Algeria and Senegal clashed in the final at the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) on Friday evening in Cairo. A second minute goal was enough for The Desert Warriors to take a 1-0 victory and lift the trophy.
Senegal coach Aliou Cisse made two changes to his side from their 1-0 semi-final win in extra time against Tunisia. In central defence, Kalidou Koulibaly was suspended so Salif Sane got the nod in preference to Pape Abou Cisse. On the right flank, Ismaila Sarr came back into the starting XI with Krepin Diatta left on the bench.
Algeria named an unchanged side from their 2-1 semi-final win against Nigeria as Djamel Belmadi continued to trust the same core of players. Only Youcef Atal was missing from his best XI with a broken collarbone, so Mehdi Zaffane, a more conservative right back, took his place.
VERTICAL SENEGAL VS. ADAPTABLE ALGERIA
All tournament, the Lions of Teranga had been the most direct and vertical side at Afcon. Their game is based around finding teammates who are facing forward with time and space, then looking for penetrative passes over the top for the front three making runs in-behind, often diagonally off the flanks.
This plan can also have the by-product of pinning opponents back and opening space between-the-lines for Henri Saivet or Sadio Mane. The latter has a more creative role than at Liverpool, regularly dropping deep to get on the ball.
Algeria have been the most adaptable side at the tournament. They are able to dominate possession by playing out from the back and overloading midfield by bringing their wide players inside, or ceding possession and relying on counter-attacks or direct play up to striker, Baghdad Bounedjah. They can press high up the pitch to regain the ball, or set their pressing line around the halfway line.
FIRST HALF – WAR OF ATTRITION
It took just two minutes for Algeria to lead in this game. Bounedjah beat Cheikhou Kouyate on the left flank, cut inside and saw his shot deflected over Alfred Gomis’ head by Salif Sane. Against Belmadi’s side, this was a nightmare for Senegal who were to endure an extremely frustrating half.
Algeria’s key strategy was to not allow the two most progressive passers in Senegal’s midfield, Saivet and Idrissa Gueye to get time to find their runners further forward. Ismael Bennacer closed down aggressively in this area, whilst Sofiane Feghouli focused on closing down Gueye when he moved into deep areas in the left half-space, a regular Senegal rotation to free left back Youssouf Sabaly to get forward.
However, both midfielders also pressed high up on occasion in the early stages too, onto the Senegal central defenders, to force long balls forward. Without the outstanding Koulibaly, they both lost his elite level defending and his superb range of passing both long and short, with both feet. Sane and Kouyate never showed the ability to find a spare teammate in midfield when closed down.
The first half stats painted a perfect picture of what Algeria were doing to stop Senegal from playing. Despite Cisse’s men having 62.7% of the ball in the first half, their attacks were ended in two main ways: Algeria made 13 first-half tackles (to Senegal’s one) whilst also committing 15 fouls, many of them cynical, professional infringements. Mane was taken down four times and Sarr six times in the first half alone.
Algeria had barely mustered, or even attempted, an attack after taking the lead. They completed just 56% of their passes as they looked for early passes forward to Bounedjah, who revelled in being isolated and having to fight for his team. Aside from trying to draw fouls, the striker even appealed for offside against himself after a heavy touch gave the ball away. With space behind the Senegal fullbacks, he ran the channels and was always an out-ball for teammates – a dream to play with, and a nightmare to play against.
Perhaps the two clearest examples of just how self-sacrificial Algeria’s attacking players were defensively came when Riyad Mahrez was seen heading a cross away inside his own box and in the fact that Feghouli completed just one successful pass in the entire opening period, getting only seven touches in total. All of his effect on the game was off the ball in tracking men, pressing or fouling.
With midfield largely blocked off, wayward longer passes being forced and a plethora of freekicks conceded in their own half, Algeria had to be perfect in defending in the air and both centre backs and defensive midfielder, Adlene Guedioura were incredibly tenacious in challenging for first and second balls.
