Category: The Game Plan


As expected Cameroon went into their game with Mexico looking like a 4-3-3 on paper and setting up in a 4-5-1 formation on the pitch.

Cameroon defending a free-kick versus Mexico. Did their game plan show too much respect for Mexico?

Cameroon defending a free-kick versus Mexico. Did their game plan show too much respect for Mexico?

The starting eleven: Charles Itanje (GK); Cedric Djeugoue – Nicolas N’Koulou – Aurelien Chedjou – Benoit AssouEkotto; Stephane Mbia – Alex Song – Enoh Eyong; Benjamin Moukandjo -Samuel Eto’o – Eric ChoupoMoting.

Their plan involved playing with a high defensive line (catch the Mexicans on offside), allow them keep the ball but pressure and block the spaces. It kind of paid off as it conned the match officials twice (they disallowed to valid goals on the grounds of offside).

As expected the wide forwards/midfielders dropped very deep to keep up with the Mexican wing-backs to prevent them from overwhelming the Cameroon fullbacks. The challenge here is that they were always so deep that they looked like fullbacks. At which point Mexico’s 3-5-2 formation choked Cameroon.

With everyone hemmed in with the Cameroon half, only Samuel Eto’o was left in the forward line where he was scrutinized by the three centre backs at all times. It was therefore hard to break swiftly and when this happened there was no support for the lone striker.

In the second half the Mexicans increased interplay centrally and hit penetrative balls and runs through the centre and in behind Cameroon’s slow centrebacks. That’s how they scored their lone and game winning goal (1-0).

When Cameroon went a goal behind their manager Volker Finke had to make a decision to either:

1. Maintain shape and continue to contain the Mexicans
2. Change tactics and animation ie bring in a more direct forward and ask the team to wrest possession from the Mexicans in the way the Lions did when they went behind to Germany.

He chose option 1. This meant the team did not move into third gear until late in the game when Webo was fielded and Cameroon switched to 4-4-2. It was a little late in my opinion.  There was no punch, little movement while the build up was slow.

With The lions absolutely requiring a positive result versus Croatia to keep their hopes alive, will Finke take a more open option?

Advertisements
The Indomitable Lions. Photo credit: Olivier N'Seke

The Indomitable Lions. Photo credit: Olivier N’Seke

It’s time for the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon to talk on the pitch. In a few hours they will be facing the El Tri of Mexico. What should fans expect from the current pack of Lions?

Tactics: 4-5-1 or 4-3-3
Head coach Volker Finke has mainly used a 4-3-3 formation since he took over. However, there have been games where the Lions played more as a 4-2-3-1 with a double-pivot in central midfield and, in at least one instance their shape was close to a 4-4-2 diamond.

I expect the Lions to show up as a tight unit in a 4-3-3 when attacking and 4-5-1 once they lose possession of the ball. The latter would be the default posture taken by the team which will be very defensive in outlook.

The central midfield trio will look to charge down on the Mexicans, with a lot of energy to disrupt their movement. When in 4-3-3 mode the forwards will bear down on Mexico’s central defensive trio.

When the ball is lost the wide forwards will drop into midfield to block the flanks and serve as the first line of defense. They will not hesitate to drop very deep if necessary and break with speed once the Mexican attack is contained.

Cameroon played a high defensive line in all of its pre-World Cup warm-up matches. The idea is to keep the opposing attackers closer to the midfield than in the Lions’ danger area. The disadvantage though, is that if the defenders are not tactically disciplined or one member loses concentration, the impact can be devastating. How they manage to switch-on  immediately the game starts in each half; and their  This, concentration at the end of the halves, are points to watch. These have been the team’s weaknesses in the recent past.

As much as Cameroon will depend on counter-attacks, Mexico must also be wary of the Lions’ passing game forged by coach Finke. It is an interesting blend reminiscent of the 1990 generation that reached the quarter-finals. The player profiles and tactics are similar and they may stun Mexico as they did Diego Maradona’s Argentina.

Back to 1990

In 1990, Cameroon often started in a 4-5-1 formation. Emmanuel Kunde sat in front of the back 4. He intercepted attacks but also had the vision to make forward passes. In the current team, that role has been handed to Alex Song, who not only wears the number six jersey like Kunde but also has the ability to play in central defence and in midfield. Should Song be unable to start, Joel Matip would step into the Kunde shoes.

Two other players supported gave the midfield steel and penetration in 1990: Emile Mbouh and Andre Kana Biyick. The former was the grafter – who would stop at nothing to get the ball, with an ability to play an energetic game for 90 -minutes. That role in the current squad is held by Eyong Enoh Takang.  He is the one player who has started and completed every game since Volker Finke took over in May 2013. His is an ungrateful task of fixing the errors of his teammates without looking like the hero. Cameroon’s success depends on him being on song.

