Ghana travelled to face São Tomé and Príncipe in match-day two of the 2021 African Cup of Nations Qualifiers. The home side had never faced the Black Stars and they showed immense respect with their tactics. This tactical analysis will highlight São Tomé’s defensive approach. Furthermore, this analysis will investigate how Ghana sought to break down their opponent.
São Tomé and Príncipe played a 4-2-3–1 formation. Luís Leal was the first line of defence. The midfield five of Marcos Barbeiro, Lúcio Oliveira, Ludgério Silva, Joazhifel and Harramiz worked extremely hard behind him.
Kwesi Appiah continued with his favoured 4-4-2 formation. Ghana made one change from the team that faced South Africa in the previous match. Samuel Owusu replaced Alfred Duncan which resulted in Andre Ayew moving to left midfield and Owusu playing on the right. An otherwise unchanged side saw Thomas Partey and Iddrisu Baba continue their fledgeling partnership in the centre of midfield and Jordan Ayew again partner Emmanuel Boateng up front.
São Tomé and Príncipe’s defensive structure
São Tomé’s focus was entirely on defending. They managed just three shots, none of which were on target and they recorded an xG of 0.02.
When defending, as they did for much of the match, they flexed between a 4-4-2 and a 4-5-1 structure. They tended to adopt a 4-4-2 structure when Ghana possessed the ball in their own half, before dropping into a 4-5-1 structure when Ghana were able to advance. When in a 4-5-1 structure, Oliveira dropped to play as a number 6, further limited the space between the lines and increasing the lines of defence.
Gustave Clément Nyoumba’s side attempted to limit the space between the lines. The defence and midfield tried to stay reasonably connected. Furthermore, the defence stayed very narrow. Resultantly, the wide midfielders were tasked with following players making runs into the wide channels. This was a reasonable approach, given Ghana’s tendency to invert their own wide players without seeing their full-backs advance much in wide areas.
São Tomé was likely helped by the pitch, which was not conducive to quality football. Nonetheless, they defended admirably and for much of the game, found themselves reasonably untroubled by their higher calibre opponents. However, this lack of threat was as much a result of Ghana’s performance and tactics as it was due to São Tomé’s resolute display.
Ghana’s offensive struggles – structure
Ghana’s offensive struggles were for two primary reasons – poor structure and poor decision making. Both meant that they failed to move the ball with any consistency into areas where they could expect to effectively and consistently threaten.
Despite enjoying 76.8% possession, they only managed nine shots. Just two were on target, as the Black Stars recorded an xG of 1.48. This was striking given the São Tomé and Príncipe’s midfield’s general lack of awareness of the movement behind them and their defenders’ desire to stay as a compact quartet. It was rare to see one follow a player dropping off the front line or step out far to meet someone. There was space to exploit.
Poor structure was the main cause of Ghana’s offensive inefficiency against a team that was inferior. Ghana’s inability to manipulate and exploit São Tomé’s defensive shape with their own attacking structures should be a concern.
The primary issue was not an unusual one, and has reared its head on a number of occasions: there was an alarming disconnect between the back seven (goalkeeper, back four and double pivot) and the front four (wide players and strikers). This was particularly noticeable in the first half. Ghana often left the centre of the pitch largely vacated. However, they also failed to establish control of wide areas due to the same lack of movement and structure. São Tomé could force them into low percentage long passes on a pitch that made them extremely difficult to control.
It did seem to be part of the plan to attempt such low percentage passes. As a result, Kwesi Appiah clearly tasked Thomas Partey to engage in the initial phase of build-up, receiving the ball from the centre backs and looking to play vertical passes. Whilst his quality ensured he was successful on occasion, the policy of having Partey drop deep and players making vertical runs ahead played a major part in Ghana vacating the centre of the field.
Partey’s partner, Baba, prefers to play deeper himself and is not a player who commonly receives the ball between the lines and progresses it. With Baba and Partey deep, Ghana often lacked a central midfield player operating between the lines.
Furthermore, for much of the first half, the centre-backs passively gave the ball to Partey rather than seeking to impose themselves on the game, whilst the full-backs stayed relatively deep as well. With Samuel Owusu preferring to stay wide and Andre Ayew being less effective coming inside from the left side of midfield than he is from the right, Ghana really lacked a central midfield presence. As a result, the Black Stars were often playing a 6-0-4 against a 4-5-1.
Ghana’s offensive struggles – decision making
The Black Stars’ decision making was questionable, even when they got into more suitable attacking structures. Such suitable structures included 2-6-3, 3-5-2, 3-6-1, 3-4-3 and 2-4-4 depending on São Tomé defensive positioning. Players in good positions between the lines were ignored too often, with a low percentage of long balls preferred.
Some long balls did work, notably those out towards the left flank. On such occasions, however, players failed to adequately support the player in possession allowing São Tomé to regroup.
The team also attempted to cross with some frequency. Ghana attempted 27 crosses, of which nine were successfully completed. This isn’t a terrible rate of completing crosses. Nevertheless, the low percentage nature of crosses as a creative tool meant there should have been alternative options pursued. Given the lack of bodies Ghana were getting forwards against a packed defence, the policy was particularly flawed.
Some signs of life
There were some signs of life, especially in the second half. During half-time, Appiah clearly instructed his centre-backs to play more aggressively. They both engaged São Tome’s midfield more willingly. This reduced the burden on Partey in the build-up. He could move higher and start operating between the lines more often.
Furthermore, the full-backs also pushed on more aggressively, having shown some willingness to do so as the first half wore on. Gideon Mensah and Andy Yiadom created useful high width, with Mensah particularly keen to push forward with Andre Ayew concurrently tucking inside with increasing frequency. With Owusu also tucking in more and Jordan Ayew’s ability and willingness to drop off the front line, Ghana had far more options inside their opponent’s shape.
Resultantly, in the second half, Ghana sustained more threatening possession much more effectively. Thus, they were able to build pressure, though they once again struggled to create many chances. This primarily seemed to stem from a lack of ambition after the opening goal.
When Ghana’s positioning improved, they were able to exploit the São Tomé shape much more effectively. Whether it was finding players between the lines, or finding full-backs in advanced positions with multiple bodies attacking the penalty area, Ghana generally looked a more threatening force. Kasim Adams and Partey were able to demonstrate their passing range more effectively when presented with multiple options and a more stretched defence. Ghana will need to strive to adopt similar structures in future.
Though Ghana did enough to beat their far less illustrious opponents, few will be particularly happy with the Black Stars’ display. They lacked cohesion and structure for large periods of the game and initially adopted a tactical plan which played into São Tomé’s hands. They did adapt their structure and approach as the match wore on, however. The resulted in them looking more effective in the initial build-up phase and entering the final third. Nonetheless, they lacked the quality and ambition in the final third to make more of an impact. Their structural tweaks will hopefully appear more in the future.
São Tomé meanwhile will be reasonably content to escape with just one goal conceded. Their defence held up well enough and they did limit Ghana’s chances. Their work rate and cohesiveness was a credit to them and their manager. It will be interesting to see how they fare at home against South Africa and Sudan. They will nevertheless need to look at their vulnerability down their right flank.
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