Martin Ndtoungou, the head coach of Cameroon’s U-20 national team surely knows a thing or two about crossing the group phase of world tournaments. He has been part of the coaching staff of every Cameroon team that has crossed the first round of an international (non-continental) competition since 2000.
He was Jean Paul Akono’s assistant when Cameroon won Olympic Gold in Sydney (2000) and Winfried Schaeffer’s number 2 when Cameroon reached the final of the FIFA confederations Cup and lost to a Thierry Henri golden goal in 2003.
He then became the last coach to qualify a Cameroon national team to the knock out stage of an international competition when his pride of U-23 Lions reached the quarter-finals of the Beijing Olympics in 2008 (only to lose to Ronaldinho’s Brazil).
But his awesome record is in jeopardy.
His Cameroon team may be booted out of the ongoing FIFA U-20 World Cup on Friday if they do not defeat Uruguay in their last group game. They have dominated ball possession, shots on goal (and on target) and all other statistics but they have lacked creativity and their finishing is awful. Their only goal in Columbia has been from the penalty spot (Christ Mbondi actually missed the kick and scored from a rebound).
Whereas their defence seemed to be their strength at the Africa Cup in South Africa it is part of their frailties now. The right-back Serge Tchaha scored an own-goal to hand New Zealand a draw while central defenders Ghislain Mvom Beyo and Yaya Banana jumbled things to allow Portugal score their lone and winning goal.
That is hardly comforting ahead of a clash with a Uruguay team that showed creative promise in their game against New Zealand. They controlled play throughout the first half but were denied goals by the fantastic Oceania goalkeeper. After they conceded a brilliant goal, the young Celeste piled pressure with swift movement and short-passing.
Adrian Luna, their diminutive playmaker (1.69m) is one to watch tonight along with Matias Vecino (a sort of relay midfielder) and Camilo Mayada (who marshals their right flank). Their huge striker Cesar Texeira often gets involved by dropping into the hole between midfield and attack (as if he were a false nine) dragging central defenders and creating space for midfield runners.
The team elegantly switches from a back 4 to a back 3 with their full-backs, especially Captain Diego Polenta, displaying pace, technique and precision as very attacking wingbacks.
Can Ndtoungou weave magic out of his tactical hat to prevent Cameroon from losing against Uruguay tonight?
He seems to have planned his team to play in a diamond formation tonight with just one holding midfielder Frank Kom and a playmaker (engache) Mbongo Ewangue operating behind two strikers: Frank Ohandza and Christ Mbondi. Yazid Atouba and Herve Mbega are expected to alternate on the left and right flanks.
This is quite a bold move and demonstrates that the coach is aware his team lacks creativity and penetration from the centre. He had attempted a similar pattern 4-3-1-2 which often morphed into a 4-2-1-3 with Canon Yaounde’s Clarence Bitang as a playmaker in both formations against Portugal but that didn’t work.
I have my reservations about Bitang’s quality and am quite happy to see him starting on the bench tonight. But he wasn’t the only one who was at fault against Portugal.
The wide players didn’t do enough defensive cover while the central midfielders Kom and Nyantchou often seemed lost (not knowing whether to cover their central defenders or their rather attacking full-backs) during Portuguese counterattacks.
Hopefully, the coaches have fixed that weakness and have warned their youngsters that 4-4-2 diamond requires high physical fitness levels for the midfielders and full-backs that have to keep shuttling back and forth.
I must admit that it is rare to see Ndtoungou playing with one holding midfielder. He believes in building strong, compact, disciplined teams. He usually sets out his teams in a flat 4-4-2 relying on wide players to feed his strikers. He must have been irked by the output so far to go bust as it seems.
It would be interesting to see if he maintains that shape. It could be that one of his options is to switch to a 3-5-2 when Uruguay change to a back 3 as they often did against New Zealand. That may explain why he has selected the versatile Idriss Nguessi at right-back ahead of Tchaha.
Whatever the formations – his team must score goals today to survive. His record of always making it out of a group phase is also at stake.