They are just not the same, are they? Ghana’s Black Stars have failed to completely dominate a game in a long while and fans are getting intolerant and rightly so. Throughout the qualifying campaign, coach Kwesi Appiah deployed a flat 4-4-2 formation which wasn’t great but sufficed. Once again, Ghana did manage to find a way against Kenya and top Group F. Despite finishing first, concerns about the performances of the Black Stars still hang in the air. The flat 4-4-2 formation used by Kwesi Appiah is not bringing the best out of his players and that situation needs to change before boarding the flight to Egypt in three months.
HISTORY OF THE 4-4-2 FORMATION
The 4-4-2 formation was arguably first put into action in 1966 when Alf Ramsey made history with England. He had toyed with the idea during a friendly against Poland and experimented with Ipswich prior to that. The set up was a narrow 4-4-2, often known as the “Wingless Wonders”; the shape was closer to 4-4-2 diamond used by Zidane’s Real Madrid than a flat 4-4-2 that was adopted by Ranieri’s Leicester City. England went on to win that World Cup in 1966 on home soil and the 4-4-2 gradually became more widespread.
TYPE OF PLAYERS REQUIRED
The likes of Ranieri, Simeone and Zidane embedded the tactical requirements of their 4-4-2 system into the minds of each player. You get that feeling that the players of Ghana are yet to fully grasp what is expected of them in a flat 4-4-2 system. Let’s take a look at the requirements for each department in a flat 4-4-2 and use a grading scale (A – Excellent, B – Very Good, C – Good, D – Poor) to rate the performance of the Black Stars versus their Kenyan counterparts.
The central defender’s main job is to repel the attacks of the opposing team, primarily by tackling and heading the ball out of the danger zone. In a flat 4-4-2 formation, the central defenders are required to be strong, brave, keep high concentration levels and also have the ability to read the game. While their teammates' passing may be expansive, the central defenders are expected to keep things simple, distributing short passes to their central midfielders. It is also imperative that together with the fullbacks, they implement an effective offside trap since the could be a large gap between the defence and midfield in this system.
Kasim Nuhu and John Boye were Ghana’s central defenders in the game. Nuhu demonstrated all the skills expected in a 4-4-2 system and kept things fairly simple. On the other hand, John Boye had a bit too many moments where he had a lapse in concentration which could have easily cost Ghana on the day.
Grade = C
The primary role of a full-back is to defend against opposition wingers and other players occupying their area of the pitch. A team's full-backs can also be a major attacking weapon. In a 4-4-2 system, a full-back with pace, power and good crossing ability is a real asset on the flank as they can stretch the other team's wide players and provide ammunition for strikers.
Lumor Agbenyenu and Daniel Opare occupied the left back and right back positions respectively. Daniel Opare was very poor on the night and looked like he lacked match fitness. Although Lumor made some marauding runs upfield, his final ball was never good enough.
Grade = D
Usually, in a flat 4-4-2 formation, there is one defensive midfielder and another central midfielder whose job is to get forward and join the strikers in the penalty area. The defensive midfielder is charged with breaking up opposition attacks, and when the team is on the back foot, act as an extra member of the defence. The other midfielder still has defensive responsibilities, especially when his team does not have possession. But it is key that he gets forward to support the strikers when the team has the ball, otherwise, there is a risk that the front men would lack support.
Wakaso from the onset was the defensive midfielder tasked with breaking down the attack of opponents. Partey, on the other hand, was supposed to offer more in attack. Wakaso was very brilliant in doing his job and was very imposing on the day. Although Partey had an assist, he could have offered more in terms of driving runs and also adding numbers in the box.
Grade = C
A winger's prime responsibility is to take on full-backs and get the ball into the strikers. One of the primary sources of attack in a flat 4-4-2 formation is through the wings. Due to this, they are expected to keep their width and keep putting in crosses for the two strikers. It is also expected of the wingers to get into advanced goalscoring positions. When on the back foot, it is a winger's job to defend against opposition full-backs. It is essential that the winger supports his own full-back, or there is a risk that that flank could be badly exposed.
Atsu played from the left wing and Andre Ayew played from the right wing for Ghana. Andre on the day barely kept his width and ended up forcing most of Ghana’s attacks to be skewed towards the left side. Atsu was enterprising on the day as he brought home a bag full of tricks, unfortunately, his crosses never found a Black Stars player in the box. Also, the adventures of Lumor and Atsu left Ghana exposed at the back sometimes.
Grade = D
It is common in a 4-4-2 system to have one striker playing high up the field capable of holding the ball up and laying it off to his partner. This player furthest up the field is often a big target man, with the physical strength to hold off defenders and bring his teammates into play. Often the second striker is capable of playing in the 'hole' (the area behind the main striker) and using his creative skills to set up those around him, primarily his strike partner.
We never really saw who was the target man and who was playing in the hole, did we? There was a lack of connection between Emmanuel Boateng and Jordan Ayew. There were barely any moments of the two players combining and that is very worrying. At the end of the day, both strikers were left to feed on scraps with very little supply.
Grade = D
FLAWS IN GHANA’S 4-4-2 FORMATION
The use of two banks of four players results in large gaps between the defence and midfield, and the midfield and the attack. A team playing with an attack-minded midfielder, a trequartista, can easily take advantage of the space and with time on the ball can find a pass or shot that can change the game. The space between midfielders and attacking players can be taken up by an opposition defensive midfielder, providing more cover and stability and another obstacle for the attacking players to overcome.
The Black Stars barely had any joy against Kenya because all the useful spaces were closed down and there was a huge gap between the midfield and attack. Ghana on the day were a bit too rigid and lacked flexibility and interplay especially in the final third. This stemmed into a general problem of a lack of supply for Ghana’s attackers. Wakaso whenever on the ball had no options within 10 metres hence resorting in long balls, a tactic that does not fit the profile of Jordan Ayew who loves the ball to feet. The originality in this system develops mostly at the wings and truth be told that was where Ghana had a lot of joy against Kenya. However, the poor deliveries coupled with the lack of a tall target man in the box left the system redundant.
WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE
The 4-4-2 may be a classic English formation but teams and managers need to understand that although it has many benefits and advantages, the more modern and continental formations will be able to outnumber and outplay it. The 4-4-2 is best deployed as a counter-attacking system. Unfortunately for Ghana, consequences of being dubbed as favourites means that most opponents will set up in a deep block like Kenya did on Saturday. Hence, Ghana will have more possession of the ball and that really does defeat the purpose of deploying a counter-attacking system.
Certainly, Kwesi Appiah has to look elsewhere for a new formation and tactics that will help breakdown defensive opponents and most importantly bring the best out of his players. The 4-5-1 formation is even more fluid than the 4-4-2 in that it can quickly become a 4-3-3, 4-1-4-1 or 4-2-3-1 whenever need be. Andre Ayew’s best position in England was playing behind a striker. Jordan Ayew scored his most goals in England playing as a single striker with a creative player behind him. A friendly game against Mauritania will present Coach Kwesi Appiah the chance to try something new in terms of tactics, hopefully, he does because these set of Ghanaian players are talented, and if well managed can finally end Ghana’s 37-year wait.
If you were Kwesi Appiah, which formation would you deploy to bring the best out of these Black Stars players? Click to vote