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AFCON 2021: Round of 16 – Tactical Match-ups (Sunday)

January 23rd 2022, 1:00:11 pm

As the Round of 16 kicks off, a look at the key areas of tactical advantage in each tie, and the likeliest path to victory.

Super Eagles

Gabon have been one of the surprise stories of the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) so far. Their ability to absorb the unavailability of captain and star striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has been impressive, although it is worth noting that teams often improve without a star individual, especially when that player’s presence demands a certain approach.

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Without the Arsenal man, the Panthers have been flexible in their organisation, going from a 4-2-3-1 shape in the opening win over Comoros to a 3-4-1-2 against Ghana and Morocco. Clearly, Patrice Neveu’s conception is of the latter shape as a counter to bigger teams.

Burkina Faso certainly fall into this category.

The Stallions have a more settled structure, with Adama Guira and Ibrahim Blati Toure protecting the back four and Gustavo Sangare in the hole behind the striker.

Kamou Malo’s side like to play out from the back, but found it tough going against Cameroon in their opening match. Crucially though, they were without the influential Edmond Tapsoba; here, they should find progression much less difficult against a Gabon side that does not press as aggressively.

In fact, neither side is notably based around pressing, and so there should be space in midfield for both teams.

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With Gabon’s wing-backs likely preoccupied with Burkina Faso’s wingers, a lot will come down to full-backs Steve Yago and Issa Kabore, as they will be free to step forward and work overloads wide. Gustavo Sangare will also be crucial, as he often drifts out wide, especially to the right, in order to offer support and play combinations. This could prove a fruitful route for the Stallions.

With so many absences in the Tunisia camp, it is difficult to see how Tunisia could gain the upper hand against Nigeria.

This is a bit of a shame, as tactically their structure and approach could have caused the Super Eagles some problems if they had their full complement of starters.

Mondher Kebaier quickly abandoned the back three he deployed against Mali, as his side struggled to both control and progress the ball through the middle of the pitch, and faced significant problems dealing with advancing full-backs.


The 4-3-3 shape he has used in the following two matches is mostly about overloading the centre of the pitch, with Anis Ben Slimane stepping forward from midfield to combine with the nominal wingers, who spend most of their time in central areas. The width is mostly supplied by the full-backs.

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This central zone is precisely the portion of the pitch Nigeria have had issues controlling, especially in defensive transitions. The licence afforded Joe Aribo when the Super Eagles are in possession often leaves Wilfred Ndidi isolated in the middle of the pitch. Combined with high and wide wingers, Austine Eguavoen’s side can be found quite open on turnovers.

Tunisia’s ability to get numbers between the lines will also test Nigeria’s compactness between the defence and midfield in static defence.

Nigeria only press the first line when a pass is played backwards, preferring to apply pressure when the opponent tries to play into midfield and force the play wide. Expect Ellyes Skhiri to be influential, dropping between the centre-backs to play out and stepping forward to help Tunisia maintain superiority in midfield.

There is a good argument the optimum approach for the Super Eagles here is to play on the break, using the pace of the wingers Samuel Chukwueze and Moses Simon to get in behind diagonally.


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