Ghana were slight favourites for the first leg in Kumasi but the manner of their victory will still come as a shock to most of us. Ghana in previous years have used a similar strategy to the one employed in the 6-1 thrashing of Egypt but rarely have they executed it to such devastating effect.
Ghana set out in the same system as they used in their previous match against Zambia albeit with wholesale changes to the backline, Sulley Muntari shifting inside from his flank position to partner Michael Essien who has just come out of a long exile. Kwadwo Asamoah also had a change of position with a shift to the left flank after previously partnering the injured Mohammed Rabiu in the middle.
Very early on in the match the Black Stars set the tactical tone for the rest of the match: pressing, early balls over the top and direct running. When Ghana are in possession of the ball during most fixtures and playing 4-4-2, Asamoah Gyan would often look to drop deep towards the midfield to help link play but on this occasion he stayed higher up the pitch alongside Majeed Waris and the pairing both looked to run the channels. At first it looked as though it may be an ineffective tactic to employ since the Egyptians had an extra man in the middle of the park and would crowd out Muntari and Essien – at times causing a few rushed passes to be cut out or roll out of play. But after a while Appiahâ€™s instructions became very apparent: instead of trying to build up play slowly through the middle, Ghana looked to hit Gyan and Waris early through the channels and take advantage of the immobile Mohamed Nagieb and Saleh Gomaa while also making use of the direct runs from midfield, particularly from the wide players. The first two goals showed Egypt were simply not comfortable with Ghanaâ€™s direct passing and running, as some quick link up play allowed Gyan outside a centre back to score and Essienâ€™s superb run through the middle forced an own goal from Gomaa.
The 4-4-2 formation has come under a lot of criticism, especially from pundits in the UK as it has been described as â€œrigidâ€, â€œout of dateâ€ and the oddest out of the lot â€œstraight linesâ€ but almost all benefits of the 4-4-2 were shown in this match. Arsene Wenger himself said â€œthe 4-4-2 formation is the formation that is best suited to the dimensions of the pitch, 60 percent of the team, the two central defenders, the two central midfielders and the two strikers naturally cover 60 percent of the pitch. And 40 percent of the team, the wide players, cover 40 percent of the pitch. It is rationally and mathematically the best way to cover the surface of the football pitchâ€. On the day Wengerâ€™s theory proved to be true as Ghana excelled in pressing all over the pitch, leaving few gaps and not allowing Egyptâ€™s midfield advantage to count as much as it should have done in possession. However because of the poor defensive line of Ghanaâ€™s makeshift defence, the Black Stars allowed Salah through to win a penalty for Mohamed Aboutrika to slot home, but a minute later, after Ghana forced a free-kick, a great delivery from Muntari found the head of the diminutive Waris to push it into the back of the net to ensure Ghana still had a two goal cushion going into half time. This was a slight relief as Fatau Daudaâ€™s shakiness made Egypt look likely to score through set pieces.
Ghanaâ€™s intense pressing and rapid transitions carried on into the second half as Andre Ayewâ€™s dribbling brought a set piece and Gyan managed to score indirectly from this after a missed overhead kick from Muntari and poor Egyptian defending. To Egypt’s credit, their players still tried to get their foot on the ball to try and probe the Ghanaian defence but the only player who looked to make any threatening runs behind the defence was Salah, missing Gedo and struggling with Ghanaâ€™s harrying. Problems against pressing teams seems to be becoming a very common problem for Egypt as their under 20s struggled against it in this yearâ€™s World Cup and their next generation will have to get used to it if they are to prosper on the world stage.
Things went from bad to worse for Egypt after heavy pressing from Gyan and Waris high up the pitch drew a penalty for Muntari to slot home for a fifth. Appiah made his first change of the match by bringing on Mubarak Wakaso for Gyan, adding another body to the midfield to shut the game off, with Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu and Christian Atsu coming on for Muntari and Ayew respectively soon after, and it was Atsu who made the biggest impact of the trio: picking the ball up on the right hand side he drove infield and smashed the ball home to complete the rout.
The Black Stars do still have some issues to sort out as Rashid Sumaila, Samuel Inkoom and Dauda put in below par performances compared to the rest of the side but, after all the criticism Appiah has received (some admittedly from myself), his team’s harrying, fast transitions and compression of space led to a famous win. Only complete capitulation could cause them to miss out on Brazil now.
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