah, or searching for a combination to cut inside and shoot.
This principle was essential, and Algeria took the lead with an own goal by Troost-Ekong, born by a long throw from Belaili, lower on the field, to Riyad Mahrez, isolated on the flank.
Alternatively, they try to give a through ball to Bounedjah or Belaili, going with a fast combination in front of the goal, like in the situation of the failed chance by Bounedjah.
Nigeria’s problems with the build-up phase
The Nigerian players often didn’t have good ideas in the first build-up phase, playing horizontal balls between the back four, or playing with the two defending midfielders, who positioned themselves at different heights on the pitch. This didn’t help their possession, which was complex due to organized pressing by Algeria, making Nigeria go vertical every time.
Nigeria’s main theme to threaten Algeria was throwing long balls to Musa and Chukwueze on the flanks, to exploit their pace and then attack the goal, but with poor results, due to the difficult attempts used to find them. Nigeria then tried to find the two wingers, Ighalo and Iwobi with laser passes on the figure; this was a difficult solution too, first of all for the high risk taken on playing that type of ball, and second because Musa, Chukwueze, and Iwobi were often man-marked, and they had poor playing while they’re not facing the goal using their pace, even when they can freely receive the ball.
In one of this situation, Ndidi pass was intercepted by Belaili, and this led to the great chance failed by Bounedjah, with a fast transition.
Fast transitions are also the main threat from Nigeria, but that was successful only when Algeria weren’t in a positional defence.
So, Algeria were rarely in danger (some long shots, often due to Guedioura lack of concentration in marking Iwobi, some set pieces and those transitions mentioned above), close to their goal, narrow and concentrated on the ball; they casually conceded a penalty on a shot from outside the box.
Algeria’s pressing was well connected
Algeria’s coach Djamel Belmadi had some plans about pressing which made the Nigerian build-up phase difficult. As we can see below, Algeria press just over half the pitch, with the lone striker initially marking one of the defensive midfielders, and then goes to the centre-back, trying to force a long pass, while the wings are occupied with the fullbacks, Guedioura man-marks Iwobi, and the two midfielders higher themselves on the pitch to press effectively.
When the press became aggressive, and the ball was at one Nigerian centre-back, one of the two midfielders attack him, using cover-shadow to prevent the pass to the defensive midfielder.
Algeria were in control of the ball and the game for most of the time, having some great chances, and protecting their own goal with good defence and excellent pressing, but they failed to realize their superiority in the result. Nigeria came back in the game with a penalty goal after some struggle in the build-up, and in the end, only an excellent free-kick by Riyad Mahrez at the last second gave Algeria access to the final without passing in extra time.