Zambia 0-0 Ivory Coast: Zambia win the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations on penalties
Zambia completed an astonishing victory on penalties after a tight final.
Hervé Renard made the predictable but astute decision to switch to the team which ended the semi-final win over Ghana. That meant Emmanuel Mayuka starting upfront, Chisamba Lungu on the wing, and Isaac Chansa back in the centre.
After plenty of rotation throughout the competition, François Zahoui went for an unchanged side from the XI which beat Mali in the semi-final.
However, there was an early change for Zambia when left-back Joseph Musonda went down injured, and was replaced by Nyambe Mulenga, shown on the diagram.
The first goalmouth action was a Zambia chance that originated from a clever short corner worked very cleverly along the byline. They had done exactly the same thing against Ghana, so it was surprising the Ivory Coast weren’t ready for it. With a tournament so lacking in goals from open play, it made sense to work on set-pieces, and this was probably the area where Zambia threatened the most.
Aside from that, the game started at a relatively low tempo. Both centre-back pairings got lots of time on the ball, the early injury disrupted the rhythm of the game, and the ball was moved slowly from back to front.
Zambia were set up in much the same way they have been throughout the tournament. 4-4-2 without the ball, more like 4-2-2-2 with it, with Chansa breaking forward from midfield to add more numbers to the attacks. In the defensive phase of play, Christopher Katongo and Mayuka positioned themselves between the Ivorian centre-backs and holding players, cutting off the passing angle and slowing Ivorian attacks.
Didier Zokora dropped deep towards the centre-backs a couple of times to get the ball, and he probably should have done this more; it meant a more fluid side, the ball could be played forward more easily, and the full-backs could get high up the pitch.
The question for the Ivory Coast was about how high up Yaya Toure would play. He was fielded as a number ten rather than a deep midfielder, though he found it very difficult to receive an initial pass into feet, so kept coming deeper and deeper to collect the ball.
Zambia were happy enough for him to get space between the lines, and he had little impact in open play – although there was one moment late in the first half when he dove well at the defence, and the nature of his freedom may have contributed to him being left unmarked for the shot he flashed narrowly wide of the far post. Still, he didn’t have his best game, and was removed later on.
Both sides switched their wingers throughout – hardly the most inventive strategy. Still, late in the first half when Zambia got the ball into the final third, Gervinho and Salomon Kalou started to get opportunities on the break, and this briefly looked a real danger to Zambia. The Ivorians were more dangerous on the break, simply because they threw so few bodies forward themselves that the back four was rarely out of position.
This counter-attacking promise seemed to result in different instructions for the second half. They sat deeper, let Zambia play more and come onto them, presumably with the intention of stealing the ball and then breaking. It was actually Zambia who made more of an effort to commit men forward in open play, with the excellent Chansa roaming into good positions.
Five changes were made, but only two were important. The other three were (a) the early Zambian change through injury, (b) Didier Ya Konan replacing Zokora, and (c) Wilfried Bony replacing Yaya Toure. These were all more or less straight swaps, though Konan’s introduction meant he played higher up than Zokora, and left Cheick Tiote as the primary holding player, when he was already on a yellow card. There was one incident when he could have picked up a second booking.
But the two changes that were key were on the flanks. Max Gradel replaced Kalou, a sensible move because Gradel picked the ball up in deeper positions than Kalou (important, since the Ivory Coast couldn’t get the ball forward to the front three).
On the other side, Renard made a brave call by taking off the sub Nyambe, dropping Lungu to left back and bringing on winger Felix Katongo. Both Gradel and Katongo created chances with their pace down the outside, and were changes reminiscent of Jesus Navas in the World Cup final – a genuine wide option when everyone else was playing through the centre, and getting tired.
But this was the only tactical development throughout the game. In a way – and this may seem an odd thing to say about a 0-0 – both sides were constrained by the fact they’d played their more attacking systems from the off. Yaya Toure was already high up – the Ivory Coast weren’t able to change something by moving him there. Similarly, Renard already had two wide players and Chansa in the middle, rather than two holders and Chansa tucked in on the flank, as he started the Ghana game with. Aside from the extra pace down the flank, there was no obvious plan B for either, though Renard’s bravery in putting Lungu to full-back should be commended. Was this change because of, or despite, Gervinho winning a penalty five minutes beforehand in that area of the pitch?
Extra time was stereotypical – tight, slow and lacking in ambition. Both sides were scared to commit despite plenty of time in the ball in the middle, and 0-0 was a fair result.
Zambia’s victory is an astonishing story for human reasons, but also an interesting one in footballing terms. Other national sides should embrace the forward planning shown in persevering with good young players over a period of time, despite initial poor results. This side is six years in the making, and owes much to promising results at junior level. “Long-term planning is hardly a revolutionary concept, but it is rare enough in African football that those who try it, can enjoy great rewards,” as Jonathan Wilson puts it.
It’s also another example – after Greece in 2004, Ghana and Uruguay in 2010 and various countries at last year’s Copa America – that the way to overachieve at international level is to be broadly defensive, well-organised and work on set-pieces and playing on the break.
The Ivory Coast knew that too – and they didn’t concede a single goal in their six matches, which shows the value of keeping a centre-back pairing throughout the competition despite rotation elsewhere (though there’s an element of chicken and egg). They played very conservatively in each of their matches, which was broadly the right approach, but their failure to create many chances here was hardly a surprise. They still lack a genuine ball-playing midfielder. 0-0 in 120 minutes was an appropriate end for a tournament sorely lacking in creativity in open play.
The game may have been a draw, but it was still a tactical victory for Renard. Tactics is about getting the best from your players, and since there was nothing to choose between Zambia and the Ivory Coast despite the latter’s considerably stronger squad, it was Renard who maximised his resources.