The Kana Biyick role will surely be handed to Stephane Mbia. Kana Biyick could play almost anywhere. He was a good centre-back but hated to play in that position. He could play as a box-to-box midfielder in a double pivot but could also feature as a support striker when called upon to do so. Since he got into Cameroon’s senior squad, Stephane Mbia has played as right-back, centre-back, holding midfielder, relay midfielder and support striker.

Down the flanks in 1990, Cameroon had two of its greatest artistes: Louis Paul Mfede (on the left) and Cyrille Makanaky (on the right). Both could also play as traditional number 10s or support striker if given the opportunity.

Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting will be the current team’s Mfede. A great dribbler who can pass well and score goals. He will keep opposing full-backs in their camp. Cameroon’s success against Mexico and Croatia will depend on his form.

Benjamin Moukandjo has dreadlocks like Makanaky and he also has the pace and tenacity of the 1990 hero. As observed against Germany, Moukandjo can defend and storm forward like a speed train. He also misses a lot of goals like Makanaky – who rarely scored for Cameroon.

Cameroon in 1990 started games with a single out and out forward: Omam Biyick. He scored only one goal in that competition but it was an unforgetable goal (against Argentina). Omam, like Samuel Eto’o today, knew how to create openings for other forwards. Many often judged him in relation to the goals he scored (like they do with Eto’o) but it was his creativity that was one of his biggest assets.

Cotonsport Garoua have won the 2011 edition of the Cup of Cameroon. They defeated Unisport du Haut Nkam 3-0 on Sunday in Yaounde. But don’t go thinking it was an exciting encounter. No. The victory came through penalty shoot-outs after both teams had dished out an insipid performance for 90 minutes.

The first-half was the worst football performance I have watched this year. A catalogue of failed passes, mis-controlled balls and misses that were worthy of a secondary school football match.

“I am disappointed,” Henry Njalla Quan, the deputy president of the newly created Cameroon professional football league, said after the game.

“The quality of the match was far below what I expected,” Njalla Quan  told CRTV news.

He hoped the managers would do their utmost to improve their teams before the start of continental club competitions where they are expected to represent Cameroon.

Some of the elementary technical and tactical errors exhibited by the players in that game were a disgrace to local football in Cameroon.

But do we have to put all the blame on the players? Not really.

The teams qualified for this final in August.  They had to wait until December to play the game. Nearly five months, most of which were spent practically doing nothing because the football league also ended within that period.

They had to wait  for the Presidency to set a date since the final marks the end of the sports season in the country, and it is usually chaired by the President of the Republic. The date was only made known this week.

How, in such circumstances, would those players perform well? One could clearly see they lacked match fitness. They were rusty. Training does not replace competitive football. Never.

For the good of the game, it is about time Cameroon set a date (like it’s done elsewhere) at the start of the season. If the President is unavailable for whatever reason, have somebody represent him. The Prime Minister did so last year and the world did not come to an end.

The President gets represented at international summits and various events holding in Cameroon by a plethora of officials from the President of the National Assembly, through the chairman of the (moribund) Economic and Social Council to ministers. Any of these people could do same at the Cup of Cameroon final.

Cameroon have won a friendly football tournament (LG Cup) after they defeated Morocco 4-2 during a penalty shoot-out. Both teams were tied 1-1 after regular play time and had to revert to penalties to have a winner as per the rules of the competition.

Denis Lavagne (left) and his assistant Ndtoungou Mpile (right) win first trophy but did they get their tactics right? (Photo by Linus Pascal Fouda, Team Press Officer)

Samuel Eto’o, Henri Bedimo, Dany Noukeu and Enoh Eyong scored their spot kicks for Cameroon while while Morocco missed two of theirs.

Cameroon may have won but Morocco were the better playing side for most of the 90 minutes (plus injury time). Their short passing was precise, with regular one-twos and give-and-go passes that ran the Cameroon midfield ragged.

The Atlas Lions (Morocco) also showed they had the capacity to switch their game, adding more penetration that took Cameroon’s midfield off-guard. This put the centrebacks: Georges Mandjeck (preferred to Joel Matip) and Dany Noukeu on the back-foot

The Indomitable Lions were playing a 4-3-3 where the fullbacks were expected to bomb forward to create width and support the attackers but Morocco played so high-up and at such high tempo that, Bernard Angbwa (right-back) and Henri Bedimo (Left-back) were hemmed-in for most of the encounter.

