The highly-anticipated encounter in Nigeria did not disappoint in talking points. To break it down from a tactical standpoint, it is best described as a game of two parts, with the shift occurring at the 70’ mark.
1’ to 70’ …
Egypt played its best defensive game in many years. It was not without a few mistakes, but with Bob Bradley favouring an attack-minded, possession-based style of football and Shawky Gharib changing tactics wildly between games, it’s been a long time since Egypt looked this good at containing a major football team with fine positioning and interceptions and fine individual defensive performances. Héctor Cúper should be credited for that display.
Any defensive game plan has a counter-attacking component to it. It also relies on some spells of possession from time to time to relieve the pressure. At these parts of the game, we utterly failed. When we came in possession of the ball, it was almost always as a result of Nigeria committing blatant errors. And we surrendered back the ball all too soon. The problem was not in the choice of players, which were chosen to fit what Cúper had in mind. For example, Trezeguet’s name in the starting XI raised many eyebrows, but he was chosen over Ramadan Sobhy in all probability for his speed and his ability to attack space well in counter-attacks (while Sobhy is better at creating chances in tight situations). The problem was that we overused long balls and played them woefully, needlessly giving away the ball everytime. Especially guilty were Ramy Rabia from the back and Trezeguet’s final ball/cross.
It was clear that we did not look anything like scoring. And any team that defends this much is bound to end up committing some mistakes. But Cúper was content to wait. Unfortunately for our valiant defenders, we did concede in the end after 60 minutes.
Cúper’s first substitution in response was decidedly poor. He took off the essential, in-form Braga forward Ahmed Hassan ‘Koka’ to bring on Ismaily’s untested-at-international-level Marwan Mohsen. As it turned out, the latter performed well, but it was a move of high risk and little advantage. Then Cúper changed everything for the better…
70’ to 90’ …
The Argentinean’s second substitution was an ingenious one. It achieved many things at once. It removed a player who’d had a very poor game (Abdallah El-Said); it introduced one who could give us a better passing game (Hossam Ghaly); and it changed the formation from 4-2-3-1 where Ibrahim Salah and Elneny had purely defensive duties to 4-3-3. This allowed Elneny to move higher up the pitch, alongside Ghaly, to fulfill the box-to-box role he has been recently performing admirably at Arsenal, with Ibrahim Salah fixed behind the pair. Our midfield could now dictate play rather than solely break down Nigerian attacks.
The third substitution – Ramadan Sobhy on for Trezeguet – cemented the changed mentality. The aim became to focus on possessing the ball, passing, and creating chances for Salah and Mohsen. It worked. With these second and third subs, we immediately looked better on the ball. It led to our goal in injury time and could have led to a second.
What of tonight?
Cúper’s comments after the game seemed to indicate that he will approach the game in Egypt differently. Could that mean starting with the winning combination that finished the game in Nigeria?
An important factor to consider is Chad officially forfeiting the qualifiers, meaning that only one team can now qualify from Egypt’s group. A win for Egypt would automatically mean qualification. A draw would mean Egypt can qualify next June by beating Tanzania. A loss would make Egypt dependant on a result outside its own hands.