By Sam Crocker
As AFCON 2019 approaches, one feels a sensation of déjà vu talking about Senegal. As one of the most stable and talented countries represented in Egypt this summer, all logic suggests they should be up there with the best of them. Talented players who have experience of major tournaments, a consistent production line of new talent, a sensible federation who preach patience; all of this seems like it should be the ingredients for success.
However, recent underperformance has slightly blighted Senegal. Alain Giresse’s side failed to escape from an admittedly exceptional group at AFCON 2015, whilst 2017 saw them dispatched by Cameroon on penalties, failing to overcome their stubborn opponents. The 2018 World Cup saw them knocked out on fair play points in a dramatic and competitive final round of the group stage. Whilst all of these things can be justifiably put down to misfortune and fate, such logic and consideration will rarely satisfy fans and pundits thirsty for success.
After a reasonably tidy qualification campaign, progressing with the second highest goal difference of all qualifiers in a quite weak group, Aliou Cisse will be able to look around his dressing room and see consistent faces to call upon for his upcoming campaign. Boasting some exceptional quality and an actual game plan, there’s no reason why AFCON 2019 the Lions of Teranga can’t put misery behind them. Perhaps this will be the tournament where the gods of luck smile upon them.
It’s the old-reliable for Senegal. 4-3-3. Superb attackers. Strong midfielders. Solid defenders. A system they’ve been playing for some years and a number of quality options in each position, gone are the days of trying to jostle three burly centre-forwards into the same team. Now they’re able to call upon a set of forwards all of whom can play more or less across the frontline, offering an exceptional flexibility and dynamism when Senegal flood forward.
Most conducive to counter-attacking football, Senegal still have not quite worked out how to dominate their opponents with the ball on the big stage. Whilst electric on the break, they can look hamstrung in possession; their bodyguard midfield not offering much going forward from central positions.
At the back, they’re just fine. Kalidou Koulibaly is more than capable of marshalling the walls, whilst Moussa Wague and Youssouf Sabaly offer a bit of thrill on the overlap.
Defence – It says a lot when a front three including Saido Mane is not the most exciting aspect of this Senegal side. Only conceding two goals in qualifying – both in a 2-2 draw in Madagascar – it is not surprising when you look at the players they have making up their backline.
Kalidou Koulibaly is one of the best centre-backs in Europe, alongside the vastly improved Salif Sane, who has managed to oust former Senegalese centre-back staple Kara Mbodj from the side. Moussa Wague is also an exciting prospect at right-back, getting some game time for Barcelona this season after promotion from the B team.
The Achilles’ Heel
Creativity – Whilst not conceding goals might not be a problem, getting your team to score might be. Seemingly ridiculous to say given the names being bandied around, but Cisse still hasn’t really resolved the conundrum of how to squeeze from creativity out of places other than the front-three.
Given they can’t do it on their own, it requires one of the midfield three to step-up, which is easier said than done given their tackling- and shoving-based skillset. The likes of Cheikou Kouayate, Idrissa Gueye and Badou Ndiaye are not renowned for their eye for a through ball. Cisse does have the option to play an extra forward to drop in just behind the front three, but whether this is permissible when they come up against the big sides remains to be seen.
Saido Mane – There really is no other choice. To such an extent, it seems a bit boring to write about him. Regardless, Saido Mane has come off yet another incredible season for Liverpool. Finishing joint-golden boot winner alongside fellow African lads Aubameyang and Salah, he has proven to be an exceptionally effective all-round forward, adding yet more strings to his bow.
For Senegal, he has to be more of a talisman. Leading from the front, both literally and as team captain, he will be the one fans look to get them out of trouble – arguably too much you might say. Having missed the key penalty in the AFCON 2017 shootout against Cameroon and having had success so cruelly tease him with Liverpool, expect Mane to be pumped up in Egypt.
The Hipster’s Choice
Ismaila Sarr – Product of the Generation Foot academy in Dakar, Ismaila Sarr has become a real Cisse favourite since taking over. The lanky winger has made the starting berth his own with his tricky dribbling skills, tidy finishing and outrageous turn of pace.
Most comfortable found on the right-side of three, he was a regular at the World Cup last summer, and will be hoping to harness the excellent season he’s just come off with Rennes whilst in Egypt. With Arsenal rumoured to be looking on, Unai Emery would be well-advised to get himself a Eurosport package so he can watch this kid play football.
Gaining notoriety in the world of normal football fans last summer following the GIF of him celebrating Senegal’s goal against Poland, the aggressive look in this meme is not representative. Cool and pensive on the touchline, this has the potential to be a make or break tournament for Cisse.
His first proper managerial role when he took over in 2015, the aforementioned disappointments in 2017 and 2018 will have got people talking about his future. Having had time to mould this team to his desired style of play, fans will be wanting some silverware to make his tenure.
With a recovering Algeria the only potential threat in Group C, their limited attacking flow will hamper them again once they come up against quality opposition later in the tournament. Likely to face up against Morocco in the quarter-final, these are exactly the types of side they struggle against.