After a remarkable rise from the ashes, with an AFCON semi-final and two World Cup appearances, Algeria went through a rough patch, suffering a first round exit and not qualifying for the 2018 World Cup.
Off the pitch, things were even worse. Strongman Mohamed Raouraoua was pushed to the exit door and former Paradou president Kheireddine Zetchi was brought in to push a long-term vision of building state-of-the-art academies across the country.
Zetchi’s reign has been riddled with in-fighting and poor management choices, but the team finally seems back on track under the tutelage of Djamel Belmadi. A no-nonsense man-manager, the 43 year-old was a personal favourite for several influential Algerian players and had proved his worth with the Qatari national team, winning the Gulf Cup in 2014.
His main challenge was solidifying a porous defence that had been deteriorating since the retirement of Madjid Bougherra in 2015. Belmadi experimented with several different pairings at the centre-half position and now has options at his disposal. Another imperative tactical disposition is the placement of a ‘sentinel’ in front of defence, to snuff out dead space that the opposing attack can drift in to.
On the other side of the pitch, Algeria boast one of the most dangerous attacks in the Cup of Nations. Baghdad Bounedjah is a moustachioed maestro that can bamboozle you with his schoolyard tricks or bully you with his surprisingly solid frame. The two Youcefs (Belaili, Atal) will surprise the European journalists with this flair
The major lesson Algeria learned from the Gourcuff era was that Algeria needs to play with a disciplined defensive midfielder in front of defence. As a result, Djamel Belmadi has preferred a 4-3-3, with either attacking or defensive fullbacks depending on the opposition. A number six will almost always be deployed in front of defence, and Belmadi’s wingers will pinch in onto their strong feet and attack with creativity (Mahrez, Belaili, Ounas and Brahimi).
Overall, Belmadi has put together a balanced system after experimenting in nearly every qualifier. This Algerian side now has the structure necessary to hold off opposing attacks.
For spectators outside of Algeria, the star player is quite obviously Riyad Mahrez. But for those that have been following this side closely, Baghdad Bounedjah is the one to look out for.
Because he plays his football in Qatar, the jack-of-all-trades striker is criminally under-appreciated. However, he has scored 9 goals in his last 11 appearances with the Algerian national team and will be chomping at the bit to prove his worth on the continental stage.
The Hipster’s Choice
Ismael Bennacer has come a long way from his weekly run-outs with the Arsenal U21s. After Arsene Wenger advised him to play for Algeria, the young midfielder came to an agreement with Mohamed Raouraoua, shunning Morocco in the process.
After two long years for Empoli in Serie A, Bennacer has come into his own as a do-it-all regista. He is excellent at breaking up opposing attacks with his anticipation, but also has a deep range of passing that is particularly useful when counter-attacking.
During Algeria’s abysmal period at the turn of the millennium, Djamel Belmadi was one of the rare players who did not disappoint. After stints at Marseille, Southampton and Manchester City, the Mostaganem native went into coaching in Qatar, heading Lekhwiya and the Qatari national team.
His record in the QSL is absurdly good, but questions were always going to be raised about the level of competition. The Algeria job was a dream move for him, but it will also be his toughest test. After the fiasco that was the Madjer stint, Belmadi benefitted from a wave of popular support and, as long as The Fennecs don’t suffer a humiliating first-round exit, he will remain Algeria’s long-term option on the touchline.
Algeria will advance past the group stages, but will most likely not advance past the quarter-finals. Other teams in the tournament have more all-around quality and better chemistry than Les Verts.