FIGHTING SPIRIT OVER TECHNIQUE

Two games in two days may have stretched the Indomitable Lions physically. They were forced (by a deluge of injuries) to start with the same that played against Sudan on Friday. However, in a very Cameroonian never-say-die spirit (which had been missing for a while) the team refused to lose.

By the 75th minute when Eto’o scored the curtain-raiser, the Moroccans had obtained 8 corner-kicks to Cameroon’s none. The Moroccans also squandered several goal scoring opportunities, often shooting wide but also denied by the impressive N’Dy Assembe in Cameroon’s goal.

Towards the last 15 minutes of the first-half and during a 15-minute spell before and after Eto’o’s opener Cameroon, however regained the upper-hand. Enoh, Landry N’Geumo and Alex Song fighting for every ball and blocking every space in midfield.

The technique from young Vincent Aboubakar and substitutes Edgar Salli and Jacques Zoua temporarily shifted the balance of power. Were it not for for a really poor final shot from Jean Makoun after a superb combination, Cameroon would have been 2-nil up before the Moroccans equalised.

The Olympiakos player who is not a first choice for Cameroon anymore surely lost the little sympathy fans still have for him.

RETURN OF THE 4-3-3 DEBATE

It is not unusual for Cameroon to win games and tourneys without being the most pleasing side to watch. The Junior Lions typified this Cameroonian quality during the African Youth Championships and the U-20 World Cup tournaments this year.

Nonetheless Cameroon fans have already started complaining about the 4-3-3 formation that coach Denis Lavagne is using. (Does that sound familiar Mr Le Guen?) Many have suggested on online forums that Cameroon hasn’t got the players for that system so the team should return to a  4-4-2  formation that will provide natural width.

I don’t really fancy Cameron playing a system that hinges on wide men. They do not have the players that Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United and Harry Rednapp’s Tottenham have got. Does Cameroon have Nani, Ashley Young, Gareth Bale and Lennon type players?

The country produces mostly players who feature in the centre of the pitch (centre-backs, central midfielders and strikers). Only the list of centre-backs and defensive midfielders could make up a squad:  Nicolas Nkoulou, Stephane Mbia, Aurelien Chedjou, Sebastien Bassong, Yaya Banana, Dany Noukeu, Guy-Armel Kana Biyick, Andre Bikey, Joel Matip, Alex Song, Eyong Enoh, Landry N’geumo, etc.

A DIAMOND COMPROMISE

Indomitable Lions coaches have resorted to playing systems where they can adapt some of the strikers as wide forwards (but not wingers) or playmakers or given creative roles to otherwise defensive midfielders.

This has usually meant playing formations such as 4-2-3-1, 4-3-2-1 (a.k.a Christmas Tree) and 4-3-3. When they have tried playing 4-4-2, they have been forced to use fullbacks (such as Henri Bedimo) as wingers, drawing the ire of the same fans and media calling for a return to ‘simple ways’.

A compromise between playing 4-4-2 and fitting the kind of players at the disposal of Cameroon’s coaches would be to play a diamond midfield: a holding midfielder, a playmaker behind two strikers and 2 shufflers running the channels in midfield (playing narrow) but not wingers.

Although, I’d advise the managers to do things as they deem right for the team, they might want to try a diamond midfield against a relatively weaker opponent. Isn’t it one of  Martin Ndtoungou Mpile’s (deputy head coach) favourite formations?

However, there’d be little width except the fullbacks join in (requiring a lot of defensive and attacking duties for them). The game would be overly dependent on the playmaker being able to click creatively but also supporting the defence.

Samuel Eto’o missed a late penalty that would have given Cameroon victory over Senegal and keep the Central African nation’s slim hope of qualifying to the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations alive. The game ended 0-0 and the Indomitable Lions look certain to miss the tournament to be hosted by their neighbours Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. But on a purely tactical perspective it was a promising display from Cameroon – their most attack-minded performance in a competitive match in a long while.

Cameroon’s head coach, Javier Clemente, kept his promise to send out a team focused on attacking its opponent from the start.  The team included Benjamin Moukandjo, Vincent Aboubakar, Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting and Samuel Eto’o who are all used as attackers in their clubs.

He organised them in a 4-2-3-1 formation (similar to the one used by Germany at the 2010 World Cup). Eto’o was the lone striker while the youngsters (named above) played as the “3” behind him often interchanging positions. The shape gave the team width and penetration as the front four took turns to become de facto striker, “wingers” (cutting inside) or drop as a supporting striker (linking midfield and attack) given that the trio (Moukandjo, Aboubakar, Choupo-Moting) are all capable of unpicking opposing defences with ease.

