Senegal were one of the favorites of this year’s African Cup of Nations (AFCON). Indeed with a very generous group [on paper] consisting of the likes Zambia, Equatorial Guinea, and Libya, no one would have anticipated their shock elimination. Furthermore Senegal left Bata without a single point to their name, having lost all three of their matches. And so now someone has to be blamed for this and it often ends up being the manager, who in this particular instance is Amara Traoré. However I believe that the players have to bear their share of the burden in this affair. Therefore, in the first installment of a three-part analysis, I plan on dealing with both perspectives along with the future we can look ahead to for the Teranga Lions. Having been an eyewitness to all this, I hope to help others understand what happened in Bata.
Amara Traoré was an ex-international and participated last to the 2002 World Cup. At the end of his playing career he completed his coaching badges and took on hometown club, ASC Linguère, and led the Saint Louis club to successive promotion and a Senegalese Ligue 1 title within 2 years. As such, Traoré was the outstanding candidate at the local level and indeed the outstanding candidate altogether after the Federation of Senegalese Football (FSF) had taken the decision to move away from expensive foreign managers. But it all seemed an inspired choice at first as Senegal went on to qualify unbeaten for the 2012 AFCON while scoring the most goals & conceding the least. It was an unprecedented run in Senegalese football history and Traoré was sitting pretty ahead of the coming tournament.
Senegal’s wealth of attacking talent is well known today, boasting of the likes of Demba Ba, Papiss Demba Cisse, Moussa Sow, Dame Ndoye and Mamadou Niang. Traoré, an ex-striker himself, rejoiced at such offerings and opted for tactical lineup many in Senegal disagreed with. During the qualifications, Traoré played with Papiss Cisse spear-heading the attack, Dame Ndoye behind him as a playmaker, whilst Sow & Niang operated on the flanks. In essence then, Traoré played with four out-and-out strikers in his much-criticized 4-2-4. However the results were there and statistics backed him up. Despite out-cries from the Senegalese fans and media about the team’s inability “to play”, Traoré could always point out to the fact that the team was still winning. One of the biggest criticism of Traoré’s team was also the lack of a central midfield playmaker to supply to forwards, as he played with two holding midfielders who were tasked with simultaneously protect the defense and supply the offense. Senegal, under Traoré, played much more on its physical & athletic attributes, playing the ball forward & verticalizing the play as quickly/often as possible. It was indeed the individual brilliance of the strikers that often made the difference as opposed to the collective.
So what exactly went wrong in Bata? In the first game against Zambia, Traoré gave in to the populist opinion and changed his formation. The Senegalese people had always called out for a 4-3-3 to add a bit more balance to the side. At the same time Traoré dropped Papiss Cisse and started Demba Ba, who had the role of a super-sub throughout the qualifying campaign. Consequently to all these changes, the players looked lost on the pitch and the whole team suffered. In trying to add the balance that the people had asked for, he ended up unbalancing his side. Traoré ultimately failed to stand by his principles, something that he had always managed to do in the face of intense pressure & criticism. The biggest proof of regret from Traoré was when he withdrew Remi Gomis at the quarter hour mark to switch back to the 4-2-4 he had for so long trusted. Sadly, the damage was already done and Zambia went on as 2-1 winners.
I believe the defeat against Zambia shell-shocked Traoré a bit too, as he lost his reference points. Strange decisions ensued afterwards. He persisted in starting Kader Mangane in central defense, when the Rennes captain was clearly not 100% following an injury that had sidelined him a couple of months ago. Playing Demba Ba as a support striker under Niang in the last game against Libya in a 4-4-1-1 was yet another puzzling decision. Not playing the experienced Oumar Daf, a player Traoré called his “moral leader”, to settle a defense that was clearly under panic and committing costly mistakes was yet one more point of contention. Finally Dame Ndoye to the bench, who had been Traoré’s main and only creative spark in linking midfield & attack during qualification campaign, was relegated to the bench
In the end, it was also Traoré’s lack of credibility that proved his biggest Achilles heel. When the players looked down, he failed to play on their egos in order to get a reaction against them. On the eve of the Libya match, Traoré had explained how Libya were “a team that struggles to come back [to the score].” Senegal had already been eliminated by Equatorial Guinea a few days before and so one would have expected a good performance in a no-pressure situation. However the play was lacking speed, intent, and spirit. At that moment I thought to myself: “Libya may struggle to come back but we [Senegal] struggle to react.” In effect All big managers need credibility. Not a massive amount but certainly enough – and ideally more – relative to the players they are coaching. Traoré did not have that unfortunately, with a modest playing career in French Ligue 2 with Bastia, Metz, and most notably Gueugnon. As a manager he only boasts of a Senegalese Ligue 1 title. Next to players like Niang, Sow, and Ndoye who won titles with Marseille, Lille, and København respectively, Papiss Cisse & Demba Ba who were consistent performers in the Bundesliga and today find themselves in the Premiere League, and simply just on the standpoint of wages earned the players indeed cast a large shadow over their manager. By no means am I suggesting they did not play for Traoré, but one must accept that it would have been difficult for Traoré to get more out of this group when things went as pear-shaped as they did in Bata. But as I said, the manager is not entirely to blame and the players had their own failings. But this is a discussion for the next time…