No longer underdogs, Ghana need to become a more complete attacking force
When you’re an unfancied side, playing reactive football is natural.
It’s how successful underdogs at international level have set out over the past decade, with Greece in 2004 the obvious example. In aesthetic terms they were mundane, but their strategy of defending solidly and breaking quickly was clearly extremely useful. Their key goals came from set-pieces, but they did have an emphasis upon direct football in open play. Venezuela and Paraguay both overachieved at this summer’s Copa America with a not dissimilar style of play, and for various reasons, it makes sense for the underdogs to play this way.
Ghana impressed with a similarly counter-attacking style of play at last year’s Africa Cup of Nations, reaching the final by sitting deep, then launching the ball forward for Asamoah Gyan on the break. Their showing at the World Cup was also extremely impressive – they were placed in probably the toughest group of the tournament, but progressed to the quarter-final – and it would have been further were it not for Luis Suarez’s controversial late handball. No African team has ever got further in the World Cup, and Milovan Rajevac was arguably the best tactician in the tournament.
Rajevac has gone, and Ghana’s style of football needs to change. They are no longer unfancied outsiders after strong showings at two consecutive tournaments, plus the natural boost in reputation that comes with having successful players at club level like Kevin-Prince Boateng, Andre Ayew and Sulley Muntari. They are now a true international force.
There’s a change in mentality that comes with the progression from underdogs to an established force, but also a tactical change too, particularly if you’re a counter-attacking side. Ghana are experiencing this problem now – whilst they’ve easily qualified from their weak African Cup of Nations group, they’ve scored just twice in their past five games against (with respect to Swaziland, Sudan and Congo) serious opponents, albeit in friendlies. Brazil, England and South Korea were tough opponents, but 0-0s against Saudi Arabia and Nigeria, both games where Ghana were the favourites, confirms their struggle to become a proactive side.
The main problem is obvious – if you rely on breaking quickly and exploiting space in the opposition when they’re high up the pitch, you need the opposition to come onto you. If they don’t, your gameplan is null and void, and you need more creativity and guile to unlock the opposition’s packed defence. You reach a point where the opposition respects you, they see you as the favourites, neither side takes command and the game is a stand-off (as demonstrated by the Venezuela v Paraguay game linked above). When the favourites bow out early and underdogs dominate the latter stage of a competition, you get pitifully low-scoring games, as the 2002 World Cup and the 2011 Copa America showed.
So, what can be done? First, the side has to be clever with the ball in deep positions. As Andre Villas-Boas puts it, against a side sitting deep and controlling space in behind, you have to ‘provoke’ the opposition with the ball. “It’s the ball they want, so you have to defy them using the ball as a carrot.” Ghana are not good enough at doing this. Their holding midfielders are decent on the ball, but they lack the technical quality or imagination to cause the opposition problems. In a counter-attacking side they simply break up play, or play direct forward passes. There is no thought of having to help unlock defences themselves.
There’s also the need for a central playmaker. Ghana essentially have three options in the attacking midfield role in their 4-2-3-1 system – Kevin-Prince Boateng (who was unavailable for the Nigeria game), Sulley Muntari and Kwadwo Asamoah. None are true playmakers – Muntari is an all-round, primarily physical, combative midfielder. Boateng is often used as a number ten for Milan, but his role there is to simply connect the midfield and the attack through energy and force, to prevent a broken team. Asamoah is arguably the closest thing to a playmaker, but considering the required change in nature of Ghana’s play, he couldn’t play for a worse club side – Udinese are extremely counter-attacking and Asamoah plays a role suited to the Ghana of underdogs.
Considering how crucial he was to the success in 2010, the role of Gyan is the most important feature of Ghana’s play. With space in behind (right, 1) he was excellent – he runs the channels and can either burst in behind for through ball, or get the ball to feet and knock the ball past the opposition defence himself. Against Nigeria, he was making these movements against a deep defence (right, 2) with the result that the pass either crossed the goalline, or he ran out of room when he had the ball himself. And even if he did manage to get possession, he was doing so in an acute angle not conducive to goalscoring.
Gyan actually started the match on the bench, with Prince Tagoe starting instead. He is taller, stronger, better at shielding the ball with his back to goal, more adept at holding it up and waiting for midfield runners. In pure stylistic terms, Tagoe is the better bet for Ghana against a deep defence, though Gyan’s raw natural ability means he is likely to be first choice upfront. He will have to vary his game – and in fairness, he showed an ability to drop off the front, receive the ball to feet and look for midfield runners, though the pass always has to be very precise.
But these are individual situations – the reality is that a move from counter-attacking to proactive football concerns the whole side. Centre-backs have to be cleverer on the ball, full-backs have to stretch the play and deliver crosses. Passing has to be more patient, more angled and slicker.
It’s difficult to judge how well they’re progressing at the moment – qualification games have been against weak sides, friendlies are, well, friendlies. But the idea of the transition is interesting in itself, and it’s a journey that other ‘emerging’ sides based around a solid defence and quick attacks – Uruguay, Montenegro, Paraguay, arguably even Germany – will have to make. The more you rely on counter-attacking, the less opponents will allow you to do it.