Breaking down defensive team: What African sides can learn from Euro 2012

The Italian and Spanish sides have delivered two telling lessons in how to break and wear down highly defensive teams through innovatative deployment of intelligent players. The Spaniards -lacking a potent No 9 – have adopted Barcelona’s system of deploying Cesc Fabregas or David Silva as the nueve mentiroso – the famed “false nine”. The Italians, on the other hand, have relied on the artistry of a regista – a deeper lying playmaker – a role finely executed by Andreas Pirlo.

The Spanish solution of not having a striker and largely playing with a “false nine” is of particular interest. In appears to be a defiance of the natural order of playing football. In Africa this style would invite stones to rain down on the pitch! The No 9 has to be at the top, marked by defenders and has to create his own room to wriggle out of tight spaces! Not so with Spain. With their leading striker David Villa out injured and his natural replacement Fernando Torres lacking in ruthlessness in front of goal for both club and country, desperate measures have had to be adopted.

The nueve mentiroso role came into sharp focus with the revolutionary changes effected at Barcelona by Pep Guardiola. Not really fancying Samuel Eto’o, Guardiola played Lionel Messi centrally in this role in order for him to see more of the ball (as opposed to him being isolated in front waiting for balls) and run at defences in unstoppably devastating fashion. Eto’o would switch to the wings.

By employing a false 9, Barcelona found a way of “fooling” the opposition. It still is the reason of playing a false 9, who cannot be picked up and when he drops into midfield and is followed by a defender, a hole is created in opposition defence.

Cesc Fabregas has revelled in the nueve mentiroso role where the defenders have been unable to pick him out due to his dropping into midfield and drifting to the sides to create space for others to burst through. He has managed to reappear at crucial moments to deadly effect, as was seen against Sweden. The false-9 thrives on the confusion created in enemy territoy where the defenders have no one to directly mark.


Africa’s imported style

Traditionally, the majority of African teams have failed to innovate with regards to the attacking role, and have, predictably, placed reliance on a centre-forward, irrespective of the fact that he tends to be easily marked out of games and usually isolated from play. Ghana is still mourning the premature “retirement” of its leading marksman – Asamoah Gyan; Cameroon looks half a team without the archtypal centre-forward – Samuel Eto’o. All the key African nations employ a sort of target man upfront: Zambia have Emmanuel Mayuka; South Africa – Katlego Mpela; Ivory Coast – Didier Drogba; Senegal – Papsis Cisse/ Demba Ba and so on.

African centre-forwards cut lonely figures, isolated from play with the fewest touches of the ball. It is clear that this is not the most judicious use of human resource and perhaps innovating with the false 9 system will bring the strikers more into play.

The Deeper-lying midfield role

Italy’s Andreas Pirlo is the quintessential deeper lying play-maker in world football. As seen in the Euro 2012 against England, he did a seemingly simple job – he made sure he dropped deep and away from any England player thereby making himself available to receive the ball. He then distributed the ball to someone in a more offensive position. Sometimes he would shift the direction of play. He did all these in front of an entire England side that was fond of dropping to defend in numbers.

African midfield set-ups

African midfield set-ups never have registas. The mentality imposed by coaches is defensive and as such there is always a defensive midfielder sitting in front of the defence to break up opposition play and hoof the ball to the front. In fact most African teams are set up with two midfielders to defend. Ivory Coast use Didier Zokora and Cheickh Tiote in this role while Ghana usually deploy Emmanuel Badu-Agyemang and Anthony Annan or Daniel Boateng. Isaac Chansa and Nathan Sinkala do similar duties for Zambia.

Spain, on the other hand, plays Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets in front of its defence, both are great passers of the ball and are very mobile. Alonso is also offensively adventurous and this might explain why he scores for both Real Madrid and Spain. They have a freedom that we do not often see given to African players.

On a strict analysis of the above African midfielders’ natural inclination, it is not dificult to see that Chansa, Annan and Zokora are innately registas of note but are forced to fit into styles where rigid defending trumps innovation and improvisation.


One cannot discount the fact that self-preservation by most coaches in Africa has stood in the way of innovation. This has led to a perpetuation of imported rigid styles of play, unsuited to the natural abilities of African players. Secondly, the expedience to win matches at all costs means that players are not allowed the freedom to think and improvise. They are forced to follow scripts that bring results in the most ugly of ways.

African teams are now ruled by discipline and a fear of failure but need to let loose and base themselves more on possession and creativity. African Pirlos and Fabregases need to be freed up to play their natural game. These are the players that will bring crowds to stadia. People will pay any amount of cash to watch a liberated genius on the ball. Entertainment, joy and enthusiasm have been snuffed out of the game and now we have rigid and dogged defending-and-counter attacking without flair. NAF

Gilbert Phiri

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