AFCON 2021

Senegal v Egypt – Tactical match-up

Ahead of the Final, a look at the key areas of tactical advantage, as well as the likeliest path to victory.

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Fifty-one matches of football have gone before, and now only the big one remains. While this is a decider rich in storyline, Senegal against Egypt is far from the most exciting Final match-up from a tactical perspective.

Senegal began the tournament struggling to score goals: they only recorded one in the Group Stage, and needed Cape Verde to go down to nine men in the Round of 16 before they could break the deadlock. However, in their last two matches they have reeled off six goals without necessarily sacrificing the defensive balance that carried through to the knockouts to begin with.

Much of that is to do with the redeployment of Sadio Mane, as well as a system that has a lot of parallels with Liverpool’s. For perhaps the first time in Aliou Cisse’s reign, this Senegal team seem comfortable in their own skin.

Of course, the former captain is one of the longest-serving on the continent. On the other side is Carlos Queiroz, appointed roughly five months ago, who has tapped into Egypt’s resolve and sense of togetherness to forge a side in his own image: difficult to beat and happy to play the margins in pursuit of a result.

The Portuguese manager will not be on the touchline for the Final, but it will hardly matter. The Pharaohs understand the assignment just the same: disrupt and frustrate the opponent long enough, and they will just as likely beat themselves.

In terms of their shape, both implement a 4-3-3 structure and put pressure on the ball. However, Egypt’s pressing is more man-oriented than Senegal’s, and they adopt a deeper starting position in terms of their height of their defensive line.

The Teranga Lions defend higher up the pitch and have gotten better as the tournament has progressed at backing up the press in a collective way. Earlier in the tournament, they struggled with a central underload, but the introduction of Nampalys Mendy at the base of midfield has given them greater solidity and aided their organisation without the ball.

Another key difference between these sides is their use of the full-backs. Unsurprisingly, Senegal are far more adventurous, with Saliou Ciss in particular exerting a significant influence in the final third by combining with Sadio Mane, who takes up the half-space to pose a tactical question for the opposition. On the other side, Bouna Sarr has less to work with in terms of combinative play, as the wide player on that side functions more as a second striker. Nevertheless, he allows for the play to be switched quickly, and has greater technical quality in terms of his delivery.

For Egypt though, their full-backs are primarily concerned with keeping the defensive structure secure. An amusing first-half sequence in the semi-final against Cameroon captured this quite aptly. Right-back Omar Kamal picked up a head of steam and got into attacking territory, cut inside and then seemed to completely freeze, unsure of what to do. He then hit a completely hapless shot with his weaker foot from roughly 40 yards, and was already on his way back to his station before the ball had even halfway completed its trickle wide.

On the left, Ahmed Fatouh is a little more adventurous, but generally fulfils the same defensive brief.

This already sets up an attack against defence dynamic, which is a shame because, over the course of the tournament, Egypt have actually shown some ingenuity in terms of manipulating the opposition in midfield—certainly more so than Senegal. The passing ability of Mohamed Abdelmonem has been useful in this regard, as well as the use of left-winger Omar Marmoush to overload the middle and even, in some cases, the right flank. It would have been interesting to see them tackle a more zonal system. Instead, it is likely they will once again seek to outlast Senegal and deny them rhythm.

Cisse’s side do not move the ball nearly quickly enough in midfield, and can get bogged down in that zone. This will be Egypt’s key area of advantage: Mohamed Elneny and Ahmed El Soulia have good engines, and in general the Pharaohs are quick to seize upon any sloppiness in possession.

They generally have not attacked quickly enough to properly exploit this, but if they can, they can attack behind Bouna Sarr, who has been suspect defensively all tournament. The chance Hassane Bande created for Bertrand Traore’s scuffed effort in the semi-final seems the ideal way to expose Senegal on the break, and in Mohamed Salah they have a player capable of deciding the result in a flash.

For Senegal, expect most of the action to focus down the flanks. It might be worth it for Ismaila Sarr to start here, as his pace in one-on-ones could give Senegal a more direct threat on the right flank. Egypt will defend on Mane a lot better than Burkina Faso did, and so having another outlet could make all the difference for the Teranga Lions.

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