Denis Lavagne, the head coach of Cameroon’s Indomitable Lions, has named a 22-man squad expected to travel to Guinea Bissau at the end of February for an Africa Cup of Nations 2013 qualifier.
Benoit Assou-Ekotto’s absence from the list has sparked debate, which is logical given the defender’s performances at Tottenham Hotspur. However, the absence of creativity in the squad requires greater attention.
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.
That could be delivered by a variety of players. There is the trequartista – an advanced playmaker who plays centrally between the opposition’s defence and attack, very similar to the engache (Argentine variant) like Juan Riquelme (normally referred to as a “number 10”). There is the regista – often a deep-lying playmaker like the Italian Andrea Pirlo and more recently Paul Scholes for Manchester United.
Then there is the media-punta – the player who links the midfield organisers and the attack. That is what the likes of Cesc Fabregras, Lionel Messi, and Iniesta do for FC Barcelona and David Silva does for Manchester City.
Creative players give an extra dimension to their teams. They carve openings in the most water-tight defences, they switch the direction of play, dictate the rhythm of a game via their accurate long and short passing. Who does that for Cameroon?
Of the 22 players selected for the Bissau game, at least eleven have consistently played as defenders this season: Nicolas Nkoulou (Marseille, France), Stephane Mbia (Marseille, France), Aurelien Chedjou (Lille, France), Jean Armel Kana Biyik (Rennes, France), Henri Bedimo (Montpellier, France), Dany Nounkeu (Gaziantespor, Turkey), Gaetan Bong (Valenciennes, France) and Allan Nyom (Granada, Spain), Joel Matip (Schalk 04, Germany), Georges Mandjeck (Auxerre, France).
A further two: Alexandre Song (Arsenal, England) and Landry Ngeumo (Bordeaux, France) have been employed as holding midfielders (a role which Matip, Mbia, and Mandjeck have also held).
Lavagne fielded a 4-3-3 formation with a midfield trio of Nguemo, Song and Enoh Eyong during the LG Cup in Morocco last November. Nguemo and Song looked like the organisers, surging forward to support the attack. They played their hearts out and the team beat Sudan 3-1 and Morocco on penalties after a 1-1 draw.That could possibly be enough versus Bissau.
But, as seen during the World Cup in South Africa where Paul Le Guen used midfield combinations of Makoun, Nguemo, Enoh or Matip – expecting creativity from players who are often defenders or holding midfielders could end up in total fiasco when faced with teams that are solid and compact.
The absence of creative, organising talent has dogged Cameroon football for many years and certainly goes beyond the game versus Bissau. Lavagne’s predecessors such as Winfried Schaffer, Arthur Jorge, Jules Nyongha, Otto Pfister and Paul Le Guen devised various stratagems to overcome this challenge.
Schaffer designed systems that employed the late Marc Vivien Foe as a regista and on some occasions a hard running box-to-box midfielder.
Arthur Jorge re-shaped the team into a 4-3-3 using former wingers Salomon Olembe and Ngom Kome in central midfield behind the threesome of Samuel Eto’o, Achille Webo and Rudolph Douala. He finished his tenure by using a 4-2-3-1 with Eto’o having a free role “in the hole” behind the lone forward.
Jules Nyongha used a 4-4-2 system with double pivot – usually any two of Stephane Mbia, Landry Nguemo, Jean Makoun and Achille Emana – with each taking turns to attack and defend.
Lavagne must be thinking about this hence talk of switching the FIFA nationality of the attacking midfielder Willie Overtoom who was born in Cameroon but has represented Holland at youth level. Playing one of Chedjou, Matip, and Mbia as a regista and/or moulding the talented Choupo-Moting as a media-punta or a trequartista are other options to consider.
However, the Cameroon Football Federation (Fecafoot) and/or the national technical directorate need to restructure things from the roots by developing programmes that insist on producing creative young players (in addition to the physical aspects of the game).
As kids growing up in Yaounde, one needed what was called “condi” or “condition” (physical fitness) to be picked in games. Those of us whose physique was not developed to “jam-lock” (basically bulldoze past opponents) were left on the sidelines.
This became even more systematic with the boom of football academies, which are basically incubators of the template for African players needed by Europe-based teams i.e strong, big, tall, quick with enough technique to control the ball.
That mentality has to change. Simply overpowering opponents with athleticism and counter-attack based football has its limits. P.E. teachers, trainers at soccer academies and club coaches must work on intelligent runs, technique and decision-making for the right pass.
Theophile Abega, Gregoire Mbida, Jean Tokoto, Roger Milla and Louis Paul Mfede could do that and they were also Cameroonians, which means it is possible to have such players.
Meanwhile, here is the squad as published on the Fecafoot website:
1. Nkoulou Nicolas (Olympique de Marseille – France)
2. Aboubakar Vincent (AS Valenciennes – France)
3. Bedimo Henri (Montpellier – France)
4. Bienvenu Henri Ntsama (Fenerbache – France)
5. Bong Gaetan (Valenciennes – France)
6. Chedjou Aurelien (Lille – France)
7. Choupo Moting Eric (Mayence – Allemagne)
8. Feudjou Aurelien (Cotonsport – Cameroun)
9. Kameni Carlos Idriss (Malaga – Espagne
10. Kana Biyik Jean Armel (Rennes – France)
11. Kweuke Leonard (Sparta – Rép. Tchèque)
12. Mandjeck Georges (Auxerre – France)
13. Matip Joel (Schalke 04 – Allemagne )
14. Moukandjo Benjamin (AS Nancy – France)
15. Ndy Assembe Guy (AS Nancy – France)
16. Nguemo Landry (Bordeaux – France)
17. Nounkeu Dany (Gaziantespor – Turquie)
18. Nyom Allan (Grenade – Espagne )
19. Salli Edgar (Monaco – France)
20. Song Alexandre (Arsenal – Angleterre)
21. Zoua Jacques (Bale – Suisse)
22. Mbia Stéphane (Marseille – France)