The result was constant pressure on the Senegalese team from the first to the last minute of play; in a way Cameroon last did only in the 2006 Cup of Nations under Arthur Jorge and the early days of Paul Le Guen’s reign.

There were over a dozen corner kicks for Cameroon; not less than a dozen free-kicks at the edge of the Senegalese 18-yard box; and 7 clear goal-scoring chances (several of them one-on-one with the goalkeeper).

Sadly, the finishing was poor. Many of the shots were hit straight at goalkeeper Coundoul (who was preferred to (Calamity) Khadim Ndiaye).

fans senegal

Is it all about victory now?

MOVEMENT

The Senegalese have lashed out at the referee, who was far from excellent and gave a rather soft penalty to Cameroon. But the referee cannot be blamed for their complete tameness. Amara Traore had opted for a 4-3-3 which had a front three of Mamadou Niang, Issiar Dia and Moussa Sow. His intention was to have an extra man in midfield as opposed to the away leg in Dakar.

Yet, they were over-run by the movement Cameroon’s midfield 5 (if one includes the threesome that was supporting the attack) particularly the Enoh Eyong Tarkang and Landry Nguemo duet. Enoh sat deep mainly protecting his centre-backs while Nguemo peppered the Senegalese with hardworking box-to-box play that supported the attacking scheme set-up by Clemente (Aurelien Chedjou who was surprisingly left on the bench as a result of this formation, came on as a second-half substitute for Nguemo and added that penetration that was lacking in Dakar, as well).

The Senegalese had only one shot on target and it was from an off-side position.

Cameroon’s keeper, Carlos Kameni, was practically not seen throughout the encounter while his defenders – Amgwa Ossomeyong (RB), Nicolas Nkoulou (CB), Stephane Mbia (CB), Gaetan Bong (LB) – were rarely troubled. The full-backs (Amgwa and Bong) shuttled back and forth on the flanks to add with while Mbia had several opportunities to score with a header from Cameroon’s numerous kicks – but he hit the ball wide on many occasions.

The pressure, movement, passing, free-kicks and possession driven play from back-to-front came to nil because Cameroon were unable to score. A few fans got so bitter after the game that they attacked cars parked outside the stadium and clashed with security forces who tried to protect the players. It pains when a team doesn’t win and nobody wants failure. But there were positive lessons in that game which could serve as a great guide.

PROMISE

Beyond Eto’o and the penalty he missed – Saturday’s game was another preview of a promising new generation of Indomitable Lions. With the average age of the starting eleven being 22 (if you take away Kameni and Eto’o)  there is a foundation for the emergence of another great pride of Lions (including the likes of Joel Matp and Salli Edgar),  if they play under the guidance of a manager who is there to build and  is not under pressure to produce immediate results (which politicians want to use as distraction).

“A manager (coach) can only make a difference if he has a club that backs him, that is patient, that gives confidence to players and that is willing to commit to long-term. And in any case that doesn’t just want to win, but to win convincingly,” Arrigo Sacchi, the Italian master tactician, is quoted as saying in Jonathan Wilson’s book: Inverting the Pyramid.

The mistake that has been made in the past and which was repeated after the World Cup in 2010 was to go for the short-term (or victory now and at all cost) approach. Authorities and the media didn’t accept that the Indomitable Lions were (are) a team under construction (in transition).

They went into witch-hunting mode, comparing generations passed and present, and mis-managing (or over-reacting to) tensions between players in the squad. Many were oblivious to the fact that Le Guen had unearthed talented  but inexperienced players that had to mature and could not necessarily triumph at the World Cup or ride over the continent.

Upon the first hurdle (which was the 1-1 draw with Congo), the media and team administrators panicked and a chain of reactions has led to a collapse of what should have been a painstaking project.

An absence from the Africa Cup could turn to into an opportunity to build a solid and more conquering team. With less pressure to win a trophy, a good and passionate coach, discipline and better organisation, regular camps and sparring partners on every FIFA date available, the Lions would re-emerge as a force in 2012/13 in time for the World Cup qualifiers.

Wasn’t that the path that Senegal took after they were knocked-out of the race to the 2010 Africa Cup and World Cup tournaments?

I have not watched Cameroon train and the media have largely focused on side-events such as the tense relationship between Alex Song and Samuel Eto’o – which makes it hard to discuss coach Javier Clemente’s plans for Saturday.

Nevertheless, the Spaniard promised a more offensive game. Does that mean he would change his personnel to accommodate more attack-minded players than in Dakar?

