The Indomitable Lions of Cameroon became the first team to be knocked-out of the World Cup after their 1-2 defeat to Denmark on Saturday. There are many stories surrounding the team’s stay in South Africa which may have contributed to their early exit but from a purely footballing perspective, this is the result of tactical blunders.
Paul Le Guen qualified the Indomitable Lions to this World Cup. He stuck to his chosen pattern (4-3-3) and ceaselessly chopped and changed his starting teams without necessarily coming up with a convincing plan B, regardless of criticism by pundits and the media.
When he deployed his men against Japan (in a match to be quickly forgotten), Cameroon lost 0-1 with Samuel Eto’o tucked on the right of a front trio while Arsenal’s Alex Song was on the bench, he faced a mini-revolution from the players and Cameroon officials.
He was forced to change tactics and play a 4-3-1-2 (or 4-4-2 daimond) against Denmark. Cameroon’s performance was better and they could have won the game but the squad was lopsided with extra men on the right and little or no support on the left where Assou-Ekotto was isolated (see picture below). The midfield failed to shift to the left in support when he surged forward to support the attackers and the Danes looped the ball over into the space behind him. The second goal is a classic example of this problem.
For a better understanding of this failure – you can visit Zonal Marking.
What’s frightening is Le Guen’s inability to fix a problem which any keen observer had noticed within the first quarter hour of the game (I twitted about the problem as Denmark equalised). His half-time solution was to withdraw Enoh Eyong who seemed out of depth by fielding Jean Makoun. The latter’s dreadful cover for Assou-Ekotto in the Danish winning goal is a stark pointer to Le Guen’s poor substitutions.
He could have balanced the team by shifting Assou-Ekotto up to the midfield and replacing Enoh with Gaetan Bong who is a left back. We would have had a balanced team with a Geremi/Mbia pair on the right and an Assou-Ekotto/Bong pair on the left to keep the Danish wingmen (Dennis Rommedahl and Jesper Gronkjaer) blocked.
Le Guen realized he had bungled things after the Danes went ahead and he decided to finally bring on cover for Assou-Ekotto. It came in the shape of Idrissou Mohammadou (forward) for Sebastien Bassong (a centre-back)! The tactical shift caused by this change actually made Cameroon weaker because Mbia had to slide into centre-back and Geremi who was positioned high-up had to drop into right-back. This diminished Geremi’s support to the attack. As Geremi tried to maintain pressure, it looked as if Cameroon was playing a curious variant of 3-5-2 (or 3-4-3) but the attackers (Eto’o, Idrissou, Webo) were all muddled up and Emana (the playmaker) was lost.
The coach therefore had to fix things again. He chose to replace Webo (who should not have started the game in my opinion) with the young Aboubacar Vincent. The 18-year-old Cotonsport Garoua attacker gave an admirable account of himself but the whole team was disorganised by this time.
Dis-organisation has become synonymous to Cameroon’s play once they concede a goal. They lose shape and the coach is often lost in terms of his changes. He piles up big strikers like Idrissou and the team starts launching long balls to the front as against Japan and the team usually ends up with four or five attackers no midfield cover and players trying to be one-man-national heroes.
That has been the Lions’ trademark in 2010 with an average of 2 goals conceded per match; in 5 defeats (0-1 to Gabon, 1-3 to Egypt, 1-3 to Portugal, 3-4 to Serbia), 4 draws (0-0 with Italy, 0-0 with Georgia, 1-1 with Slovakia) for just 2 games won 3-1 over Kenya and 3-2 over Zambia.
Le Guen had the laudable initiative of re-building Cameroon’s national team by injecting talented youngsters and encouraging entertaining and effective football. The games against Austria, Gabon, Togo and Morocco in 2009 made the project look plausible. Unfortunately the Frenchman failed to see that the country’s current crop of players (or those he chose for the World Cup) could not fit in his lofty pattern.
Since the reign of Yugoslav (or generally eastern European) coaches ended in the 1980s (with the exception of Valeri Nepiomiachi in1989-1990) the Indomitable Lions mainly play a physical game pegged on counter-attacks. The team waits, defends tightly, breaks swiftly to score and recoils into defence mode (see Cameroon vs Ghana 2008).
Such tactics have also persevered because most players in Cameroon are developed for the international market – which needs big, strong midfielders and central defenders and not witty dribblers and ball players like Abega Theophile, Mbida Gregoire or M’Fede Louis Paul of old. Few good strikers have emerged in Cameroon since Samuel Eto’o and the country lacks winger, wing-backs and full-backs of international quality.
The former PSG and Rangers coach should have built Cameroon as a 4-5-1 unit that relies on taking teams on the counter and is hard to beat.
Winfried Schaffer organized the squad in such a manner at the Confederations Cup in 2003. They reached the final of the tournament after scoring only 3 goals, with three 1-0 victories and a scoreless draw with the U.S. They lost to France (0-1) via a Thierry Henri golden goal after the Lions had held out for 110 notwithstanding the tragedy of Foe’s death.
In the current state of Cameroon football where the local leagues and clubs are in shambles, proper youth development is abysmal; any coach who wants to obtain results tends to adapt to such counter-offensive formations (except Arthur Jorge in 2006). Had Le Guen re-adapted his tactics in January, he would not have left the talented youngsters he’s brought to the squad in limbo.