AFC Leopards let a two goal lead slip in what proved to be a thrilling Derby.
Luc Eymael was back for the Leopards and picked a side with very much the same structure that he has built the side on since his arrival at the club. His side lined up in a familiar 4-3-3.
Gor Mahia coach Bobby Williamson had intimated that his side would also play 4-3-3, and that was illustrated by the pre-match graphics. However, once the game got underway, Gor seemed to settle into a 4-2-3-1.
The reason for Williamson’s departure from his more usual 4-4-2 made sense. Whereas in a 4-4-2 v 4-3-3 the former gets the advantage down the flanks — it suffers in the middle where a 2 v 3 situation develops. In a normal case scenario, that battle in the midfield when lost by the 4-4-2 means that the width advantage cannot be capitalised on.
‘‘Look, if I have a triangle in midfield – Claude Makelele behind and two others just in front – I will always have an advantage against a pure 4-4-2 where the central midfielders are side by side. That’s because I will always have an extra man. It starts with Makelele, who is between the lines. If nobody comes to him he can see the whole pitch and has time. If he gets closed down it means one of the two other central midfielders is open. If they are closed down and the other team’s wingers come inside to help, it means there is space now for us on the flank, either for our own wingers or for our full-backs. There is nothing a pure 4-4-2 can do to stop things’’. – Jose Mourinho
In the 19th minute, this became clearly evident. From a short goal kick, AFC worked the ball to Martin Imbalambala who was anchoring the midfield. Almost immediately, his two fellow midfielders – Peter Opiyo and Edwin Seda – sprinted clear of Gor’s two midfielders – Eric Ochieng and Anthony Akumu. The forward pass by Imbalambala may not have amounted to anything substantial, but it did show the area in which AFC potentially had the advantage.
Adding onto that, AFC kept changing the shape of their midfield triangle, with Opiyo and Imbalambala switching between the anchor role, while Seda proved to be the more direct player with his penetrative runs.
Kiongera Deployed as the #10
Williamson thus sought to add an extra body to compete and that extra man was Paul Kiongera.
Deployed in the #10 role, Kiongera dropped deep to complete a midfield triangle with Akumu and Ochieng’ once Gor lost the ball. He was also the man who launched attacks centrally. His lateral movement upfront also helped Gor when in possession – he drifted to either wing to provide passing options with the wingers and in the process creating overloads out wide. His combination with Dan Sserunkuma was also superb and for the first 30 minutes, Gor were clearly the more dangerous side.
Kiongera’s tireless work meant that Gor could compete numerically in midfield. Tactically, he was the best player on the pitch in the first half both defensively and offensively.
The 4-2-3-1 also meant that Gor still had options wide, with Moses Odhiambo on the right and especially Innocent Mutiso on the left providing width.
AFC’s Fluid Front Three
Of interest also was Leopards fluid front three. Noah Wafula, Allan Wanga and Paul Were interchanged at will. All three at one time or another performed each of the three front roles of center forward, right wing forward and left wing forward.
This interchanging was meant to keep the Gor defence guessing. Whenever Were was on the right, he cut in to his favoured left and looked to be direct – with whomever of Wafula or Wanga doing the same on the other side. Whenever Were appeared on the left, he provided natural width – with the same appearing on the other side. Wanga was however the best in the center forward position – holding the ball up and looking to combine with his wingers.
Battle on the Wings
Even so, AFC seemed more concerned with attacking Gor Mahia’s left side. More often than not, they knocked the ball in behind David Owino for a winger to chase. It is from this that Leopards scored both of their goals — in the first Wanga latching onto such a ball to cross in for Wafula and the second came about when a similar ball found Were who neatly finished with his left.
This however did not point to Owino’s defending. Despite being a right footed defender deployed on the left, he did a magnificent job. It was more a case of AFC prodding and prodding until eventually finding the opening. Their insistence worked in the end. It also pointed to the possibility Mutiso not doing well enough to cover his left back – hence the overload in Owino’s area.
Mutiso though was also having a brilliant battle down his wing against Edwin Wafula. Wafula also did a good job, but Mutiso’s constant threat down that side eventually proved pivotal. It was his cross that led to the chance for Gor Mahia’s first goal and the equaliser was created by a ball from that same area. In the same way Mutiso failed to help out Owino defensively, so too the AFC winger (mostly Were) failed to help out Wafula.
It thus pointed to a situation that mirrored itself on the same side of the pitch – an attacking winger constantly probing a full back but failing to assist his full back defensively.
The substitution of Solomon Nasio for Musa Mohamed was more of a rectification. Musa went to Gor’s defensive left with Owino switching to his preferred right back position. It did curb AFC’s attacks down that side, although that may also have been as a result of other factors (the AFC front three tiring and thus not as effective against a fresh pair of legs.)
Eymael made similarly looking substitutions – Charles Okwemba on for Seda, Michael Khamati for Were and Mike Baraza for Wafula. The similarity came in the fact that for very quick footed and high intensity players, Eymael brought on more experienced and calmer players to cool the game down and hopefully slow down the tempo and see out the game.
Williamson on the other hand was chasing the game for most of it (the equaliser came in the 86th minute) and his substitutions showed it. Apart from the Musa sub, the rest – Edwin Lavatsa on for Moses Odhiambo and Kevin Omondi for Kiongera – were meant to add freshness and directness to the attack.
Interestingly, four of the six players taken off – Kiongera, Seda, Wafula and Were – were (apart from Sserunkuma and Mutiso) the most direct players in the game in the early stages. Their direct running it seems could not be sustained for the full 90 as their energy levels dropped, but it did provide a very frantic end to end first half.
An entertaining game all through. The high tempo of the first half may not have been matched in the second but the manner of the game – AFC taking a two goal lead then Gor coming back to equalise – ensured it was absorbing all through.