Defensive tactics mean fewer goals at Nations Cup
SO FAR, the African Nations Cup has been a tournament of equilibrium. The overwhelming feature of the first round was draws. There were 13 of them: more than in any other group stage since the tournament adopted its present format in 1996, three more even than in Mali in 2002 and six more than in any other tournament.
The odd side-effect of that is that three sides — the champions Zambia, Democratic Republic of Congo and the perennially luckless Morocco — all went home without losing a game. The only side that has happened to previously under the present format were Tunisia in 2010.
The temptation is to see that as evidence of talent evening out, of which Nigeria coach Stephen Keshi and others have spoken. You only have to consider the former giants, who now struggle to qualify for the Nations Cup and the teams once considered minnows who have qualified for the World Cup, or to look even at Cape Verde reaching the quarterfinal, to recognise the pyramid is getting broader if not higher.
But if draws are reflective of that, why were there only three in the group stage last year? The pyramid has not changed that much in 12 months.
The issue seems rather to be the dearth of goals. While Mali in 2002, with just 35 goals spread across 24 group games — a pitiful 1.46 per game — still holds the prize, this tournament, with 49 goals in 24 games is comfortably in second place. The fewer goals there are, of course, the less there is to differentiate sides — and it is no coincidence that the two tournaments with the fewest goals also have the most draws.
The question then is why there are so few goals. In part it is down to that process of evening out: the more evenly matched sides are, the less chance there is of a five-or six-goal shellacking.
In Mali, the issue was largely the pitches, which were so bumpy as to make passing football impossible. In the World Cup in 2010, the lowest-scoring since the switch to a 32-team format, the problem was the Jabulani ball, which proved uncontrollable even for the most gifted players.
This time, the pitch in Nelspruit, reduced to a sandy mess by a fungal infection, has contributed, and Zambia’s frustration that their quick, counterattacking game was held up by the slow surface was understandable.
The heavy rain and soggy conditions perhaps contributed to the drab opening pair of matches in Soccer City, but the pitches in Port Elizabeth, Rustenburg and Durban have been excellent.
The Katlego ball, which has essentially the same structure as the Comoequa ball used in Equatorial Guinea and Gabon last year and the Tango 12 used at last year’s European Championship, seems blameless.
So what is the issue?
It is dangerous to read too much into one tournament, particularly as trends in a tournament are often self-perpetuating — early draws make teams more cautious later in the group stage, whereas an early win may lift pressure or a defeat force a more aggressive strategy.
But it seems Zambia’s success last year has shown how effective sides can be if they get their defensive organisation right and strike on the break. That seems to have led to a more cautious approach.
Many creative players are not fully fit, such as Thulani Serero and Victor Moses; or are misfiring, such as Christopher Katongo and Younes Belhanda; or played at left-back, such as Kwadwo Asamoah.
The result is tightly locked defences with little to unpick them. That does not necessarily mean poor football, but it does mean a lack of goals.
• Jonathan Wilson is the editor of football quarterly The Blizzard and the author of six books, including Inverting the Pyramid: A History of Football Tactics. He was named Football Writer of the Year in 2012