A few reports have suggested that he is planning a 4-4-2 with Eto’o and Webo as the strikers, while the young, Monaco based forward, Benjamin Moukandjo (or Valenciene striker Vincent Aboubakar) would be fielded on the right flank. Unfortunately, the reports have not stated if Henri Bedimo (who plays left-back at Lens) would continue as left winger.

Clemente talks tactics with Choupo-Moting at half-time of Cameroon v Senegal, Dakar, 26 March 2011

If Clemente has effectively opted for 4-4-2 it would mean a greater use of the wings to stretch the game but it would also require the wide men to put-in inch-perfect crosses and have the ability to take their markers in one-on-one dribbles à la Valencia (Manchester United) to create space and allow the forwards to take suitable positions.

With only Webo as a good header of the ball against a Senegalese defence of very tall and physical players, banging ill-timed high crosses would be a fruitless strategy.

That formation would mean one-to-one battles in the midfield as opposed to the Dakar game while the Cameroon full-backs will be bereft of the protection from and extra midfielder. This would expose them to the trickery and pace of the Senegalese wingers (who are actually attackers).

THREE-MAN MIDFIELD

Moreover, this would not solve the key problem that Cameroon faced in Dakar which was lack of penetration from the centre. Nguemo was supposed to act like a box to box mid-fielder to support Webo but it didn’t quite work out.  Eto’o often had to retreat into central midfield positions to link up play. It’s a shame that Clemente did not retain Somen Tchoyi. He could have done this very well.

Nonetheless, I suspect Clemente would keep the shape of the team close to what we saw in Dakar  and play in a sort of 4-1-2-3. Sadly, Assou-Ekotto who adds an extra attacking dimension from full-back is an injury doubt.

I have not seen them practice so I can’t say for sure what coach’s choices would be. Using the 4-1-2-3 formation, here’s how I would field the players currently at his disposal against Senegal to ensure defensive balance, penetration from midfield as well as width and incisiveness from the attack:

A back four of: Benoit Amgwa (RB) – Nicolas Nkoulou (CB) – Sebastien Bassong (CB) – Gaetan Bong (LB).  Stephane Mbia (CM) to sit in-front of the back-four; Aurelien Chedjou (CM) and Landry Nguemo (CM) working box-to-box. A forward trio of: Benjamin Moukandjo (right) Samuel Eto’o (centre) and Maxim Choupo-Moting (left). The front-men can always switch positions.

Choupo-Moting and Moukandjo regularly play as wingers in their clubs (though they are strikers) and are technically good to cut-in from the flanks into the centre of attack (à la Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Di Maria). They are tactically aware enough to drop deep to form  a midfield 5 once Cameroon loses possession.

Nguemo, Mbia and Chedjou play more defensive roles in their clubs but in the past (especially at youth levels) they played in advanced positions for the national teams. They have the energy to do the box-to-box roles that is required of midfielders in such a formation to give thrust and penetration to attacks like Essien, Lampard used to do in Mourinho’s Chelsea.

The system is built on speed and power and thus accommodates the type of players Cameroon currently possesses when played in the Chelsea way rather than the Barcelona format which lays emphasis on technique.

But, I am not the coach. It’s down to Javier Clemente.

Here is part 1 of this preview that focuses on Senegal…

Cameroon’s U-20  national football team reached the final of the African Youth Championship where they lost to Nigeria on Sunday. At a time when most of the country’s national teams are faltering, it is easy for fans to be carried away by euphoria.

Cameroon supporters welcome Lions in Dakar on 24 March 2011, GF

Yes, the team was generally good – tactically well organised, disciplined, athletic and rigorous under the masterful leadership of Martin Ndtoungou Mpile.

Their primary objective was to qualify for the U-20 World Cup, which they did. In the process, they reached the final of the Africa Youth Championship (a secondary objective) and did their utmost to try to win it.

NO CREATIVITY

It is a functional team with Cameroon’s  trademark  mental strength and  fighting spirit (evident in their come-back in the final against Nigeria). They certainly made Cameroon media and fans happy via their victories.

However, a youth team is not essentially about winning; it is often about development.

For years now, Cameroon has had problems producing creative and skilful attackers, offensive midfielders and wingers. Unfortunately, this team did not reveal players who could potentially supplement the deficiencies of the senior teams in such departments.

Did we see  a potential Samuel Eto’o , Patrick Mboma and (I dare-say) Roger Milla in that Junior national squad in South Africa? No. The team was not clinical in-front of goal. They relied on set-plays (free-kicks and corners) to score except in the final when they had their backs to the wall.

