Cameroon takes on Portugal in a tasty World Cup preparatory game on Tuesday. It will be Cameroon’s biggest challenge since they started preparations for the World Cup on 20 May and the first in which the whole squad including its captain, Samuel Eto’o, would be available.
Most importantly, it would be the best opportunity to verify if the Indomitable Lions’ coaching team has tackled issues such as : Samuel Eto’o’s position, who to play at right-back and the disconnect between the midfield and the attack.
What’s Eto’o’s position?
Paul Le Guen like his predecessors (Winfried Shaeffer, Arthur Jorge and Otto Pfister), is convinced that Samuel Eto’o is not a big, strong, leading central striker like Drogba, Torres, or Mboma. He believes Eto’o is better as part of a 3-man attack-line where he could be deployed on the left, right or centre as has been the case at Inter Milan (where Diego Milito is the centre-forward).
The other option is to play Eto’o as a second striker in the hole behind a big and strong forward. Eto’o excelled in that role alongside Patrick Mboma at the start of the century. (See video of how this worked perfectly in Mboma’s goal against Ireland at the 2002 World Cup).
Le Guen (like Otto Pfister before him) has used as the playmaker behind two strikers – against Egypt at the quarter-finals in Angola.
Most Cameroonians, though, see Eto’o as a finisher who must be at the tip of Cameroon’s offensive play. They think any other role is a waste of potential. He ends up acting like a defender instead of being a goal threat.
Where will he play at the World Cup? Should the staff choose to play him as the central striker (N°9) – who will be supporting him? If they maintain him as playmaker (N°10) – which two players will play in-front of him? Should he be asked to play the supporting role – who will be the Patrick Mboma (furthest striker forward)?
We may like or hate Samuel Eto’o’s personality; think he is not a good leader; wrongly or rightly believe he has underachieved in the Lions’ shirt compared to Patrick Mboma or Roger Milla; but he remains Cameroon’s most potent threat today. It is therefore important to know how he shall be deployed at the World Cup.
What is the missing link?
Cameroon has also found it hard to score in their recent encounters because the team – no link between the midfield and the attack. Observers like Roger Feutmba, a retired Cameroon international, believe that this is due the lack of flair players in the midfield.
“How do you expect attackers to have the ball in a position to score when there is no one to make the pass?” Feutmba asked on a programme broadcast by the private TV channel, STV.
Cameroon started against Slovakia with a midfield triangle of: Alex Song in the holding role ahead of the defence, Enoh Eyong Tarkang and Jean Makoun playing slightly ahead of him. The coordination was an improvement to what was seen in the game against Georgia but the killer pass to the forwards was still lacking.
“They are all defensive midfielders – how do you expect them to be creative!?” Feutmba said. The former offensive midfielder, however, agreed that Cameroon did not possess such creative players at the moment. He thus advised that the coach re-adapt the system to the kind of players he has at his disposal – playing in a 4-3-1-2 with Emana as the playmaker behind Eto’o and another striker.
Meanwhile, Cameroon is also lacking in quality wingers and offensive play on the flanks. Le Guen’s 4-3-3 formation has managed to conceal this shortcoming because attackers like Eto’o and Emana or full-backs such as Assou-Ekotto shoulder the responsibility of wing play. This worked during one-off qualifying matches but it didn’t function at the AFCON.
Who is running on the right flank?
The weakest link in the Indomitable Lions has, however, been the right-back position. The country has been unable to produce a top drawer full-back since Stephen Tataw retired. In 1998, Claude Le Roy and his assistant Pierre Mankowsky resolved the problem by tweaking Cameroon’s formation from 4-3-3 (under Jean Manga Ougene) to 3-5-2 before the Mondial in France.
This accommodated the country’s production line of defensive midfielders – Olembe, Wome, Geremi, Lauren, Ndo – who became powerful wing-backs in a system the Lions used until 2003. Winfried Shaffer opted to play midfielders the like Geremi Njitap and Timothee Atouba as full-backs in his back four.
Presently, the right-back postion remains a real head-ache. Geremi’s lack of pace and explosion has forced the coach to drop him to the reserves bench. He has tried Georges Mandjeck, Aurelien Chedjou, Abouna Ndzana, Makadji Boukar, Marcel Djeng but none has successfully imposed himself.
After the friendly against Italy in March, Paul Le Guen suggested that he would field Stephane Mbia at right-back. The Marseilles player finished the season as the revelation of the year at centre-back. Will Cameroon’s coach stick to plan and use him as right-back?
Cameroon versus Portugal will be an insight to Le Guen’s strategy on all of these issues. The fact that the Portuguese (who are ranked 3rd in the World by FIFA) have worries of their own offers an interesting twist to the game.