Cameroon will play against Mexico in the round of 16 at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Columbia after they defeated Uruguay 1-0 to finish as runners-up in Group B on Friday.
Their coach Martin Ndtoungou, by the same token maintains his little-known record of being part of the coaching staff of every Cameroon national team that has crossed the first round of an international (non-African) competition since 2000.
He was Jean Paul Akono’s assistant when Cameroon won Olympic Gold in Sydney (2000) and Winfried Schaeffer’s number 2 when Cameroon reached the final of the FIFA confederations Cup and lost to a Thierry Henri golden goal in 2003.
He led the fine pride of U-23 Lions that reached the quarter-finals of the Beijing Olympics in 2008 (only to lose to Ronaldinho’s Brazil); and now he has taken this set of cubs to the knock-out stage of the World Cup.
Successful Tactical Switch
It wasn’t an easy ride. The coach had to make a few changes after the team drew (1-1 with New Zealand) and lost (0-1 to Portugal) in its opening two games.
He changed his tactics from a flat 4-4-2 to a diamond midfield (4-1-3-2) with just one holding midfielder Frank Kom and a playmaker (engache) Emmanuel Mbongo Ewangue operating behind two strikers: Frank Ohandza and Christ Mbondi.
The passing was haphazard and sloppy at the start of the game. However, the flexibility of Ndtoungou’s tactics – which permitted the team to shift into a 4-2-1-3 with an attacking threesome of Mbondi (wide left) Ohandza (centre) and Yazid Atouba (wide right) supported by Mbongo – delivered the goods as Mbongo scored the lone goal of the game from a cross by Mbondi in the 28th minute of play.
Eyewitnesses say after the game the team exploded with joy.
“Players singing and dancing some even shouting at the top of their voices,” Simon Lyonga, CRTV’s envoy in Columbia told me. “It shows that they too badly needed the win and the second round ticket,” he added when we had a debrief shortly after the game.
But Lyonga, who represented Cameroon at youth level and has covered several international competitions as a reporter, was quick to warn against any complacency saying the team must focus on the challenges to come against Mexico and forget the euphoria of beating Uruguay.
And he’s right.
Could be better
There was victory over Uruguay but creativity remains a weakness in the team with too many hopeful balls from the goalkeeper to the attackers.
The fact that Ndtoungou Mpile has changed formations in every game and tested several players as playmaker shows he is worried.
Mbongo and Herve Mbega alternated as playmakers against Uruguay while Clarence Bitang often confused playmaking with irrelevant flicks and dribbles which ended with Cameroon losing possession when he held the role against Portugal. (He came on as a substitute against Uruguay).
Will Ndtoungou continue with his diamond/4-2-1-3 formations which require a quality ‘engache’ or will he return to his favoured flat 4-4-2 with two holding midfielders?
Learn how to score
Then there is the small (but important) matter of scoring goals. The Junior Lions have made it to the round of 16 with only 2 goals scored (we can’t tally their own goal for New Zealand!).
But someone has to teach Frank Ohandza how to score a goal! He must stop missing like he did at the 25th, 35th, 66th, and 70th minutes when gaffes by the Uruguay keeper and defence gifted him with scoring opportunities that he wasted.
Ndtoungou and his assistant, Engelbert Mbarga, must be cursing the European clubs that refused to allow sharp-shooters like Jacques Zoua Dogari (FC Basel, Switzerland) and Vincent Aboubakar (Rennes, France) from joining the squad.
The coaches can only imagine how Shalke midfielder Joel Matip’s clean interceptions and his eye for a forward pass and Monaco’s Edgar Sali’s technique and penetrative skills could have been useful to unlock defences. But they are both absent as well.
Ndtoungou has shown in this competition and in the past (All Africa Games, Olympics and African Youth Championships) that he knows how to blend the (little talented) players at his disposal to make winning teams. Let’s see if his science will work against Mexico.