The moment the draw took place we started an invisible match, as I mentioned in my previous column. That invisible match is one that every of the 24 teams is currently playing. National team coaches and their technical benches, supported by their respective federations – and sometimes their governments – are all playing in this match.
It comprises of looking at their own team, their way of preparing, their readiness for the matches in the group and perhaps later on in the knockouts. More importantly, they should be looking at the opponents and trying to pay the highest possible attention to the deepest details.
Scouting is crucial aspect of that preparation phase. As soon as their opponents were known technical benches should have started the task of going into deep detail and analysis. What does that entail? You are analysing the team throughout their qualification campaign. The way they have qualified. You are recognising their strengths and weaknesses and their sources of danger and vulnerability.
You are analysing the potential starting XI and the consistency that the coaches opt for that XI. You are keeping your eyes on when the opponents’ have named their provisional squads and their final 23 names. You then analyse each and every player in the opposition, looking at his qualities, level of performances and form.
At the same time, you are cutting clips and sharing those with your players for them to easily consume. For example, if you will be facing Mohamed Salah you will know he usually plays on the right and tends to cut inside on his left foot. So you prepare the left back, centre backs and left-sided midfielders accordingly. Those are the things that require the deepest attention as come the matchday the tiniest of margins can be the difference between a positive result and a negative one. Each coach will prepare in their own way as too much is at stake.
The world of scouting has evolved rapidly with platforms like WyScout and InStat making the lives of coaches easier than ever. It’s now possible to scrutinise every single detail in an efficient way. Yet the game of football still has room for a lot of unpredictability so opposition analysis can only take you so far. Although you can see many teams unfortunately you can’t always read the minds of opposition.
And sadly, for us coaches, you also cannot enter the mind of a player. There will be enormous adrenaline from players representing their countries. You cannot enter into his patriotic soul. You cannot enter into his heart ready to fight. You cannot enter into his lungs ready to run more than ever. You cannot identify how much courage and calmness each of the players has to show the best version of themselves on the day. If we knew all those things football wouldn’t be so interesting.
The location of the pre-tournament camp for teams can play an important role in a big international competition like AFCON. Respective coaches need to look at the financial help provided by federations and government for their pre-tournament preparation. Once that has been taken into consideration, you can spread your body as much as your blanket allows.
We can see that all the national teams are looking to find the environment that can be fully compatible with the time of the year. The weather in Egypt in June and July is hot and humid. Egypt has a Mediterranean climate and this will give the teams a chance to set their initial bases in Algeria, Morocco or Tunisia to be in exact weather conditions.
There are certain countries that are starting preparation in their own countries in high altitude. They are getting their strong base before going to Egypt’s sea level. When you’re on high altitude there is less oxygen and when you go to the sea level there is more of it. This is a crucial element in acclimatisation and readiness to play under high intensity football.
There are many teams that will opt to go the Gulf region to prepare whether in Dubai, Abu Dhabi or surrounding areas. They will have optimal preparation in the right environment where there will be the desired tranquillity for players and teams to prepare and focus on details. There is a slight problem, though. There will be a temperature difference between Egypt and the Gulf of around 4 degrees Celsius. This is not be optimal but playing friendly matches in the evenings will recreate a similar temperature to that of Egypt.
The upcoming AFCON will present a different challenge for teams as it will happen in June going in July. When the competition was played in January you had players coming into AFCON in fresh competitive form and in peak fitness condition. There’s now a huge challenge for coaches as the vast majority of players are coming into the tournament after long, gruelling seasons. Unsurprisingly, there will be physical and mental exhaustion. Coaches need to find the right balance of recovery and preparation. We shall see what happens with this challenge.
The expansion also means more matches, meaning teams have to keep an eye on fitness levels. The difference between 16 and 24 is not strictly just numbers. Now with one win you have a big chance of progressing as one of the best third place teams. Once you enter the round of 16 it’s the knockout stage and anything can happen because of its very nature.
If you cast your mind back to the last AFCON, Senegal won all their group games then couldn’t get past Cameroon in the quarter-finals. With the right preparation, teams will feel they can go from winning invisible matches to succeeding in visible ones, and really having a chance of making an impact at the tournament in doing so.