By Maher Mezahi
The footballing world still fondly remembers a valiant Algerian national team that held Joachim Low’s rampant Germany for 120 minutes. At the end of that match in Porto Alegre every member of Algeria’s 23-man squad walked over to an inconsolable Vahid Halilhodzic and paid their respects to a coach who had piloted them into the African elite.
It was a moving and heart-warming gesture that held promise for the near future. But the unanswered question for spectators was: How would Algeria adapt after Halilhozic’s departure? Could Les Fennecs continue their upward trajectory or would they falter under new conditions and a new coaching method?
Christian Gourcuff was the man selected to replace Coach Vahid. At Lorient Gourcuff worked with several Algerian internationals. Karim Ziani, Rafik Saifi, Carl Medjani, and Yazid Mansouri all played significant roles under his tenure in northern France. The latter was Algeria’s captain until the 2010 World Cup, and he now occupies a coaching position in Gourcuff’s enlarged staff.
Unfortunately for Gourcuff, his time at Lorient ended after President Loic Fery continued to sell his best talents. The sale of Mario Lemina to Marseille in late 2012 was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. He decided against renewing his contract in what he deemed a stagnant environment. The aforementioned Mansouri quickly alerted the Algerian Federation to his availability, and it is understood that Gourcuff signed a pre-contract as early as April 2014.
The appointment proved a sage one, as Les Fennecs strung together consecutive victories, assuring qualification in just four matches. However, it took time to see the flowering of Gourcuff’s playing philosophy.
While ex-coach Vahid Halilhodzic was tactically diverse, Gourcuff is true to a philosophy. He sticks by his 4-4-2 in the same way Guardiola swears by his 4-3-3 and Hassan Shehata a 3-5-2. The philosophy runs throughout the Algerian footballing system from the senior national team to the local side. Gourcuff insists on a short-passing system to unlock defences. Both fullbacks are encouraged to overlap attack-minded wingers, and the vast majority of attacks pass through Yacine Brahimi who has been handed the keys to Gourcuff’s 4-4-2.
The fruits of his travail were not readily observed until a match against Malawi in Blida, on the fourth day of qualification. Algeria’s outfield players then completed 500 passes, the highest total in over a decade. Islam Slimani’s goal – Algeria’s third – was preceded by a whopping twenty-three consecutive passes. Things only improved in the next match against Ethiopia when Les Fennecs completed 613 passes and fashioned goalscoring opportunity after goalscoring opportunity.
Momentum – Algeria suffered no World Cup hangover. After winning the hearts of millions with heroic performances against Russia and Germany, Algeria seamlessly transitioned in Africa, at times playing mesmeric football. Preparations have passed serenely, as this group looks to finally add a second gold star above their crest.
Lack of a Plan B – In Bamako, on the final matchday of qualification, Algeria were outplayed and defeated. Mali coach Henryk Kasperszcak studied Algeria’s distinct passing style and drew up a game plan that interrupted their passing with a high bloc. Gourcuff has so perfected his philosophy that he does not believe in finding alternatives. The question then poses itself: If teams study the Algerian style of play and set up to disrupt it, can Les Fennecs fashion a sort of Plan B to break stalemates?
Yacine Brahimi – After a successful World Cup, Brahimi earned a move to FC Porto, where he has enjoyed unmitigated success. The 24-year-old attacking midfielder has developed an end product and has enjoyed an extremely successful Champions League campaign. Brahimi took on another dimension for his national team under Gourcuff. He excels in what has been coined the ‘free electron’ role, enjoying unrestricted movement, prodicomg wonderful whimsical moments of footballing magic.
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Medhi Lacen – Central midfielders in Gourcuff’s 4-4-2 play a fairly static role, never roaming too far forward. Lacen, Bentaleb, and Taider instead hold a distributive role, and are tasked with covering for attacking fullbacks. As most opponents will employ a counter-attacking tactic against Algeria, Lacen’s organizational role in midfield will be more than crucial.
Christian Gourcuff – In France, Gourcuff was renowned as one of L’Hexagone’s most accomplished tacticians. He spent twenty-five years at Lorient, dragging the club out of lower league mediocrity and into an established, competitive Ligue 1 outfit. His neurotic attention to detail has been carried over into the sporting arena where he has developed a precise philosophy that stresses possession football.
Champions – An Algerian nucleus that has grown together over the previous few years now has the talent, experience, and big-game mentality to win this Africa Cup of Nations.