Why Senegal failed to shine at the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations

To really grasp the nature of Senegal's spectacular failure at this Africa Cup of Nations you need only look at the teams who finished above them in Group A. For Senegal to finish below Equatorial Guinea is surprising, unfathomable even. But to finish below Libya, given the vast gap in quality and wildly differing paths they travelled before meeting in Bata, is astonishing.

Consider it for a moment. Libya is a team that had to overcome political divisions, a full-scale, bloody revolution, a qualifying campaign in which they could only play one game at home due to the conflicts, the suspension of their domestic league and – as if all that wasn't enough - the death of their team doctor the night before a crucial qualifier.

They have no globally renowned stars, the structure of their league leaves much to be desired and until recently transfers abroad were heavily restricted by the now deceased Colonel Gadaffi.

Compare with Senegal, who boast millions of pounds worth of talent and three of European football's most prolific strikers over the past year, and it is truly remarkable that Libya managed to beat them 2-1, let alone finish above them over three games.

Such an achievement is to Libya's great credit. To Senegal's great shame, they finish bottom of a group they were supposed to stroll through on their way, in many people's eyes, to lifting the trophy itself.

Why, then, have Senegal failed, again?

Effectively Senegal's shortcomings come down to a mixture of three factors...

1) Bad luck

It's never nice to be too critical, so we might start with the positives. Senegal are young enough to learn from this experience and they should come back stronger. Very few players in the squad are over 30 and, used intelligently, the painful memory of AfCON 2012 might spur the Teranga Lions on to greater things. All men make mistakes but only wise men learn from them, to paraphrase Winston Churchill.

Senegal were also unfortunate that, rather than smile on them, the gods preferred to belch out an almighty torrential rainstorm before the deciding game against Equatorial Guinea on matchday two.

Heavy rain is football's great leveller. Bad pitches don't make bad players better, but they certainly make good players worse, and despite Equatorial Guinea's inspired recent displays there can be little debate their players are of inferior technical quality to the Senegalese.

"The state of the pitch was not good but I’m not trying to seek excuses for our defeat,” the coach Amara Traore commented. On a better, less rain-sodden surface, Senegal might have found the fluidity needed to scrape victory and progress from there.

With the niceties out of the way now we can sink our teeth into assessing where this sorry campaign really went wrong.

2) Tactical naivety

While being a youthful team has its advantages, it isn't all sunshine, lollipops and Supergrass soundtracks. The age old debate of youth versus experience reared its head once again here and in Senegal's case an absence of the latter was both evident and costly.

Traore, a relatively inexperienced coach whose only previous managerial role was at ASC Linguère, appeared to go through the tournament with no clearly defined strategy for his team, stumbling from formation to formation almost randomly.

They began the competition with a 4-3-3 against Zambia, but any gameplan was discarded almost immediately when, 2-0 down after 28 minutes and shellshocked, Traore ripped up the scrapbook, took a midfielder off and threw on another striker. It wasn't quite 4-2-4, it wasn't quite 4-3-3. It wasn't quite anything. They improved but still fell to a 2-1 defeat.

Against Equatorial Guinea, Traore switched to a more conventional 4-4-2 albeit with a striker, Dame N'Doye, out wide. It changed little. The lions still lacked teeth and were surprisingly limp against the co-hosts' rigid defensive shape. In their final game Traore rotated again and Senegal, already defeated and in disarray, played a dishevelled 4-2-4 with a centre back as a holding midfielder and another striker out wide.

In attack there was also zero continuity. Mamadou Niang, Demba Ba and Moussa Sow started the first game. N'Doye joined them inside a half hour. Traore then tried Ba, Papiss Cisse and N'Doye out wide, and finally Niang, Ba, Souleymane Camara and Deme N'Diaye.

All this portrayed a team without structure and a coach without answers. By comparison the more experienced Marcos Paqueta was almost professorial on the touchline, his tweaking of Libya's tactics and calm authority a stark contrast. Traore will learn from all this for next time – if afforded a next time by an impatient football federation who may smell blood.

This leads to my final point which, scratching beneath the surface of Senegalese football, reveals a quite obvious and simple truth.

Senegal really are just not that good.

3) Hype versus reality

This applies both to the current team and to Senegal as a football nation in general. Senegal have been overestimated at this Cup of Nations. Blinded by the delights – the Bas, Cisses and Sows in attack – glaring weaknesses in other areas were overlooked.

Put simply, Senegal's team is all sugar and no flour. The strikers can be wonderful but the team desperately lacks midfield guile and creativity. “In the medium and long term, games are always lost in central midfield,” the Italian coach Alberto Zaccheroni once said, but the Teranga Lions' midfield is both porous and unimaginative. On more than one occasion Traore resorted to using strikers as wingers and Senegal struggled to breach defences. When they did, their crossing was dreadful.

Stats Zone analysis illustrates this.

Strikers like Ba and Sow are penalty box players who thrive on good service. In the Premier League, taking statistics until December Ba was one of the worst strikers in the top seven in terms of minutes per chance created. Offer him good service however and 14 league goals show how ruthless he can be.

In Equatorial Guinea this service never came. Ba received the ball only twelve times in the opposition penalty area in three games – six times against Zambia, six against Equatorial Guinea and not once against Libya. By comparison, Didier Drogba received the ball in the opposition penalty area almost as many times in just one game, against a Sudan side who were subsequently praised for their compact defensive shape...

If your team is blessed with clinical finishers, providing good supply is as vital as it is logical. But Senegal's bitty midfield offered next to nothing, a fact not helped by constant rotation. When Birmingham City's holding midfielder Guirane N'Daw is your most creative outlet, as he was against Zambia, you've got problems.

This leads to a deeper issue. Truth is, Senegal have never been a traditional power in African football. There is no golden era, no history of success. They've never won a Cup of Nations, are one of only four teams in the last twenty years to host a Nations Cup and not at least reach the semi-finals, their recent finals record is dire (won none, drawn two, lost six) and administrative problems and in-fighting are rife.

Never a shrinking violet, El-Hadji Diouf had his say after elimination was sealed.

“The Senegal team has no soul,” he stated. “The team is weak, or let me say doesn’t (sic) worth the big name pundits give to it and the true status has just been revealed.”

“I predicted the failure of Senegal at the 2012 Afcon and it has happened. The FA people are jealous of Senegal’s 2002 generation. They don’t want to associate us with the team. They have mixed politics with football in Senegal and things will never change for good for now.”

Strong words. And while one could question the extent to which Diouf is merely using a poison tongue to further his own agenda, on the evidence of Senegal's 2012 Nations Cup campaign, he may have a point.

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