In the first of yesterday’s CECAFA Cup semi-finals Rwanda overcame Sudan 2-1, in Dar es Salaam’s Banjamin Mkapa National Stadium, to book their spot in Saturday’s final.

Going into the match, Rwanda were the only side left in the tournament with a 100% record, having strolled through their group without conceding a goal and beating Zanzibar 2-1 in the Quarter-finals. Sudan’s route to the semis had been less than convincing. They were one of the tournament’s lowest scoring teams and had scraped through the group stage following a narrow, final day, victory over Kenya’s Harambee Stars.

Rwanda’s coach, Milutin ‘Micho’ Sredojevic, adjusted the shape of his side following their disappointing performance against Zanzibar; switching to a 4-4-1-1 formation, with supporting full backs Alex Ngabo and Frederic Ndaka (never the keenest pair to overlap), quick wingers with license to cut in from the flanks and attacking kingpin, Oliver Karekezi, given a free role off the lead striker, Meddie Kagere.

You may remember ‘Micho’ fielding the youngest side in the tournament (with an average age 21) against Djibouti in the group stage. Against a seasoned Sudan side the Serbian upped that average to 25, as only five of that eleven started against the Falcons of Jediane.

Sudan’s coach, Mohammed Abdalla Ahmed, went with a narrow 4-1-3-2 system that, in effect, contributed to his side’s eventual defeat.

There were three key tactical influences on the game:

1) The first half defensive display by Rwanda

2) Sudan’s second half reaction; creating width and a midfield overload

3) The Rwandan coach, Milutin Sredojevic’s, bold, attacking, second-half switch that took the Amavubi into Saturday’s final.

Making Play Predictable

Rwanda, as they have done regularly in this year’s CECAFA Cup, started the game sharply with Ndaka and Iranzi a particular threat down the left. In the sixth minute Rwanda’s right back Alex Ngabo sprayed a lofted pass, from just inside his own half, onto the head of Haruna Niyozima, whose cushioned header looped over Sudan’s high defensive live, allowing Iranzi to dash through on goal and confidently guide the ball past their onrushing keeper.

As the half wore on, the intriguing tactical system wasn’t when Rwanda were in possession, it was when they were without the ball. Milutin had clearly done his homework and was aware of Sudan’s brazen lack of width in earlier games. As soon as one of the four Sudanese midfielder stepped over the halfway line (the trigger for this defensive manoeuvre), the Rwandan midfield stepped up, Iranzi and Gasana tucked in from the flanks and the back four pressed up between 5-10 yards, depending on the position of the Sudanese strikers. Every Rwandan player marking zonally. The desired effect was to narrow the pitch, deny Sudan space in the centre of their attacking third and make their play predictable and in effect make it easier to defend. It worked.

Sudan didn’t help themselves either. Their full backs were non existent as attacking/supporting outlets. Their midfield ‘creative’ three – I use the word ‘creative’ in the loosest possible way, based on their first half display – were stiflingly narrow and both strikers filled the same role; trying to push back the Rwandan back-line. See Diagram 1, below, showing Sudan’s lack of width and Rwanda’s defensive shape in funnelling attacks into central areas.

The half-time possession stats –  Sudan 56% Rwanda 44% – were slightly misleading in  sofar as it suggested Sudan were more of a threat. Not the case! About 80% of Sudan’s passes were backwards or sideways, chiefly because of the lack of space Rwanda were giving them to operate in the final third.

The Reaction; Flirting with the Flanks

Mohammed Abdalla Ahmed was clearly aware that his side needed to be more effective at creating space in the final third of the pitch, so drew back one of his forwards and a midfielder to create a 4-2-3-1 formation; thus pushing his two wide players onto the flanks. This system would also allow Sudan to overload Rwanda in central midfield and create gaps in Rwanda’s midfield and defensive lines.

This change of formation did help Sudan break through Rwanda’s defence in the opening minutes of the second half, but that wasn’t the only reason for their resurgence at the start of the second half.

If you are going to play a zonal marking system, where two units (the midfield and defence) step up simultaneously, then every player must be concentrating; both to react quickly and, conversely, to be patient and hold your position. Rwanda came out of the half time break forgetfull of these key rules (see Diagram 2, below, showing Sudan’s new found width and their 3v2 attacking overload, in the centre of midfield, giving them an attacking foothold in the game).

Sudan dominated from the start of the second half. The possession stats on sixty minutes showed Sudan with 71%.  It seemed only a matter of time before they would score. And on sixty eight minutes they did just that. More sloppy defending from Rwanda saw right back, Ngabo, stepping up and misjudging a long ball from defence, Sudan’s left winger, Osman Tahir, stole in and crossed for Ramadan Agab to acrobatically volley in the equaliser.

Micho’s Bold Attacking Move

Milutin “Micho” Sredojevic’s reaction to the equaliser was swift and daring. He withdrew seventeen year old centre back, Emery Bayisenge, replaced him with seventeen year old creative midfield, Andrew Buteera, and switched to a 3-1-4-2 with Buteera anchoring the midfield. At first it seamed like a crazy move – to narrow your back-line and create space either side of the full backs – particularly at a stage when Sudan’s new found width was causing Rwanda such problems. But ‘Micho’ clearly had faith in the technical ability of his midfield and forward players, to retake control of the game and press Sudan back into their own half.

Micho was right to have this faith, as the Amavubi’s dominated the game afterwards. Sudan’s players became slow in the transition – particularly the wingers – and this allowed Amavubi’s midfielder, Andy Buteera, time and space to dictate the tempo for the rest of the game (see Diagram 3, below,  showing the space given to Buteera, Gasana and Iranzi, as Rwanda took control of the game and pressed for a winner).

On the seventy seventh minute, Amavubi’s captain, Oliver Karekezi,  the tournament’s outstanding player, latched onto a quick throw-in, bustled a Sudan defender out of the way and lashed a thunderous shot, from the tightest of angles, beyond the keeper, into the roof of the net – sending Rwanda into their fifth CECAFA Cup final in ten years.