AFCON Preview: Pharaohs Seek Next Dynasty

Egypt national team

It feels like only yesterday Egypt’s national team was living up to its nickname, presiding over a dynasty of three successive Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) titles. However so much has happened in the North African nation since then that the Pharaohs’ 2006-2010 three-peat feels as ancient as their namesake.

Revolution and retirement

On the field, Egypt endured a full changing-of-the-guard with the retirements of stalwarts like Ahmed Hassan, Mohamed Aboutrika, Wael Gomaa, Emad Motab, Hosny Abd Rabo, and more recently Essam El-Hadary.

Other championship contributors like Mohamed Zidan, Hossam Ghaly, Mohamed Shawky, Hany Said, Abdel-Zaher El-Sakka, Mido, Amr Zaki, and Sayed Moawwad have hung-up their boots as well.

Off the field, revolution caused years of instability and turmoil, resulting in league stoppages, crowd bans, and blows to the national team’s form and morale.

Four heads of state later, and despite violence and instability surrounding Egypt’s borders, political and economic conditions began to stabilize — and with it — Egyptian football as well.

Retooling and resurgence

With inexperienced personnel, a defense in utter shambles, and budgetary constraints, officials realized the team had to re-learn how to walk before it could run again.

Enter Héctor Raúl Cúper, the stubborn but disciplined Argentine that ate, drank, and slept defense.

His style left fans and pundits on edge, biting their nails with every short, long, and crossed ball the team purposely ceded.

Yet, it worked. Kinda.

The team that went from dominating possession, scoring chances and scoreboards at AFCON for years to the train wreck that couldn’t keep a cleansheet or even quality for AFCON to save its life, suddenly went all the way to the 2017 AFCON final having conceded just one solitary goal.

Despite losing the final late, Egypt rode its new aesthetically-challenged style all the way to a first FIFA World Cup finals appearance since 1990.

But Cúper ’s defensive style, however warranted it may have been at the time, had run its course. Egypt went nine matches without a win to end his tenure. The team’s approach was tolerated only because it was working. Barely. As soon as it wasn’t anymore, fans could no-longer stomach both ugly and ineffective football.

Building on success

After a coaching search that saw the team lose-out on the likes of Carlos Queiroz and Vahid Halilhodžić, the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) settled on Mexican tactician Javier Aguirre.

The EFA made no secret of its desire to appease disgruntled fans by returning to a more trademark, attack-minded approach.

Aguirre and his staff wasted no time to that end, going full throttle in their first official match in charge, a 6-0 drubbing of Niger in a qualifier for the upcoming AFCON, before Egypt was named emergency host.

Concerns

However, all-out attack doesn’t come without its tradeoffs. Egypt has conceded five goals in the five matches since beating Niger, hinting at a possible over-correction of the team’s ultra-defense approach under Cúper.

The team has made a handful of defensive blunders that it wasn’t under the previous administration. In fairness, the staff fielded a full squad just once in that span, but that was against its toughest opponent — Tunisia — against which they conceded twice.

While a riskier, all-out attack may work at AFCON — especially on home soil — history shows it is less effective in World Cup qualifying than a consistent, potent defense. But, I suppose we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it. AFCON will undoubtedly double as an audition for the future of Aguirre and his staff, 2022 World Cup qualifiers included.

Options

Aguirre has fielded two distinct systems in his six matches in charge. My personal favorite was the 3-6-1/3-4-3 the team started the match against Niger with, featuring Baher Elmohamady and Ahmed Hegazy as centerbacks, Aly Ghazal playing a sweeper/libero role, Mohamed ElNeny and Tarek Hamed manning the middle, Ayman Ashraf and Ahmed Elmohamady deployed as wingbacks, and the trio of Mohamed Salah, Mahmoud Trezeguet, and Ahmed Hassan ‘Kouka’ up front.

It appeared to offer the best balance between defense and attack, while controlling possession, pace, and flow.

However, Aguirre seems to have favored a more traditional 4-5-1 since. The approach offers a little less defensively but adds a playmaker to the attacking trio. But does this maximize the potential of the Pharaohs’ personnel? Egypt hasn’t had an elite playmaker since Aboutrika, and before him the team enjoyed the talents of Hazem Emam and Abdel-Sattar Sabry. While Abdalla El-Said and Walid Soliman — two players in the current squad that can man the number 10 role — are no slouches, they’re also not their predecessors.

Considering the two setups Aguirre has played in, here’s the formation and lineup we expect.

And here’s the one we prefer, the alternate setup the team fielded in the 6-0 win over Niger.

Egypt will succeed if…

…the defensive blunders we’ve seen in the past several matches don’t rear their ugly heads. Egypt will have no problem creating enough scoring opportunities to win matches with the personnel and approach they’ll deploy. But as mentioned, it has thus far come at the cost of errors that better teams will pounce on. There is a science and technique to effective defending, and it requires the same tactical complexity that any well-drilled attack would. We have not yet seen that in the Aguirre era, but the sample size is too small to judge. If he’s relying on goals to make-up for any defensive lapses, he may just get away with it at AFCON, but he won’t during the physically and mentally-exhausting grind of World Cup qualifying.

Egypt will fail if…

The defense stinks. Sounds obvious given what I just spouted about what it takes for them to succeed, but that’s the reality. Egypt can win AFCON 2019 if defending is managed well and organized. Conversely, if the back-line is left to its own devices, there’s a good chance Egypt will not be able to make up for it with goals of its own despite what will be a very attack-minded approach.

Keep an eye on…

…Ahmed Hassan ‘Kouka.’ It’s a name you know, but a selection that may surprise you. We all know that Mohamed Salah is the best and most important player in the squad, and that Mahmoud Trezeguet has been the hipster’s choice as a darkhorse for at least two tournaments running.

But Kouka — along with every other striker that played for Cúper — was given the unfair rap of being ineffective at their job. What many fans failed to consider is how brutal Cúper system is for strikers. Full-backs were rarely allowed to advance forward and help with crosses into the box and both defensive midfielders were instructed to stay near the center stripe. Forwards were left to their own devices, asked to be both creator and finisher if the ball wasn’t already at a winger’s feet.

AFCON 2019 will be Kouka’s best-ever opportunity to shine in an Egypt shirt. Aguirre’s approach should provide him with plenty of support, freeing him up to do the job strikers were born for; score.

If I had to guess, he’s going to take advantage. But will the team take advantage of their opportunity to win an eighth AFCON title on home soil?

This is the deepest AFCON in history, and not because it’s the first to feature 24 teams. Parity in African football is at an all-time high, with no less than half-a-dozen legitimate favorites to lift the trophy. However, if past AFCON iterations in Egypt are any indication, don’t bet against a new Pharaohs dynasty emerging from the throes of the Sahara.

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