The most promising striker was Ohandza Zoa. He has a good work rate, partcipates in defensive duties but he must improve his first touch, his positioning, the timing of his runs and his finishing. To his credit he did score two goals whereas the likes of  Jacques Haman, Toko Edimo and Tageu were woeful in this aspect.

In the 80s and 90s,  Louis Paul Mfede, Djonkep Bonaventure, Ernest Ebongue dazzled defenders on the African continent (and even on the world stage) with their displays on the flanks. Since they retired we have struggled on the wings with the notable exception of the period when Salomon Olembe and/or Lauren Etame Mayer – used their speed and power to outpace opponents.

Did we see new wingers from the junior team that competed in South Africa? Not quite.

Cotonsport Garoua’s Edgar Salli, who was used on the left and right flanks,  was surely Cameroon’s most brilliant player at this tournament. He seemed to be the best crosser of the ball (from open and set play). Yet he looked laboured at times and gave the impression of being a relay midfielder who had been stuck on the wing because there was no one else capable of doing the job.

In many ways,  Salli reminded me of Geremi Njitap who could play on the flanks but was originally (and naturally) a N°8. There was little to write home about the others who played on the wings.

MORE DEFENSIVE TALENT

Whereas the likes of Theophile Abega, Gregoire Mbida (Arantes), Tokoto, and (if we stretch it) Cyrille Makanaky used to weave creative magic in the middle of the pack to link to attackers, such players have gradually disappeared from our national teams. The closest we’ve seen since include Simo Augustine (in the late 1990s) , Marcus Mokake (who never succeeded to encrust himself to the team), Daniel Ngom Kome and Achille Emana (who dribbles but finds it hard to be effective).

Did we see people capable of holding the ball, creating the chance and make the right passes to Samuel Eto’o, Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting, Vincent Aboubakar or even Ohandza in the future? No.

As noted repeatedly on this blog, the Junior Lions passed the ball well from defence to midfield; they effectively harried their opponents and recuperated the ball but the transmission in the final third of the field was awful.

In effect,  the best players in this Junior Lions  squad were the central defenders (Yaya Banana and Mvom Meyo), and the central midfielders (Eric Nyantchou and Frank Kom)  which follows a common pattern in the past 10-15 years : physical, athletic, never-say-die central midfielders and central defenders.

They will add to the dozen or more people who are currently ahead of them: Stephane Mbia, Nicolas Nkoulou, Sébastien Bassong, André Bikey, Enoh Eyong, Aurelien Chedjou, Georges Mandjeck, Jean Makoun , Landry Ngeumo, Alex Song, Joel Matip…etc

THE GAME PLAN

Many would argue that this is the typical Cameroonian player: big, strong, and mentally tough! It has been so, since Claude Le Roy (and western European coaches) took over the mantle in the national team as from 1985. It became even more the case when most of the development players (through football academies and newly created clubs) became essentially targeted to an international market  that requires big, physical, combative lads.

But it wasn’t so in the period of the Yugoslav trainers of the 1970s who worked to rebuild the national team through the local clubs. The process which led to the first qualification to a World Cup in 1982 and a first Africa Cup win in 1984 with a set of players who combined skill, power, creativity and improvisation.

It was Issiar Dia’s dribbles that broke the Lions’ defence for Demba Ba to score for Senegal on 26 March 2011 in Dakar. Who unlocks compact defences for Cameroon and picks the right pass for Aboubakar, Webo, Eto’o  and Choupo-Moting?

It is the second consecutive U-20  final that Cameroon is losing  and on both occasions the opponent rose to our physical challenge and had the additional spark and genius – Andre Ayew (Abedi Pele’s son) for Ghana in 2009 and Kayode for Nigeria in 2011 – to inflict harm (goals). Where are our creative men?

Maybe the take home message from this tournament is that Cameroon (technical directorate) needs to re-think its football to include style,finesse and flair to the steel that is already available; failing which, at best  we shall continue to be runners-up and at worst fail to qualify to any tournaments.

 

Cameroon starting eleven against Senegal, Dakar 26 March 2011

Cameroon’s national football team did not play an international friendly this 29 March. That’s a shame. Playing against Gabon, for instance, would have been an opportunity to consolidate the good and tweak the bad aspects noticed in the game against Senegal on 26 March in Dakar. Here’s a tactical analysis of that Africa Cup of Nations qualifier.

 

After a nervy start – during which they had to come to grips with Senegal’s 4-2-4 system – Cameroon basically seized control of the midfield where they outnumbered their host by playing a (form of) 4-1-3-2 formation. The ball retention by Cameroon’s midfield was very good for 35 of the first 45 minutes and for about 20 minutes in the second half.

