Positive FeelingsThere were plenty of reasons to be optimistic after the Nations Cup in Gabon
With 64 goals in 32 games, this was the second-lowest scoring African Nations Cup since the tournament switched to a 16-team format in 2000. Only Mali, in 2002, with its dry, dusty and dreadfully bobbly pitches denied Gabon 2017 top spot. However, that statistic is a very misleading one.
After a decade or so of drab football at the Nations Cup – and, indeed, at international tournament finals in general – this felt more progressive and more open, with better football than at any Nations Cup since Ghana 2008, perhaps even before. There was a sense, for the first time in a long time, of an upswing in the quality of the African game.
Such assessments are by their nature subjective, and the fact that this latest tournament felt so positive despite averaging just two goals per game does little other than highlight how goals are not in and of themselves a measure of quality or excitement. But before looking at the tactical implications of that, it’s worth first looking at the influence of external factors.
First of all, the pitches. One of the problems with stadiums that are finished a few days before a tournament kicks off is that the pitches have insufficient time to bed in. The result in Gabon was that the strips of turf began to separate, leading to long stripes of soil running the length of the pitch in Libreville, Oyem and Port-Gentil. The sandy subsoil of Port-Gentil was a particular issue,
......Recent Nations Cups have largely featured clunking muscular 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 set-ups that have bashed up against each other to little effect, with teams set up to keep their shape and not concede.
Other than Togo's goalless draw against Ivory Coast, there was little of that this time round - and even there was valour in Togo's successful efforts to thwart far more vaunted names.
That is not to say defences weren't significant. The two teams who reached the Final, Cameroon and Egypt, did so largely because they defended so well, but each had outlets: Egypt through Mohamed Sala and Abdallah Said, and Cameroon through Benjamin Moukandjo and Christian Bassagog. They continued the recent trend in Nations Cups of the most successful sides being not those with the biggest names but those with the most coherent style of play.
Herve Renard ended the Ivorian wait for a title in 2015 after many o fth estars of the "golden generation" had retired; Stephe Kehi's Nigeria in 2013 were a largely funtionanl side; Renard's Zambia in 2012 were superbly well-drilled; Egypt's three-time champions were about balance and organisation as much as the individual skills of Mohamed Aboutrika, Ahmed Hassan or a Mohamed Zidan. Here, the performances of Algeria and Ivory Coast demosntrated the limitations of individual talent without a coherent structure.
But the greatest encouragement, perhaps came from a couple of the less-fancied sides. DR Congo and Burkina Faso have no great recent traditiono of success and few obvious stars, but both played fluent, attractive football. And with slightly better defending in the case of Burkina Faso, both might have gone all the way.
The squads in Gabon might not have been brimming with the talent of Nigeria in the mid-1990s or the Ivory Coast of a decade ago, but the general prognosis from the tournament, for the first time in a long time, is optimistic. SourceSorry subscription only right now....