Enyimba threw away a three-goal lead in Sousse on Wednesday night, and came perilously close to a shock exit. This post by Mr @TheOddSolace will look at (some of) the reason(s) why. I say ‘some’ because we have all heard of the underhanded tactics and shameful antics employed by the hosts – I condemn it roundly, however, it does not excuse losing such a lead, and in such fashion.
Before I start, let me quickly say that I am aware many distrust any kind of analysis, and insist that with benefit of hindsight, anyone can say anything. This is true in some ways, but I had a very interesting conversation with this blog’s admin before this game kicked off in which some of the themes that played out were discussed; if they are shared here, all the better.
Line-up and starting formation:
Coach Paul Aigbogun selected this XI: Afelokhai; John, Anaemena, Udoji, Akas; Ojo; Abalogu, Ibenegbu, Udoh; Azeez, Pyagbara.
Let me state that, straight away, this looked like trouble. I am not a fan of this system – 4-4-2 is a difficult formation, and is therefore erroneously considered outdated, but this is not even a proper 4-4-2, but a 4-1-3-2. Ibenegbu is an attacking midfielder who links to the attack with movement and roaming, meaning there is no central support for Ojo.
It is almost repetitive to say that Dare Ojo was overworked. He always has way too much ground to cover in almost every game, no thanks to Enyimba’s playing style. We will see how this became a problem.
The saying “attack is the best form of defence” is somewhat overused, but perhaps Aigbogun should have heeded it. Straight from the kick-off, Etoile worked the ball forward into the left-back zone and attempted a cross. That set the tone for the rest of the game: the hosts attacking, Enyimba defending.
It was never going to work. Tactics and strategy are important on a psychological level as well: if you’re going to give up ground to the opposition that early in a game, you want to do it on your terms. What do I mean? You want them to know you’re willingly giving up the ball and territory, not being forced to do it. Here’s the difference: in the former scenario, it plants an awareness in the mind of the opposition that there is (a) a plan and (b) you have the ability to change gears and hurt them whenever you want.
Instead, Enyimba simply dropped back and tried to protect a three-goal lead from the opening blast of the whistle. Even when presented with chances to attack, with essentially five forward-thinking players on the pitch, the combination play was shockingly bad. What made it even more baffling is that the formation used was counterproductive to the purpose.
Also, once you get into a mindset for a game, it is hard to change it at the flick of a switch. After conceding the first two goals, Enyimba tried to rouse themselves to attack, but before they could get such plan moving, there was a moment of chaos within which Etoile got the third. Just goes to show how tricky a two-legged tie can be.
For the first 25 minutes or so, Enyimba’s aim was clear: force Etoile away from the centre early in the build-up. Hence, the two forward worked and Ibenegbu worked very hard to prevent passes from being played through the hosts’ central midfielders, forcing the Etoile centre-backs to play the ball to the full-backs.
Udoh and Abalogu on either flank did not stick tightly to the full-backs, but instead sat slightly narrow, blocking the diagonal passing lane back inside from the touchline. Ibenegbu then dropped off the front line and occupied a position goalside of the deepest Etoile midfielder.
This reduced Etoile to crosses from deep or long angled passes into the box, which were often overhit. Those that weren’t were dealt with quite easily by Super Afelokhai and the central defence, along with Ojo, who all dropped very deep whenever the ball went wide to mop up any loose balls. There were some nervy moments, especially with Chinedu Udoji on the stretch.
This broke down eventually, as Etoile grew in confidence and – ironically – calmed down. Enyimba’s lack of diagonal compactness meant there were huge spaces either side of Ojo, and the midfield could not shift across quickly enough when play was switched to the far side half space.
Aside his excellently taken penalty which dragged us back into contention after missing our first two spot kicks, at left-back, Chima Akas had a poor game, though part of it had to do with the fact he is relatively new to this team. He failed to establish a good connection with Udoji, and once play was switched from the other flank, the left half-space was an obvious target for Etoile.
Kelly Kester came on in the first period for the limping Ibenegbu and played slightly deeper, but really should have dropped alongside Ojo to provide better horizontal coverage.
There were a number of other problems tactically, but identified here are three themes: the huge amount of ground Ojo had to cover (yet again); the extremely deep nature of Enyimba’s defending with no attacking cohesion to relieve the pressure; and the exploitation of the left half-space.
The first two factors led to the first goal, with Ojo penalized for a (soft) infringement hurrying back on the edge of the box. The third factor led to the second, as the hosts took advantage of a free-kick won in that zone, and the first factor led to the third.
Enyimba can count themselves extremely fortunate, and quite what coach Aigbogun thought he was doing here, or how he believed it might work, is virtually impossible to understand.