CORRECTED: Paragraph 12 to indicate that the player supposed to mark the Libyan who scored was Yannick Ndjeng and not Mbuta Andongcho.  And Paragraph 14 to take off a similar reference to Andongcho.

Libya’s Ahmed Osman headed in a corner at the very last minute (90′+3) to give his country victory over Cameroon in African zonal qualifiers for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. The Libyan’s had taken an early lead through Ahmed Zouay  who beat goalkeeper Carlos Kameni with a powerful header barely 8 minutes into the game. Eric-Maxim Choupo-Moting scored Cameroon’s only goal from a powerful free-kick at the edge of the 18-yard area. But he could not save Cameroon this time around…

Cameroon coach Denis Lavagne supervising training – has he got things wrong?
Picture credit: Linus Pascal Fouda (Team Press Officer)

It was becoming the new routine: Cameroon would play badly, unable to create opportunities but win through a goal by Choupo-Moting. It was the case in Guinea-Bissau and versus the Democratic Republic of Congo in Yaounde. The head coach Denis Lavagne and those who back him would then claim that the most important thing is victory, regardless of how it came about. Fair enough…but many (including Gef’s Football Club) warned that many things were not right. The same points led to Sunday’s defeat in Sfax:

1. Too many defensive players, hardly any creators: Lavagne played against Libya with seven players (Nkoulou, Chedjou, Mandjeck, Bedimo, Mbia, Song, Nguemo) who regularly hold defensive positions for their clubs. This is basically what he has been doing since he took over but he went one step further in Sfax where Alex Song was the player supporting the main striker in the first half. There is no denying that Song, Mbia and Ngeumo can push forward but they are hardly creators.

As indicated before on this blog, creativity here is not the technical ability to dribble, which many of the players possess. It is that science and/or art to link defence to attack with grace. It is the sharpness of mind to make a perfectly weighted killer-pass to the right man and at the right time.

In the absence of such, when in possession Cameroon spent the time passing the ball around midfield with no penetration.  This was the case against Libya, DRC and Guinea Bissau.

2. No directness and urgency: Cameroonian teams are not the fastest in the world. The game is often played at a slow tempo because of the athleticism of the players (often big and tough). Cameroon teams often rely on their power and their ability to counter-attack. However, for this work the teams are also very direct i.e. they make quick straight passes forward via midfield in order to catch the opposition off-guard (Not just lumping long balls to the big man up top).

But Lavagne’s teams have so far been ponderous in their build-up, allowing the opponents to re-organise their defensive shapes. Only Choupo-Moting has the ability to dribble in small spaces but since he was also the only one up top (to score), it was hard to break the Libyans. It was the same situation versus Guinea Bissau and DRC but the Lions were lucky that he managed to get the winning goals.

3. Mis-use of available resources (players): Why would Lavagne tell the world that Willy Overtoom who switched allegiance from Holland to Cameroon would bring that creativity (as playmaker) that the Lions lack only to keep the boy on the reserve bench for 180 minutes during which a defensive midfielder (Song) was played as a number 10? Is Overtoom not up to the hype surrounding him?

Why did Lavagne decide to play Georges Mandjeck (a central midfielder and centreback) as a right fullback when Allan Nyom – a regular right fullback was on the bench? At the end of the day, Mandjeck was in such trouble that the right forward, Benjamin Moukandjo, practically spent his whole game defending to spare Cameroon further blushes against Libya? Did the coach realise that Nyom was not up to scratch and less than the much maligned Angbwa Ossomeyong?

4. Tactics and animation: Lavagne has opted to play 4-3-3. It is his choice. However, he seemed not to know how to make the formation work for his team to move the ball from defence to attack. He started with a triangle in the middle that had Song at the tip playing as a number 10. The Arsenal man barely touched the ball and when he did he was sloppy or unimaginative. By half-time the coach reverted to the style he had used before with Stephane Mbia sweeping infront of the back-four while Alexandre Song and Landry Nguemo played slightly ahead of him – with a mission to link up with the attackers. But the final ball was ever so poor.

As much as Vincent Aboubakar and Moukandjo huffed and puffed on the flanks, they hardly ever put in a cross. Mandjeck just won’t overlap from right-back and when Bedimo did so on the left, his final ball was not good enough, giving the Libyans (like the Congolese before) the opportunity to launch quick counter-attacks. If the Libyans had been a better side, the defeat would have been heavier for Cameroon.

5. Bad defending of set pieces: Both Libyan goals were scored from set-plays. Given the athleticism of the Cameroon team – that should not happen. In the corner that led to the Libya winner, it was Yannick Ndjeng who was left defending the big Libyan, Osman, who beat Kameni to the ball and scored. In what looked like a poor mastery of zonal marking, Zouay was completely free to head-in the curtain raiser.

Not only are the Lions bad at defending set pieces, they just do not have anyone to take good free-kicks and corners. Apart from Choupo’s effort that led to the equaliser, every other free-kick and corner was squandered by the team – Landry Ngeumo being the main culprit.

6. A coach lacking personality and guts: Denis Lavagne talks a lot in the media about how he would confound those who doubt his abilities. It’s about time he starts showing the same purpose and guts in his team choices and the way he manages the team. He seems to be more concerned about not losing, than he is focused on winning. He looks lost on the touchline and (apart from the move to have the team play 4-2-3-1 after Nguemo’s injury in Yaounde towards the end of the DRC game) unable to make tactical switches.  He makes the same changes all the time (Salli coming in) regardless of the context.

It’s unclear if he is the boss or he has handed over his duties to Rigobert Song the team (logistics) manager. Lavagne also appears to be overawed by the big names and personalities in the squad he is supposed to be “re-building” i.e. unable to substitute Mbia, Song, etc even when they are having a bad game. If he can’t handle such players- what would happen if/when Samuel Eto’o returns?

These are just a few things which caused defeat from Cameroon’s perspective. But take nothing away from the Libyans. They not only showed heart and determination but also displayed tactical savvy as well as good technical quality in the periods when they outplayed Cameroon in midfield. Their victory is well-deserved.

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