 

 

Aurelien Chedjou calmed proceedings sitting in-front of the two central defenders, while Eyong Enoh and Landry Ngeumo harassed the two Senegalese midfielders (Nguiram Ndaw and Mohamed Ndiame) for the ball. Henri Bedimo who was wide on the left tucked in to provide a helping hand as did Samuel Eto’o who dropped from his attacking position to play on the right of midfield.

 

This prevented the Senegalese fire-power from setting into motion to the point that the host players were booed-off the pitch at half time.

 

Tactical discipline

 

The Senegalese coach, Amara Traore, several other tacticians and the Senegalese press saluted Cameroon’s tactical discipline and the quality of their passing after the encounter.

 

Unfortunately, as good as it was defensively, the system was bereft of vision  going forward. Nguemo was supposed to provide the thrust. Though he was among Cameroon’s best men, according to the Senegalese media, he often failed to deliver quality final balls.

 

Honestly, it wasn’t just a personal weakness. Who could he pass the ball to? Often Achille Webo was alone upfront and (without any bias against the Majorca man) he lacked the technique to dribble his way until Eto’o and Bedimo could join from their wide midfield roles.

 

When Eto’o or Bedimo did succeed to make  in-roads from the flanks,, Webo blew the chances – shooting wide or being out of position to receive the final pass.

 

A friendly match would have been an opportunity to fix that connection between attack and midfield just as it would have been a chance to create further cohesion in the, generally, solid defence that faced Senegal.

 

Eto'o, Webo and Enoh in the midst of the Senegalese defence before a corner, Dakar 26 March 2011

 

 

I have a preference for Sebastien Bassong in central defence but Clemente’s pair of Nicolas Nkoulou and Stephane Mbia kept the Senegalese at bay until the 92nd minute.

 

Benoit Assou-Ekotto, described by Senegalese newspapers as the best Cameroonian Lion in the game, showed why he had to be in the squad. He displayed technique and a positional sense which helped him cover his central defence colleagues on several occasions.

 

Lopsided formation

 

Benoit Amgwa who played at right-back could not muster such plaudits. He has actually come under heavy criticism for the goal against Cameroon. But was he the only one at fault? I don’t think so.

 

The goal resulted from a defect in the formation put in place by Clemente and the substitutions he made in the second half.

 

In fact, the formation (4-1-3-1-1) when attacking and a 4-5-1 when Cameroon was defending) had a clear wide-left player in Bedimo who stuck to the flank whereas Enoh, who was supposedly his opposite number  on the right, rather stayed close to the central midfield area leaving Amgwa without cover when the attacker (Eto’/ Vincent Aboubakar) cut inside to join the main striker (Webo and later Eto’o).

 

This became really huge once Aboubakar came on. The former Cotonsport Garoua player is full of energy and technique but obviously needs to polish his tactical discipline. Whereas Eto’o usually retreated quickly to block the space behind him once a Cameroon offensive was punctured, Aboubakar often failed to do so.

 

Amara Traore realised the weakness and fielded Issiar Dia who was free to roam the left flank only having Amgwa to deal with. The tired right-back found it hard to contain the Dia’s energy. A hopeful kick by the Senegalese goalkeeper through the yawning gap left by Aboubakar, sparked a chain of poor play from  Enoh (who should have checked Dia) and Amgwa (who  retreated instead of taking on the Senegalese attacker). Dia’s beautiful cross met Demba Ba who beat Idriss Kameni.

 

 

Clemente talks tactics with Choupo-Moting at half-time of Cameroon v Senegal, Dakar, 26 March 2011

Clemente, it must be said, felt by half-time that Senegal could be beaten. He therefore fielded two attackers (Choupo-Moting and Aboubakar).

 

The alternatives

 

The Spaniard could have played Choupo-Moting (who came on for Bedimo) on the right; in which case he would have replaced Webo instead. As such, Eto’o would have played in the centre and Bedimo stayed on the left. Unlike Aboubakar, Choupo-Moting has the tactical wisdom to return to help is defenders as he showed on the left with Assou-Ekotto during this game. Moreover, he has played in this position for his German clubside Hamburg.

 

Somen Tchoyi who is naturally a number 8 but also has the experience of playing as a wide midfielder and a central striker could have come in for Enoh. This would have left Nguemo and Chedjou as destroyers and Tchoyi (or Choupo-Moting) supporting Eto’o from central midfield.

Again, a friendly on 29 March, would have offered a chance the technical staff to test these possibilities. That will sadly not be the case. There will hardly be another opportunity to have the team together again before the return-leg game against Senegal on June 4.

