Taken from my article on SuperSport.

Tournament favorites, Ivory Coast, made an lackluster start to their Africa Cup of Nations campaign on Sunday afternoon, narrowly beating a well organized Sudanese side 1-0, in an encounter which most experts expected Les Elephants to win by a much more comfortable margin.

As expected, Francois Zahoui’s Ivory Coast lined up in a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Igor Lolo given the nod at right back and Jean-Jacques Gosso starting alongside Cheik Tiote in the centre of midfield.

Sudan’s coach, Mohammed Abdalla Ahmed, as we saw in the recent CECAFA Cup opted for a narrow 4-3-1-2 system, with Mohamed Bashir starting alongside Al Hilal Omdurman striker, Mudathir El-Tahir and aging captain, Haitham Mustafa, pushed forward into a more advanced position than we’ve seen him in previous games.

Sudan’s defensive shape 

During the first half, despite being frustratingly narrow in possession, Sudan’s defensive strategy was simple and, to a point, effective. On losing possession, Mohamed Bashir dropped back into midfield, effectively making a 4-1-4-1, with the excellent, Ala’a Yousif, covering the zone in front of the back four. Every Sudanese player retreated behind the halfway line to await the advancing Ivorian defence. Except striker Mudathir El-Tahir, who was left upfield to apply pressure to the Ivorian centre backs. As soon as Les Elephants crossed the half way line, Sudan squeezed up and pressed the man with the ball and tightly marked his surrounding team mates.

(See Diagram 1 and 2 showing how Sudan dropped back, then pressed the Ivorians just inside their own half)

This strategy worked to good effect and, for half an hour, Ivory Coast, loaded with the responsibility of being tournament favorites, looked nervous. But there was a clear attacking strategy; to play attractive football, keep the ball on the ground and pass it around the Sudanese defence. They did this by switching play in deep areas and unleashing their full backs and inverted wingers to get around the Sudanese back line.

Nevertheless, Dider Drogba and his attacking partners looked stifled by Sudan’s quick defensive change, from dropping to pressing, and with half an hour gone Sudan’s goalkeeper, Mahjoub Moez, remained untested.

Changing the point of attack

With Sudan retreating, then stepping up, that clearly left space behind the Sudanese defensive line; space that would be vulnerable to angled passes from deeper areas. With half an hour gone there hadn’t been a single, successful, diagonal pass by Ivory Coast from a deep area into the attacking third.

In the thirty-eighth minute Les Elephants, who had dominated possession, albeit in deeper areas of the pitch, finally took the lead. Cheik Tiote glided an excellent cross-field pass to Kalou, on the left, who delivered a pinpoint cross for Chelsea teammate, Didier Drogba, to power home a header and open his account for the tournament.

(See the StatZone diagrams, below, showing; a) the lack of diagonal passes in the opening 30 minutes, then b) the diagonal passes, from right to left, that created the Drogba goal and a second, from a central left position, which gave the Ivorians another scoring opportunity).

The Falcones of Jediane spread their wings

Despite being defensively effective in the first half, offensively Sudan were narrow and easily crowded out in the centre of the pitch by the hardworking Ivorian defensive duo of Jean-Jacques Gosso and Cheik Tiote. At half time the Sudan coach, Mohammed Abdalla Ahmed, addressed the problem and readjusted his tactics.

In the second half, Sudan were still set up 4-3-1-2, but Amir Kamal and Nazer Hamid were encouraged to peel away into wider areas of the pitch when in possession. As the play developed and as Sudan reached Ivory Coast’s defensive third, the two wingers reverted to type, dropping inside to link up with the central attacking players, creating space for both full backs, Mowaia Bashir and Ballah Jabir, to overlap.

This switch wasn’t just an attempt to get ‘around’ the Ivorians, but also to create more space in central areas for Haitham Mustafa, Mohamed Bashir and Mudathir El-Tahir to combine and create scoring opportunities.

(See Diagram 3 below showing how Sudan’s width in the second half that helped them create more space in central areas).

It was no surprise when, with sixty four minutes gone, Ivorian coach, Francois Zahoui, withdrew Kalou and replaced him with Max Gradel. Despite providing an assist for what was to be the only goal of the game the Chelsea forward was mostly ineffective and his lack of ‘tracking back’ in support of Tiene left the Ivorian full back exposed to the overlapping play of Sudan’s Ballah Jabir.

Another impressive aspect of Sudan’s second half performance was the tempo at which they moved the ball into the Ivorian half. However, Sudan lack players with the quality to produce moments of technical brilliance and, for all of their huffing and puffing going forward in the second half, they failed to score what would have been a deserved equaliser.

Despite Sudan’s second half rally, Ivory Coast never looked troubled defensively. But, from an attacking perspective, there are still question marks over how Les Elephants will get the best out of their star-studded forward line as the tournament progresses.

Thanks to @StatZone for allowing me to use visuals from their excellent, FREE, Africa Cup of Nations App for the iPhone (http://itunes.apple.com/gb/app/fourfourtwo-africa-cup-nations/id493916372?mt=8).