Ghana v Tunisia: The Battle of the Counter-Attackers

Tunisia versus Ghana promises to be the most fascinating quarter-final, tactically. Don’t hold your breath, however, for promises are often broken. This promises to be a fascinating encounter because both of these sides are predominantly counter-attacking sides.

Will Ghana come out?
Being the favourites, the onus will be on Ghana to take the game to Tunisia. However, taking the game to the opposition is the exact problem the Black Stars have been facing since the 2010 World Cup. Since the success of the counter-attacking strategies at the 2010 Cup of Nations, where they reached the final, and the2010 World-Cup, where they were a Luis Suarez handball and Asamoah Gyan missed penalty away from reaching the semi-final, they have been unable to change from counter-attacking team to a more dominant team. Why should they change what’s been working? Well, the disadvantage of being counter-attacking is the short-termism of it all –it only works if you’re the underdog. After a short while, opponents begin to figure you out; they’re happy to sit deep and let you attack them. (A current example is Napoli in Serie A who were relatively successful with their countter-attacking 3-4-3 formation for large parts of last season but began to struggle towards the end the season when teams were happy to sit back, maintain their shape and let them do the attacking. Consequently,  this season they’ve been unable to replicate the form of last season. Despite that - and more tellingly, perhaps - Napoli have been successful enough to make it into the knockout stages of the Champions League where in a ‘Group of Death’ they were perhaps the ‘underdog’.) Back to Ghana, the Black Stars are no longer underdogs and since the World Cup they’ve at times looked short of ideas and struggled to impose themselves in games due to the lack of a true playmaker in the team. Even if they go on to win the whole tournament with these tactics, it remains a problem that could cost them in the long run.

Can Tunisia afford to come out?

Probably not. One of the most interesting formations in this tournament has been Tunisia’s 4-4-2 diamond formation which transforms into a 4-3-1-2 formation, prevalent in the Italian Serie A, when they’re defending. Tunisia, who deployed a counter-attacking strategy in the opening game against Morocco, had problems when they had to take the game to lowly Niger in their second group game. Niger maintained their shape and consistently attempted to release powerful centre-forward Ouwou Maazou on the counter with long balls to exploit the space behind Tunisia’s centre-backs. It was an approach which was successful and showed a major weakness in Tunisia’s defence  – the pace, or lack of, of their centre-backs Aymen Abdennour and Karim Haggui – and it was only Maazou’s dire finishing that spared the Eagles of Carthage’s blushes.

Msakni the key for Tunisia

The elusive and elegant Youssef Msakni will be a key player for the North Africans. He provides much-needed creativity and imagination in an otherwise cohesive but rigid team. Already one of the stars of the tournament, the Esperance attacking midfielder orchestrated all of Tunisia’s best attacking moves for the first 20 minutes against Gabon only to then fade into a painful obscurity once Gabon worked a strategy to stifle him. For the rest of the game Gabon’s steel-toe-capped defenders targeted him with some brutal challenges. If Ghana have done their homework on Tunisia, nullifying the youngster shouldn’t be a problem especially with the quality of their central midfielders.

Ghana difficult to penetrate despite problems

It remains to be seen whether there is any team in the tournament who can take advantage of Ghana’s deficiencies. Aside from their struggle to change from a counter-attacking team to a dominant one, there are other problems which opponents can take direct advantage of; the left-back Masahudu Alhassan is inexperienced – before the opening game coach Goran Stevanovic claimed he couldn’t play because he was ‘scared’; there are fitness concerns with goalkeeper Adam Kwarasey, who has looked inadequate in his decision-making so far in the tournament, his potential replacement Daniel Agyei only has four caps to his name.

Additionally, Ghana have had to constantly change their centre-back pairing – partly forced due to the suspensions of Isaac Vorsah for the opening two games and John Mensah for the red card against Botswana, but partly not forced as Mensah then wasn’t reinstated for the final group game. It seems Stevanovic will have to make another decision on his pairing and the tinkering of the backline is not ideal, whether Tunisia can take advantage of it remains to be seen.

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