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Africa Cup of Nations

In-Depth: How Senegal eventually wore down Kenya resistance

10:47 GMT+3 02/07/2019
Dennis Omino Odhiambo of Kenya tackled by Lamine Gassama of Senegal.
The Lions of Teranga took an hour to break down a hard-working Harambee Stars. Goal analyses the tactical battle that unfolded
Senegal and Kenya played out a one-sided final Group C match at the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) on Monday evening. Senegal’s three second-half goals meant that they progress in second spot, whilst the defeat for Kenya meant a third-place finish. Several favours will be required from other teams in order for Harambee Stars to sneak into the Round of 16.


Kenya made two changes to the side which beat Tanzania 3-2. Sebastien Migne dropped Francis Kahata after two disappointing displays at number ten and brought in an extra genuine central midfielder in Dennis Omino. At right back, Philemon Otieno was fit after injury to return so David Odhiambo was benched after a tough game in that position last time out.

Aliou Cisse made five changes for Senegal, with a sixth one forced one on him by Edouard Mendy getting injured in the warmup, with Alfred Gomis taking his place in goal. Both fullback positions saw changes as Youssouf Sabaly and Moussa Wague dropped to the bench, as Saliou Ciss and Lamine Gassama came in.

In midfield, there were three changes. Keita Balde was left out on the right wing with Ismaila Sarr taking his spot, whilst Krepin Diatta and Alfred N’Diaye were benched, with Idrissa Gueye and Henri Saivet being given starts.


Loosely speaking, both Kenya and Senegal set up with the same shape. Both sides had a back four, three central midfielders, two wingers and a lone striker. However, the way they applied their formations could not have been more different.

Kenya had dropped a number ten for a midfielder so their midfield five sat deep and were disciplined in tracking their immediate opponents. When the ball was on the flank, the central midfielder on that side would need to defend wide, before moving narrow should play be changed to the opposite flank. The two wide players, Eric Ouma and Ayub Timbe Masika stayed wide to track Senegal’s fullbacks, whilst needing to be the players to get forward in support of lone striker, Michael Olunga. Their one big chance arrived from this simple ploy as goalkeeper, Patrick Matasi hit a long goal kick, and when Ciss tried to head back to his goalkeeper, Olunga intercepted and lobbed Gomis, but the shot bounced just wide.

When Harambee Stars had the ball, they generally looked long for their target man, hoping he could nod the ball down to his wingers or force a second ball for the midfield three to pick up. Initially, Olunga tried to close down one of the Senegal central defenders, but then realised the futility of that and dropped back onto the defensive midfielder, Badou Ndiaye. This meant better defensive compactness but even less of an out-ball to relieve pressure.

Senegal set up completely differently. When building up from the goalkeeper, they played everything short as Kalidou Koulibaly and Cheikhou Koyate enjoyed vast amounts of time and space on the ball. Their midfield three spread out across the width of the pitch as Saivet and Gueye moved into the half spaces to free up their fullbacks to take up very advanced positions. This, in turn, allowed Sarr and Sadio Mane to play as inside forwards, looking to get the ball between-the-lines, as well as making constant diagonal runs into the box.


Of all the teams in the Afcon, Senegal are possibly the most vertical in their play. They rarely make sideways passes or have long spells of patient possession. Their game revolves around Koulibaly or one of the midfield three getting their head up and playing a killer pass for the front three, who make penetrative runs in-behind even against deep defensive lines. M’Baye Niang was regularly picked out in the channels and proved a good focal point for his side. If there are no runners, only then do they rotate the ball from flank to flank probing for a moment to penetrate. 

The role of Mane was interesting. Whereas for Liverpool, he waits high up the pitch for the ball before attempting interplay or one-vs.-one actions, he looks to link the play for his country. He regularly shows for the ball in deeper areas in the left half-space, and was visibly seen motioning for Ciss to attack the space he had vacated further forward.

In took just 10 minutes for Otieno to be booked to hacking down Mane between-the-lines. The right-back had a tough task trying to defend the Liverpool man in narrow areas, meaning Masika had to track the left back. He lost him a few times and one moment saw a penalty awarded as Musa Mohammed was adjusted to have brought down the Lions of Teranga man. Mane stepped up but had his penalty saved.

Senegal had 70% possession in the first half, creating two other good chances. First, Sarr burst in-behind after Niang’s holdup. He found Gueye in the box, but Matasi made an excellent smothering save. Then, late on, Sarr was found on the back post with a typical diagonal pass and he had his header pushed onto the bar by Kenya’s goalkeeper, who had an inspired half. Other than that, the most regular threat was from Saivet’s corners as Victor Wanyama handled one (and was fortunate not to concede a penalty), whilst several other deliveries caused problems.

Kenya would have been delighted to go in at 0-0, but their midfield trio could surely not keep up their incredible defensive work, especially with how relentless it was as Senegal began to win the ball back quickly off Olunga, giving no respite to the Kenya defence.


In the second half, the pattern of the game stayed the same. Senegal were having even more of the ball, with Koulibaly continuing to run the show with excellent short and long-range passing, particularly cross-field switches of play. It did still take 16 minutes for Senegal to open the scoring, and when it arrived, it saw Matasi flap at a cross and Sarr volley in the loose ball. At 1-0 up, Senegal had the pace to counter attack so were happy to allow Kenya some of the ball to draw them out.

Harambee Stars put on some decent pressure with a succession of corners and then the subsequent crosses after the second phase of those set-plays. This saw a stronger presence around the box as Johanna Omollo looked to get forward more to support Olunga.

However, the game was put to bed soon after a Mane outmuscled Mohammed from a long clearance and side-footed in the second goal. When Otieno was sent off for a terrible tackle on Sarr inside the box, Mane made it 3-0 and it was game over. Conceding first to this Senegal side is very dangerous considering their pace up front on transitions.

The third goal and red card had come just after Kenya had withdrawn Dennis Omino for a second striker in John Avire. Soon after, makeshift right-back Masika had to be sacrificed for Bernard Ochieng to ensure the scoreline didn’t get heavier. Senegal withdrew Niang, who had been very good up front, with Moussa Konate getting a runout, with Gueye went off for Krepin Diatta.


This scoreline may have been reflective of the chances in the game, but it still felt harsh on Kenya, who defended excellently for the first hour. However, their massive effort in shifting side-to-side against a mountain of Senegal possession eventually took its toll on their legs and concentration.

Once Senegal get in front, they are a terrible team to play against as they have steel in midfield and pace in attack and are ideally suited to counter-attacking. However, despite their high possession numbers and some missed chances, had Kenya taken their early chance through Olunga, they could have made defensive substitutions and perhaps have left with something from this match.

Senegal look to be a very solid side, with two top-class players in Mane and this game’s outstanding performer, Koulibaly. The spacing of their midfield and attack makes them difficult to press, and their wide interplay and constant attempts to look for killer passes for runners is a dangerous weapon. However, they may lack a bit of guile against defensive opponents, hence Mane has the responsibility to be a playmaker too. Against better defensive sides, they could have real problems, as seen against Algeria.

Kenya will be hoping that four different results all go their way in order to make the last 16. They will desperately need to sort out their issues at right back if they do progress.