 

Lack of cohesion should never have existed if authorities (and the media) had not gone into witch-hunting mode after the World Cup, destroying the re-construction engineered by Paul Le Guen. But that is another story…

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.

Cameroon positions courtesy Zonal Marking

For a better understanding of this failure – you can visit Zonal Marking.

TACTICAL DISORGANISATION

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.

Ill-ADAPTED TACTICS

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.

Cameroon’s Indomitable Lions play Serbia in their final preparatory game for the World Cup this Saturday. This comes four days after the Lions lost 1-3 to Portugal which exposed defensive frailties that coach Paul Le Guen and team need to work on before their first game against Japan in South Africa.

“This is one of the three problems of the team.It concedes a lot of goals. It should concede less and score more,” Cameroon’s deputy head-coach, Yves Colleu, told Cameroon Tribune.

The team will have to create a balance between playing a high defensive line – to attack their opponents in numbers – and a coordinated defence.

BALANCE AND COORDINATION

The current 4-3-3 formation demands that the full-backs charge up-field to support the attackers and provide vital crosses. Cameroon’s only goal versus Portugal (as was the case against Slovakia) came from a cross by Benoit Assou-Ekotto, the left full-back. His opposite number, Georges Mandjeck, had made an equally dashing run that helped to contain Portuguese interest before the ball was switched from right to left.

It is, however, this very attacking option that makes it easy for Cameroon’s opponents to smash them with deadly counter-attacks. The opposing team (as the Portuguese did so brilliantly), simply have to lump the ball behind the defence line, in the zone vacated by the full-backs ( Assou-Ekotto and Mandjeck). It was seen in both second half goals conceded to Portugal with a heavy involvement by the Manchester United winger, Nani.

What teams like FC Barcelona do to maintain defensive balance in such a  4-3-3 formation is to request their centre-backs to stretch out wide while the holding midfielder (Yaya Toure or Busquets) to drop deep as a 3rd centre-back. It covers the width of the field and protects the team until the full-backs can piston back into their positions.

At the moment, Cameroon’s holding midfielder (Alex Song) tends to follow the action in support of the attackers and is  usually absent from his position when the move collapses and the opposing team is in a counter offensive situation.

“Alex (Alexandre Song) is less sharp, but it will be alright,” Colleu said in a tacit admission that the midfielder has to up his game and tactical awareness.

But this is more than  an exclusively individual mistake.

For instance, Portugal’s third goal happened when Alex Song had been replaced and Enoh Eyong was in the holding midfielder’s position. The  two central defenders (Nicolas Nkoulou and Stephane Mbia) ended up facing 4 Portuguese attackers and where split between running back to their goalpost or rushing towards Nani.

This was certainly made worse by the fact that Cameroon was playing 10 against 11 men but they should have had some support from their N°6.  Tactical coordination between the defence and the midfield must be tackled with insistence by the coaches. The game against Serbia should tell if there is an improvement on this matter. Luckily the staff has another 10 days to work on it in training.

RIGHT-BACK WAHALA

The coaches are also aware that there is the small matter of choosing a definite right-back for the team.

“The second problem is the right full-back position; of the three players tested at this position, Mandjeck is the one that gave most satisfaction, even if it is not his preferred position,” the deputy coach, Yves Colleu, told Cameroon Tribune as the team left Portugal for Serbia.

Georges Mandjeck displayed goodwill against Portugal but he still needs to improve his positioning.  He also has to think like a right-back and not a midfielder. The second Portuguese goal could have been avoided had Mandjeck been a regular right-back. He could not turn well, allowing the ball to bounce-off , leaving Merieles to  beat goalkeeper Idriss Kameni.

Will Le Guen return to his initial view of playing Mbia at right-back or will he stick to Mandjeck? Will he opt to play Geremi instead? The former Newcastle United captain is only regular right-back  in the 23-man squad. But, he is limited by lack of pace which does not allow him to freely shuttle from back-to-front-and-back again as Le Guen would want.

OTHER MATTERS

  • The training ground will also be the place where Le Guen would have to fine tune his offensive plans. He started with Maxim Choupo-Moting, Achille Emana and Samuel Eto’o as his front three against Portugal. Eto’o played on the right (and at times on the left) confirming (to Patrick  Mboma’s chagrin) that Le Guen does not plan to use Eto’o  as THE centre-forward.
  • Unfortunately, Eto’o picked-up a red card after 30 minutes and should not appear against Serbia. This means the preferred attacking line-up would not have been tested in a full game before the match against Japan.