Ghana met South Africa in the sides’ opening qualifier for the 2021 African Cup of Nations, with both teams hoping to put a disappointing 2019 tournament behind them. This tactical analysis will investigate how the Black Stars were able to control their opponents. This enabled them to come away with a comfortable, if not pretty, 2-0 win. Their tactics were able to eliminate South Africa’s potentially dangerous attack whilst ensuring key men such as the Ayew brothers and Thomas Partey were able to influence the match. This analysis will also identify why Bafana Bafana were unable to threaten their opponents’ goal more often.
Kwesi Appiah sent his Ghana side out in his favoured 4-4-2 formation. Joseph Aidoo and Kasim Adams joined forces to form a new centre-back partnership. Gideon Mensah made his debut at left-back with Iddrisu Baba’s La Liga form also earning him his debut in centre midfield. Alfred Duncan was out of position on the left side of midfield. Thomas Partey, Emmanuel Boateng and the Ayew brothers, Jordan and Andre, were more familiar faces in attack.
Molefi Ntseki tweaked his predecessor Stuart Baxter’s formula, preferring a 4-2-3-1 formation over Baxter’s favoured 4-3-3. Bradley Grober led the line with Percy Tau, Thembinkosi Lorch and Bongani Zungu (replaced early on by Thapelo Morena) behind. Thato Mokeke and Dean Furman formed an experienced double pivot.
Ghana’s build-up was fairly unimaginative and was stymied often when South Africa were able to organise themselves effectively. The Black Stars built up in a 4-4-2 structure. They often did so with the double pivot fairly flat, the full-backs wide and the two wide midfielders high. This caused them issues and invited the South Africans, who pressed in a 4-4-2 structure, to mark them man to man. In such situations, the Ghanaians were forced long.
On other occasions however, Ghana got themselves into a shape that was better suited to playing through South Africa’s defensive block. Sometimes, Baba dropped out of midfield to add an extra body in front of South Africa’s first line, enabling Ghana to play through more easily. Andre Ayew would often tuck in from the right flank to offer an option further forward in the half-space with Thomas Partey at a different height between them. South Africa’s left-back, Sifiso Hlanti, was reluctant to follow Ayew with the threat of Boateng running the channel behind him whilst Andy Yiadom also threatened to exploit the open right flank.
When they did get into this shape, the Black Stars found it considerably easier to string passes together, move their opponent around and play through them.
The importance of familiar faces
Andre Ayew’s movement in off the right flank was a crucial part of Ghana’s offensive plan. Appiah allowed Ayew to pop up all over the field with Yiadom trusted to provide width on the right side. This freedom ensured Ayew was a dangerous presence and a consistent thorn in South Africa’s side. In the build-up to Ghana’s first goal, Ayew found himself assisting in the deep build-up in the middle of the field before providing an overload on the left flank.
His brother, Jordan, was also a crucial piece of Ghana’s attacking jigsaw. With Boateng threatening deep and pinning South Africa’s backline, Jordan Ayew was free to drop off the front-line and provide an option between the lines for ball progression. His hold up play and dribbling caused South Africa problems throughout the match. Jordan also contributed to Ghana’s first goal. He received a lofted pass from Mensah, before holding play up to allow Duncan and his brother Andre to surge past. He then laid off to the unmarked Partey, who fired home from distance.
Partey was another important part of Ghana’s attacking plans. Aidoo, Adams and Baba are all willing penetrative passers from deep. This took that responsibility off Partey, which had been a heavy responsibility on the midfielder in the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations. Furthermore, Baba provided a more reserved presence, covering his partner’s forward thrusts. This ensured Partey was free to have a greater influence in attacking areas. His goal and overall attacking contribution, constantly probing South Africa, was testament to this.
Partey and both Ayew’s were also all willing counter-pressers. Though the counter-press was infrequent and disorganised, it did often force South Africa to launch the ball long after recovering it in deep areas. Ghana simply came back at them.
The promise of new faces
The aforementioned Baba was a welcome addition to the Ghana side. His positional awareness in attack, defence and resultantly in transition was important in Ghana retaining control in the match. He covered Partey, screened the defence and adopted intelligent positions to prevent South Africa launching counter-attacks when Ghana turned the ball over.
Aidoo also impressed in only his third cap for the national team. With Baba preventing counter-attacks going through the middle of the field, Bafana Bafana were forced to play the ball down the channels. With Ghana’s full-backs high, this was a potential area of vulnerability with Tau and Lorch’s speed. Aidoo and Adams were more than up to the task. They also proved to be capable ball players from deep.
Mohammed Kudus added quality when he entered. The 19-year-old made his debut in the second half. He provided an additional threat in attack and stole the ball on a couple of occasions as a presser. Kudus was also willing to pick the ball up between the lines before carrying or spreading the play further, whilst showing his two-footedness to score an excellent goal. Ghana will have been pleased to see Kudus’ Nordsjælland form carry into the international arena.
South Africa kept quiet
The Black Stars shut down South Africa’s attacking threat. Bafana Bafana managed just three shots and 0.39 xG. Their attacking quartet’s desire to play narrow was countered by Ghana’s own narrow 4-4-2 defensive structure and the Ghanaian defence’s willingness to aggressively follow their men. Ghana were also efficient in tackling situations; they won the ball with regularity when it was contested.
Furthermore, Ghana’s mid-block separated South Africa’s attacking quartet from the players behind them. Boateng often got close to Furman to shut off his penetrative passing (especially in the second half), whilst Partey would be prepared to squeeze up on Mokeke. South Africa were forced long and into an aerial battle they had little hope of winning.
Ghana were the better side at home, a Appiah auditioned for another contract with a somewhat new-look Ghana squad. Appiah’s side shut down South Africa’s attacking threat. Furthermore, a few of Appiah’s new additions acquitted themselves well and. Nevertheless, the Ayew brothers and Thomas Partey remained integral to Ghana’s efforts in the attacking third. The team’s attacking structures and decision making remained frustrating however, as they lacked the structures and willingness to consistently play through a rather disorganised South Africa side.
Bafana Bafana looked comparatively toothless in Molefi Ntseki’s first competitive game in charge, failing to carry over the counter-attacking threat they showed at the end of the Stuart Baxter era. They were rarely able to get their dangerous attacking quartet into the match.
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