In only four games, the Black Stars have looked like one of the continent’s most organised and structured teams under Otto Addo, and despite winning only one of his four games, it is safe to say many are confident the German-born Ghanaian can steer the Black Stars back to the top of Africa’s football pyramid.
Otto Addo’s Black Stars have impressively displayed appreciable levels of tactical flexibility in a short while. In all four games so far, the Black Stars have started in a 4-2-3-1/4-3-3, but rarely stuck to these in-game.
While the team has switched between a 3-1-4-2 and a 4-1-4-1, in the second half of the World Cup playoff versus Nigeria, a 5-4-1 diamond was employed, mitigating the threat of Nigeria’s superior wing play.
Largely however, Otto Addo has relied on a 3-1-4-2 in all of Ghana’s attacking phases. This new shape with a flying left-back and inside forward left-winger, is mainly to accommodate for Addo’s double 8 attacking midfielders.
Also important in an adjusted 3-1-4-2 shape are, a line-hugging right-winger to provide team width and a very mobile center-forward to run channels and stretch play.
The Number 8
Traditional football formations like the 4-2-3-1 accommodate three ‘central midfielders’; a defensive midfielder commonly referred to as a 6, an attacking midfielder – the popular number 10, and a box-to-box midfielder known as a number 8.
While the 6 and 10 were responsible for defensive screening and attacking ingenuity respectively, the 8 linked play with line-breaking passes and dribbling, basically.
The roles of these three were crucial to maintaining team balance, but the advancement of football has resulted in a gradual and slow easing out of the number 10, a practice the senior national team has been very slow in reacting to, as coaches in the team’s recent past have all stuck to using the 4-2-3-1.
But Addo and his team of three support men, have fast-tracked the Black Stars’ adaptation, edging Ghana closer to ‘modern’ football.
Addo’s double-attacking 8s
In possession, the Black Stars under Addo have always shifted from their 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 to 3-1-4-2 where the right back is deployed as a third center-back, the left-back operates as a wing-back and the left-winger plays as an inside-forward in support of the center forward.
However, it’s not highly-fixated, as Baba Iddrisu has twice played as a third center-back, with the right-back(Denis Odoi in those instances), roaming as a wingback. More critical to his 3-1-4-2 though, is the application of the central midfielders who play as a dual midfield attacking threat, responsible for occupying half-spaces, creating chances and also being a live goal threat.
In this system, Addo eliminates the use of a traditional number 10, instead opting for a mobile striker, an inside forward and his dual number 8s, as exhibited in Ghana’s victory over Madagascar.
Dede Ayew and Mohammed Kudus, both recognized as number 10s, were deployed as two number 8s.
This is not a recent happening, as the Black Stars have been using it since Addo stepped in as boss.
The responsibilities of the two 8s are dependent on the particular phase of play in motion, but they have huge roles in making sure the team doesn’t suffer.
The Black Stars under Addo have made attempts at becoming a ball-dominant team and in four games, have failed to get more than 50% possession only once, averaging 58.75 of the ball in their games.
The Black Stars build up with a lone pivot in midfield, receiving from the three central defenders. The main option of the single pivot midfielder after receiving from the defenders is to find one of two double 8s occupying the half spaces.
With three defenders, a single pivot and two midfielders in the half-spaces, the Black Stars always have passing options. As a result, they are able to control games and the midfield where ball retention is key, hence dominate the ball possession statistics.
Besides the desire to grow into a ball-dominant team, the Black Stars have also looked to be the more offensive team in games, registering more attempts on goal (47) than their opponents (32) since Addo took charge.
The application of a double 8 also means the Black Stars always have enough bodies in and around the opposition’s 18-yard-box, making the entire team a bigger threat. A key to remember is besides the dual 8, there is also the presence of an inside forward, a center-forward, a right-winger as well as a very-offensive left fullback.
The right-back usually tucks in as a third center back to provide team balance and also some defensive protection, but his role as part of the three is not fixed since he can sometimes overlap to provide options and width on the right.
The double attacking 8s are crucial to the offensive play of the Black Stars, with the responsibility of making things happen offensively, in an array of ways. Primarily deep runs from midfield, facilitated by a mobile center-forward, means the Black Stars can play through opposition.
The single pivot, which has been Iddrisu most recently, on the ball has the responsibility to control the tempo of the game and also pick out runs. However, it is not a responsibility solely exclusive to him as any of the three center-backs can also pick out players once they are on.
Despite their offensive threat, the double attacking 8s are equally important when the Black Stars are without possession. Out of possession, the Black Stars often settle into a 4-1-4-1 shape.
When pressing opponents, the defensive roles for the 8s are just much alike, as defensive action is executed dependent on the ball’s position. More clearly, when the Black Stars press up the field, one of the two 8s push up depending on the location of the ball.
The application is similar in a mid/low block as the 8s will either drop deep or hold their position depending on the ball’s location.
Supported by wingers, the double 8s are capable of closing out opposition in the wide and deep areas.
During buildup, the Black Stars primarily look to go short, through the pivot or the double 8s in the half-spaces but the team can be restricted when the opposition outnumbers the single pivot.
And perhaps even more importantly, the Black Stars midfield offers little support to defense on transitions, as the shape permits for only one pivot. However, the double 8s often run down the opposition on counters, and have been largely successful. But to be fair, besides Nigeria, the team has faced low quality sides since the application of the 3-1-4-2.
Also, the 4-1-4-1 exposes the defense when the opposition manages to play through the first phase of pressure. In most cases Iddrisu as a single pivot is powerless in such a situation, as there will be too much ground for him to cover.
Against Madagascar, the Black Stars conceded a number of these chances but the quality provided by the Barea’s was telling, proving that this system could struggle versus high-quality teams.
While it can be said one of the three central defenders can step out and engage opposition on the counter, attention should be paid to the fact that the primary action for defenders especially as the last line of cover during a transition, is to drop back in order to limit spaces in-behind and track runners.
This was also evident in Central Africa Republic’s equalizer four days later.
While the double 8 is very effective for the Black Stars offensively, on a bigger stage like the World Cup, the national team will not be spared when the shortcomings come to light. Portugal and Uruguay have players who thrive in space and possess the quality to punish Ghana on the counter.
So definitely, the Black Stars might need to look at an adjustment of shape while maintaining the offensive threat. Fortunately for Addo and the technical team, they possess rich midfield options and can tinker. But probably the first options should be Partey, Daniel Kyereh and Kudus. These three on paper, offer the national team balance and high technical ability in midfield.
Critically however, the Black Stars will need more metal in midfield to serve as protection for counter and transitions, so maybe they could explore a 2-3-4-1 as this shape can maintain the principle of playing with double attacking 8s.
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