The one scary moment for Algeria came when trying to play short passes in their own half, Senegal won the ball off Zeffane’s giveaway and as the right back tried to recover, he appeared to foul Sarr by kicking his foot. VAR either did not check the incident or did not deem it a penalty.
SECOND HALF – CISSE GOES FOR BROKE
In the second period, Senegal threw everything forward in the search for a goal. Right footed, left back Sabaly was playing much higher up, allowing Mane to play as a second striker. The Lions of Teranga man had a much more influential second half. First, he set up a decent opening for M’Baye Niang but a heavy touch from the striker ended the move. Then, he received in the box from Sabaly’s smart pass into feet, spun away well, but saw his cross well blocked by the imperious Aissa Mandi.
Algeria had started the second period defending slightly higher up the pitch, perhaps feeling that would mean Senegal having second balls in less dangerous areas.
It took 15 minutes for Cisse to begin to withdraw defensive-minded players for extra attackers. The first change saw defensive midfielder, Badou Ndiaye taken off and Diatta come on to play off Niang, with Saivet moving deeper. Soon after, a penalty was given to Senegal for handball (though the referee correctly overturned it after using VAR) but that chance had come from some more risky attempts from an Algeria fullback to play a pass inside into midfield, where Senegal pounced to close down.
The first, and last, really clear opening created by Senegal came directly from Cisse’s first change. As Feghouli and Bennacer continued to press up on Gueye and Saivet, despite the duo now being deeper, so it opened space around Guedioura. Diatta received between-the-lines, drawing the previously perfect Djamel Benlamri out of his position at centre back. Sarr slipped a pass into the vacated space, Niang rounded Rais M’bolhi, but the forward could not finish from a narrow angle.
CISSE CHANGES AGAIN
With 72 minutes on the clock, Aliou Cisse used his Hail Mary, 6’4” target man, Mbaye Diagne. Saivet was the man taken off, basically leaving Senegal with a single centre midfielder in Gueye and a front five, with both fullbacks also taking up very advanced positions.
However, the final period of the game drifted away from Senegal as frustration boiled over and two of their players received yellow cards, whilst Algeria made three changes (and several more fouls) to stem the flow of the game. Algeria introduced 6’3” central defender, Mehdi Tahrat to replace Feghouli and help in dealing with Diagne too.
This was not a particularly pleasing game to watch, with the crucial goal coming early on and from a massive deflection. Algeria made themselves very difficult to play against with their abrasive style, aggressive midfield pressing and their incessant fouling on Senegal’s creative players. Without a referee to dish out yellow cards more freely, players like Guedioura (eight fouls; eventually booked for handball) and Bennacer (five fouls; no yellow card) could stop attacks constantly.
The defending from Algeria was absolutely superb otherwise. Both central defenders were fantastic on the ground and in the air, and one incident aside, Guedioura protected his backline brilliantly, especially in the air. Every single player, even Riyad Mahrez – renowned for his lack of defensive effort at club level – sacrificed themselves for their country in making a game-high five tackles, as well as two headed clearances in his own defensive third.
Senegal made the cardinal sin of conceding the first goal, and then lacked the passing quality to open up Algeria, instead being forced into hopeful long balls and diagonals. Aliou Cisse tried everything from the bench to turn the game for his side, adding extra attackers, withdrawing midfielders and going for broke.
However, perhaps the key aspect of this final was the suspension of arguably the tournament’s best player in Kalidou Koulibaly. In his absence, Kouyate looked every bit a midfielder covering in defence, whilst the Napoli man’s supreme ability in playing out from the back was missed even more. All tournament, he has found Mane between the lines, carried the ball forward to draw opponents out of their shape, and played accurate balls over the top for runners. His absence proved fatal and perhaps robbed the tournament of a fair showdown, whilst also making Algeria’s nullification plan far less challenging.
Nevertheless, this final was played between two local coaches, friends who grew up in the same Paris commune, Champigny-Sur-Marne. Their game plans may have been different, but these two teams were arguably the best in the competition and deserved to make the final. Algeria just had a little more know-how tactically and ability to adapt, and are therefore worthy champions.