Gor Mahia continued their surge towards defending their Tusker Premier League title with a comeback win over an inspired Sofapaka. In a tight match, the controversies that led to both Gor Mahia goals may pose the bulk of the talking points. Tactically however, it was an exciting game.
Bobby Williamson picked a 3-5-2 to counter Sofapaka’s 4-4-2 formation. The thinking behind it may have been logical.
With Sofapaka being prolific over the course of the season with the threat of their system, a 3-5-2 was apt in trying to stop them. This is because;
a) Defensively, against two strikers, three defenders can organise themselves in such a way that two pick up the oppositions two strikers each, leaving one defender free to either sweep up behind them or be an extra passer.
b) In midfield, the five men outnumber the four from the opposition and;
c) In attack, the threat of two strikers is maintained
At the back, David Owino performed his sweeper role brilliantly for Gor Mahia. He recovered to deny Enock Agwanda from opening the scoring early on and whenever Gor had the ball, he was available as a passing option. Israel Emuge and Haron Shakava were man-marking Agwanda and John Baraza (it is difficult to remember Agwanda and Baraza exchanging passes regularly over the course of the game.)
With the numbers in midfield, it was easy to see why Gor Mahia dominated possession especially in the opening minutes. Their numbers meant that there was always a free man to pass to. The trio of Anthony Akumu, Geoffrey Kizito and Eric Ochieng outnumbered Ekaliana Ndolo and Humphrey Mieno in the Sofapaka center. Meanwhile, Sofapaka wingers Patrick Kagogo and Danson Kago had to constantly be weary of the Gor Mahia wingbacks.
However, simple outnumbering across the field does not always translate to playing well. Whereas it guaranteed Gor Mahia possession, it did not guarantee penetration. As such, some of Gor’s best chances came from defensive mistakes by the Sofapaka defence.
In a game where the positioning on the pitch was more akin to chess pieces aiming to cancel each other out, the key to finding space was the free men. Whenever Gor had the ball — and presuming that the Sofapaka wingers were in position to prevent the wing backs from getting forward — then the free men became the Sofapaka full backs.
As such, it is probably why Sam Timbe got extremely frustrated with Yusuf Juma’s almost fatal mistake in the 14th minute. As a free man, it should have been him holding on to the ball a bit better and initiating the passing. His mistake proved costly for him as he was substituted before the half hour mark.
However, on occasions where the wing backs had been passed on to the full backs, then it is the wingers who became free. This was crucial — especially as it is this that brought about the opener. The first goal came about via a quick flick by Baraza into the path of the left winger, Kagogo.
Lack of cohesiveness
Whether Bobby Williamson had put enough work in training for his players to understand the new system is unknown. What was clearly lacking was the cohesiveness, especially of the back three. At times, they looked overly stretched, while at others, they were overly compact. The positioning to adapt to changing circumstances seemed off and that was probably because this was a new system.
This told especially at the start of the second period when Sofapaka enjoyed heavy possession. This was odd as Gor still retained the numbers in midfield. However, it seemed as if the Gor players had seemingly lost faith in the system thus their confidence was low.
Sofapaka thus dominated midfield in this period. They also had some penetration, with them looking dangerous on occasions. