Tunisia lack game time against quality opposition

PARIS - In Gabon, Tunisia will take part in their 13th Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) tournament in a row after a qualifying campaign which saw the Carthage Eagles show some difficulties in an easy group comprising Togo, Djibouti and Liberia.

Indeed the Carthage Eagles had to wait till the last qualifying match at home in Monastir against Liberia in a do-or-die clash to officially book their seat for next month’s African football fiesta.

The most important thing was done but some questions remained.

Even though the figures are saying the contrary (16 goals scored, three conceded) the very minimalist brand of football offered and some lacklustre displays against Togo and Liberia away did not reassure the fans and experts alike.

Those questions were not answered also during the start of African 2018 Russia World Cup qualifiers where Tunisia are topping their group after two games with a 100 percent record and no goals conceded.

As for the 2017 Afcon qualifiers, figures look very good but the reality on the pitch was different.

Over the two World Cup qualifying games vs Libya in Algeria (Libya are playing outside their country for obvious security reasons) and Guinea in Monastir, Henryk Kasperczak’s team was defensively solid (thanks to a 5-man defensive line) but offensively speaking average even if the introduction of Lille star Naim Sliti at half time vs Libya injected a much-needed zeal and speed into the Carthage Eagles strike force.

The Lille attacker, who has been included in the 2017 Afcon provisional squad, can definitely be Tunisia’s technical leader on the pitch this January as he has everything to take on this role.

The players in Kasperczak’s provisional squad which was revealed a week ago do not have any major surprises except (in my eyes) the name of Elfsborg attacking midfielder Issam Jebali.

The inclusion of the Sweden-based player, who previously played for African giants Etoile du Sahel, caused some controversy as he had earlier threatened the Tunisian Football Federation that he was switching allegiance to play for Sweden.

The 25-year-old recently received an offer for Swedish citizenship months ago.

Except this bone of contention, the rest of the Tunisia provisional squad remains formidable.

The backbone of the squad is made up of local players plying their trade for continental powerhouses Esperance, Etoile du Sahel and CS Sfaxien together with a big spoon of European-based-players.

Strengths

Tunisia through the past decade has always been renowned around Africa for its rock solid defence and its talented defenders.

Time passed and the reputation stayed even though the quality of Tunisian defenders itself decreased obviously.

Far from the legendary Khaled Badra and Radhi Jaidi the individual quality of Tunisian defenders is still good.

Kasperczak has decided to follow George Leekens’ footsteps by keeping the key ingredient: a five-man defensive line marshalled by Valencia’s towering defender Aymen Abdenour.

This system is tailor-made for Tunisian central defenders as the majority of them are pretty slow but physically powerful, strong in the air and good tactically.

This five-man defence has proven to be successful and Tunisia’s major strength as they conceded just three goals in their last eight official matches.

Fullbacks are also very important in the Tunisian defensive system even if on the left side they sometimes leave space for opponents to exploit due to Ali Maaloul’s offensive playing style.

The left back, who plays for Egyptian superpower Al Ahly, likes to join the attack every time Tunisia are on the offensive.

On the right side it’s the contrary as the towering Etoile du Sahel product Hamdi Nagguez is more defensive minded.

Tunisia’s second strength will definitely be the physical power of the backline. Tall and physically strong their height could be crucial to unlock games (like against Guinea in WC qualifiers) and battle with opponents and reduce the rhythm of the game.

Finally, the quality of the set pieces taken by the likes of Wahbi Khazri, Hamza Lahmar, Saad Bguir who thanks to their accuracy on this part of the game, could unlock very tight and physical games.

Weaknesses

Although Tunisia has strong points which could be very useful in this kind of tournaments three major weaknesses shouldn’t be forgotten.

First of all, the general lack of pace in the Tunisian back five. This lack of speed will definitely be dangerous against Zimbabwe, Algeria and Senegal’s speedy attackers and it will create torments to the entire Tunisian defensive back line.

Secondly, there was lack of creativity and link between the midfield and the attack during some parts of the Carthage Eagle’s last performances.

Finally, the mother of all Carthage Eagles’ problems/weaknesses could definitely be the lack of competition.

After spending almost two years playing the likes of Djibouti, Togo, Liberia, Mauritania etc. Tunisia have not played a top African side since 2014 when they took on Senegal in the 2015 Afcon qualifiers.

At the 2015 tournament, Tunisia topped Group B which included the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cape Verde and Zambia before going on to lose on penalties to the hosts Equatorial Guinea in the quarter-finals.   

This lack of game time against quality opposition is a real problem because it is difficult to locate Kasperczak’s team’s real position in the African football hierarchy.

The Carthage Eagles are definitely not one of Afcon 2017 top dogs but it’s clear as steamed rice that the one-time African champions will give everything to defy the odds as they come into this tournament as under dogs; something which Tunisia love so much.

As we say “???????? ??? ?????” Impossible isn’t Tunisian!

*Lotfi Wada, is a part time African football blogger, podcaster, writer of Tunisian origin living in France, who also voted for 2016 Confederation of African Football (Caf) Glo Awards.

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