One of yesterdays more low key matches in the CECAFA Cup turned out to be one of the most interesting tactical battles of the competition.

Rwanda had already qualified for the knock-out round, thanks to wins over host Tanzania (1-0) and Zimbabwe (2-0). Djibouti on the other hand were bottom of the group, heading for their usual early exit, having lost both of their games.

Rwanda’s Serbain coach Milutin Sredojevic fielded the youngest side of the tournament with an average age of just 21 (including three seventeen year olds).

Given Djibouti’s terrible record in the CECAFA Cup (having never won a game in the tournament’s history) Milutin went for an offensive 4-3-3, with the wing backs Ntamuhanga Tumaine and Jean-Claude Iranzi encouraged to pushed forward and the right/left of central midfielders Jean-Baptista Mugiraneza and Andrew Buteera asked to make regular raids forward in support of loan striker Labama Bokota.

Thankfully, for the neutrals watching, Djibouti’s Tunisian manager Gharsalli Noureddine didn’t ‘park the bus’ and went for a 4-4-2, with both banks of four pressing their opposition units. Gharsalli attacking strategy was simple, hit long balls to the front two as early as possible and see if they could combine to creating goalscoring opportunities.

Amavubi’s defensive naivety

The Rwandan’s fluid, attacking 4-3-3 was extremely effective in the opening twenty five minutes of the game. Bokota converted Charles Mwesigye Tibingana cross to put the Amavubi’s ahead after only the second minute. The one/two touch approach play and angled forward runs from the midfielders and wing backs forced the Djiboutian midfield deeper onto the toes of the defensive unit; but crucially began opening up space behind the Rwandan midfield.

After twenty five minutes, with wing backs, midfielders and front three all in the attacking third when in possession, Rwanda’s centre backs, Emery Bayisenge and Ismail Nshutiyamagara began to look exposed. The youngster, showing their naivety, dropped goal side of both Djiboutian strikers and gave the opposition an option to play out from deep defensive areas. Gharsalli, realising the opportunity to create a 2v2 on the break, pressed his centre forwards to receive on the turn and run at the exposed centre backs. The move worked.

With half an hour gone the Rwandan midfield carelessly lost possession, the strikers were fed with quick ball to feet, turned and combined excellently for Ahmed Hassan to level the score. Three minutes later the Rwandan right back, Ntamuhanga Tumaine, who had a terrible first half, lost possession on the halfway line, didn’t track back and allowed a 3v2 Djiboutian overload to run at the Amavubi’s defence. The result… a superbly taken goal from Ahmed Hassan, who caressed a curling shot from the edge of the area into the far right hand corner of the Amavubi’s net.

The Rwandan’s attacking combinations and runs off the ball had become predictable. The team had dominated the early exchanges, but, after conceding the two goals, the young Amavubi’s looked visibly uncomfortable with their tactical set up that overloaded them in attack (congesting the attacking third) and exposed them in defence (see diagram 1 showing the spaces created by not having a traditional DM or centre backs pressing with the rest of the team and playing a deep defensive line).

Tinker time

Milutin had three options at half time; 1. Push his centre back’s Emery Bayisenge and Ismail Nshutiyamagara to play a higher line and attempt to catch the quick and able Djiboutian front two offside, 2. Maintain an attacking system, switch to a back three and provide defensive cover, 3. Drop the central midfield captain Haruna Niyonzima into a deeper role to provide cover to a back three or four and give his team-mates the option to play through him.

Milutin went for the latter (see diagram 2 for how the space was neutralised); removed the downright ineffectual right wing back Ntamuhanga Tumaine and went for a back three of Emery Bayisenge, Ismail Nshutiyamagar and Jean-Claude Iranzi. As extra cover he withdrew Niyonzima into a deeper central midfield role, allowing seventeen year old Andrew Buteera the freedom to move into spaces between the lines.

The tactical shift worked a treat. Rwanda created an overload in the defensive third, allowing them to defend the long ball more effectively and retain possession. Compare the half time possession stats; Rwanda 56%, Djibouti 44%;  to the figures after seventy five minutes; Rwanda 71%, Djibouti 29%.

By withdrawing Niyonzima into a deeper role it also gave the side more depth. The attacking third became less congested and they were able to return to their one/two touch approach play that served them well in the opening twenty five minutes. Niyonzima’s deeper role also allowed them to push the two defenders either side of Nshutiyamagar forward in support, but acting more as full backs than wing backs.

On the fifty eighth minute, and after a period of Rwandan dominance, Jean-Baptista Mugiraneza drew the sides level.

With the balance of power in terms of possession and territory restored Milutin put the final nail in the Djiboutian coffin. That nail came in the form of Oliver Karekezi who hammered in a twenty five minute hat-trick to shatter the Djiboutian dream of a first CECAFA Cup victory.