Whoever becomes Cameroon’s next head coach will have to watch a video of the Indomitable Lions’ 3-0 defeat of Poland. It wasn’t that spectacular. It wasn’t completely smooth. It wasn’t against the African Champions, talk less of the World Champions. It was simply the sweet taste of victory after a run of 10 games without a win.
What did Jacques Songo’o (interim coach) do that hadn’t been done since January 2010?
Surely, there must have been something different.
1. The team played in a 4-4-2 formation using old-fashioned wingers. Henri Bedimo on the left and Marcel Ndjeng on the right drove Cameroon’s game forward alongside the over-lapping Benoit Assou-Ekotto (left-back) in particular, and Augustin Binya (right-back).
Many pundits claim this formation is dying or dead. They argue that most teams play with 3 to 5 midfielders who would out-number any central midfield of just two men. Variations of 4-3-3, such as 4-2-1-3 or 4-2-3-1 are now en vogue (Paul Le Guen should be smiling)! Nonetheless, Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United appeared in a 4-4-2 and beat a Chelsea side that was using 4-3-3 at the Community Shield (3-1 the scoreline).
Most managers say a formation alone is never really the decider. One needs the right men to make those formations work to create the necessary offensive and defensive moves.
2. There was cover/movement on the flanks. The presence of these “wingers” provided cover for the full-backs in the event of a quick counter-attack. At the World Cup in South Africa, once Assou-Ekotto ,the most daring of the full-backs, surged forward there was no-one to take the space he had left behind him. The opposing teams simply had to hoof the ball over to his vacant position to create dangerous counter-offensives.
With Bedimo ahead of Assou-Ekotto, the left back didn’t need to make risky forays into the opposing camp.When he did Bedimo and/or Sebastien Bassong (centre-back) shifted into his zone. Ndjeng, Binya and Nicolas Nkoulou did the same on the right.
3. The virtues of team-work and solidarity on display. If the Lions dominated play for long spells it was not due to the change in formation alone. The players and different compartments (defence, midfield attack) put in a shift for each other. Football is a team sport. If a unit does not move to replace another part which is in difficulty, there are holes everywhere for the opponent to penetrate.
Aurelien Chedjou displayed such abnegation to plug the holes created by his mates. He confirmed that he is a midfielder and not a centre-back or full-back. His strengths being technique (seen in his two assists for Eto’o), positional awareness and ability to intercept opposition passes without reckless tackles.
4. Eto’o played as a central striker, scored and was subbed. The skipper played alongside Maxim Choupo-Moting in a front two that needs more games together. However, his brace was typical goal-poacher’s art. He has scored in every game since he was re-positioned as a central striker. He put his experience to use by drifting to the left-flank and dropping deep into midfield positions to create opportunities for his attacking mates. When he looked tired he was substituted. Oh yes, it can be done.
5. Improved set-pieces. Cameroon scored from a corner kick. It’s so rare it can make news headlines. There was designated specialist so, we didn’t see 7 different persons taking corners in a single match. Marcel Ndjeng showed great quality at this task. The balls reached useful areas in the 18-yard unlike in the past. Free-kicks also need such discipline in the days ahead.
6. Hunger. This team wanted to win or at least prove that it wasn’t useless. The way the substitutes Bienvenue Tsama and Vincent Aboubacar stormed into the game is testimony to this. Tsama scored upon his second touch but the goal was disallowed for an offside position. Aboubacar slotted his first for the national team less than 10 minutes after coming-in for Eto’o. Is such motivation and desire to impress down to a Jacques Songo’o effect alone? The Lions were simply hungry.
6. Consistency to build confidence and partnerships. Songo’o chose to build confidence and understanding between Nkoulou and Bassong at the centre of defence. I believe it’s the best way of solidifying what I consider the country’s best centre-back pairing. They are comfortable with the ball, read the game well, hardly foul recklessly and they’re complementary. One of Paul Le Guen’s weaknesses was his constant tinkering. He hardly played with the same team for two games.
With Nkoulou and Stephane Mbia suspended for the game against Mauritius Songo’o could have tested the Bikey-Bassong partnership from the start. When Bikey came on as a substitute he was heavy and out of pace. Maybe he’s rusty because the season is barely starting. He could also be low on confidence after dropping in the pecking order. In another game and against tougher opponents his fouls and wrong passes would have cost Cameroon severely.
7. The seeds Le Guen sowed have begun to germinate under Songo’o. Apart from Eto’o, Makoun, Binya and Bikey who were established Lions prior to Le Guen’s tenure (and Bienvenue Tsama called-up for the first time by Songo’o), eleven players who appeared in that game were either handed their first cap and/or given regular starting places under the French-born manager.
His legacy could be seen on the pitch against Poland. Le Guen chose to dare and give a chance to a new generation players in a country where gerontocracy rules supreme and leaders revel in their glories passed instead of paving the way for future conquests.
He ultimately failed to deliver a trophy or a World Cup quarter-final berth. He led the team to a terrible streak of poor results. He was stubborn, intractable, reportedly cost a fortune and he admitted that his casting for the World Cup was poor.
Many are surely glad to see the back of him, others don’t want his name pronounced again but let’s give him credit where it is due. He planted seeds called Aboubacar, Choupo-Moting, Enoh, Bong, Bedimo, Ndjeng, Mandjeck, Chedjou, Nkoulou, Bassong, Ndy Assembe that have begun to sprout.
As Jacques Songo’o, a Cameroon international from 1983 to 2002 (including two years as skipper), led this pride of Lions to victory in Poland, souvenirs of the disappointing displays in Angola and South Africa crossed my mind. Things could have been different. Will they ever be different in Cameroon?