Qatar 2022: Without quality at both ends, pluck and gut can only carry Senegal so far
In defeat to the Dutch, the Teranga Lions found the only thing worse than missing one world-class performer is losing two.
When they won the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) – their first piece of silverware in senior international football in February, their success was built on a solid rearguard, marshalled by Edouard Mendy at the peak of his powers and form, and the guile of Sadio Mane, Atlas carrying the entire weight of the side’s attacking responsibility.
Coming into Qatar 2022, all the talk was about how they would cope without Mane up front. By the end of the 2-0 defeat to the Netherlands, in a match that saw Senegal give as good as they got for the first hour, it was clear they should have been worried about deliveries in the rear.
In fairness, it manifested as a new concern for Aliou Cisse’s side. While, this season, Mendy has been in favour, out of favour, and then restored as a matter of necessity at the club level, he has largely remained solid between the sticks for Senegal. His form had wavered considerably in England, but on the international stage, he had never really let Senegal down.
If it seems a little unfair to pin so much on Mendy, consider that, even with such a debilitating handicap in attack, the Teranga Lions did not rock up to the Al Thumama Stadium looking to suffer any fools. From the kick-off, they were right on the Netherlands, harrying them into mistakes and quickly cornering (slight) superiority in the possession stakes. It was the opposite of what one might have expected – Senegal, after all, are famed for their trio of defensive midfielders, with whom they frequently blanket the top of their penalty area, denying space and time to the opposition.
Here, however, they pressed high. They found encouragement in the uncertainty of Matthijs De Ligt’s touch and general comportment, but even more so in the strange decision by Louis van Gaal to completely eschew selecting a midfield. Perhaps he felt that, with Senegal so strong in that zone of the pitch, it was not worth it to contest. Instead, his selection clearly sought to create overloads in wide areas, and Cody Gakpo especially drifted out to the right to work combinations with Denzel Dumfries and spring the Inter man in behind for a couple of good openings.
However, emptying the midfield only made it easier for Cisse’s men to press them and create transitions. Over and over, Senegal broke with De Jong on his own in the middle of the pitch, the most elegant but lightweight of breakwaters. As long as this dynamic held, the African champions were dangerous, playing with the conviction and confidence of a team that was executing on its own terms. However, with no clarity in transitional moments and no midfield guile in settled play, a lot hinged on Ismaila Sarr, out on the left, bamboozling De Ligt.
As such, the sum of all that endeavour, all that hard running, was a surfeit of overhit crosses. It was a shame: Senegal created the exact sort of match in which their talisman would have thrived, only to find there was no one to seize the blade and swing the sword. This is football, after all: there are no points for bravery. Not the ones that count anyway.
If Papa Bouba Diop had not scored in Seoul 20 years ago, there would have been no tomes dedicated to El Hadji Diouf’s roasting of Frank Lebeouf. That is the brutish cruelty of the beautiful game: had Senegal found the breakthrough, it would have been difficult to see a way back for the Dutch.
With nothing quite happening upfront beyond snapshots and balls sailing over heads though, it was imperative that, at the other end, Senegal kept their heads firmly screwed on. Their exertions had exacted a hefty tariff, and as their energy waned after the hour, Van Gaal roused himself and brought on proper midfielders to dictate the game and force their opponents back. At that moment, having been unable to better their lot, it was crucial to not leave empty-handed.
Mendy did not quite get the memo, however. De Jong’s flighted ball and the run of Cody Gakpo met at the zenith of the Chelsea goalkeeper’s jump, and Mendy was left holding air.
It was a moment, a result and, ultimately, a match that not only reinforced extant fears, but exposed new ones. The second goal, which featured shoddy footwork and a weak parry from a Memphis Depay shot, only served to hammer the point home further.
If the Teranga Lions cannot stick opponents with the pointy end, and can no longer rely on a man who, only last year, was named ‘Goalkeeper of the Year’ by FIFA, then their roar in Qatar will only carry so far.
In this World Cup, of all World Cups, where teams will lean even more heavily on their best players, the African champions perhaps find themselves at too great a disadvantage.