Egypt have already stuttered in their pursuit of an unprecedented eighth AFCON title, drawing 2-2 with Mozambique in the opening match of Group B.
Despite dominating possession and racking up a significant number of shots, Rui Vitoria’s side struggled to cope with a Mozambique team that continually asked questions of the Egyptian defence and cannily made adjustments throughout the game to slowly assert themselves in the match.
Far removed from the dour, defensive football of Carlos Queiroz, Vitoria sets his side up in a more proactive 4-3-3. While possessing one of the premier talents in world football in Mohamed Salah, Vitoria has aimed to make the side less dependent on his creative and attacking output through coaching clearer patterns in the early build-up and including the likes of Zizo in midfield, to provide outlets for chance creation beyond simply relying on the Liverpool forward.
As such, it was unsurprising to see Egypt have more than 60% of the ball against opponents with inferior technical quality in their side. They built from the back in a 2-3 shape, with Mohamed Elneny sitting in front of the centre-backs and the fullbacks hugging the touchline on either side.
The extreme width of the full-backs enabled Egypt, particularly in the early stages of the game, to stretch Mozambique’s defensive block.
If Egypt’s central and wide midfielders stayed narrow, they left the full-backs in too much space and allowed them to play over the top of the Mozambique backline to find the likes of Salah and Trezeguet in behind. If they came wide, though, spaces opened in the channels for the wingers to drop into and play quick combinations to progress the ball into the final third.
🏆 The Africa Cup of Nations has already been an incredible tournament!
🇨🇻 Smallest participants Cape Verde stun Ghana
🇲🇿 Mozambique within seconds of beating Egypt
🇳🇦 Namibia defeat Tunisia for first-ever AFCON win
🇬🇶 Equatorial Guinea hold three-time winners Nigeria pic.twitter.com/Xp3mdsVQUk
— The Sweeper (@SweeperPod) January 17, 2024
This allowed Egypt to progress effectively in wide areas for much of the early part of the game, resulting in an early goal from Mostafa Mohamed and a few other chances.
On the occasions Mozambique retrieved possession, though, they were easily able to create chances of their own due to Egypt’s disjointed defensive posture. When they turned the ball over, Egypt attempted to counter-press with the front three. Salah, Trezeguet, and Mohamed would often position themselves in a narrow triangle, presumably to block passing lanes into the centre, but they lacked the correct spacing and aggression to make this effective.
Furthermore, Egypt’s midfield three stayed closer to their defensive unit rather than supporting the press, leaving massive gaps between Egypt’s first two lines of pressure.
The result was that Mozambique could either play around the narrow front three or, if they chose, play simple through balls directly through the middle in the gap between Egypt’s midfield and attack. Egypt were too passive and lacked the necessary spacing to prevent Mozambique from entering their final third.
Once in the final third, Mozambique generally tried to flood the box with forwards and midfielders and find them with crosses from wide areas. Unlike their defending in higher areas, Egypt were more solid and well-drilled in a deeper defensive block and generally excelled at protecting their box. Yet the continued capacity of Mozambique to enter the final third with ease and with numbers put them under significant pressure every time Mozambique had the ball.
In the second half, Mozambique head coach Chiquinho Conde adjusted his team’s shape to both continue their offensive pressure while ameliorating their defensive weaknesses and struck the perfect balance.
They switched from a 4-4-1-1 to a 5-4-1, though Conde clearly gave the wingbacks and wide midfielders license to push high and press when the ball was on their flank, which sometimes made them resemble a 4-4-2. With an extra centre-back, Egypt found it harder to find space in the channels and Mozambique’s wingbacks could defend their opposite wingers more aggressively.
It did little to curtail Mohamed Salah, who continued to create a slew of chances in transition and scored the equalising penalty. Nevertheless, Conde was generally able to nullify Egypt’s ball progression and made their possession more blunt.
By contrast, Vitoria found no ideal solution to shore up his side defensively. Mozambique constantly were able to isolate the Egyptian full-backs because of how high and narrow Trezeguet and Salah were positioned. Witi in particular excelled at gaining separation and finding profitable crossing opportunities for the central midfielders and attackers.
Because Mozambique were also able to quickly bypass the Egyptian press, it meant their wingers and midfielders could gain momentum against a backtracking midfield and consequently be more dangerous in the box.
Whether through playing around the press and attacking the Egyptian fullbacks, such as for the first goal, or exploiting the poor spacing in the Egyptian midfield, such as for the second goal, Mozambique were able to make the most of their limited possession and create quality chances in transition.
While Egypt, particularly Salah, still posed an offensive threat, other sides will also be capable of penetrating such a porous defence. Vitoria will need to address these defensive deficiencies swiftly if he wishes to guide Egypt to another AFCON triumph.
See more – The Premier League’s Best Ever African XI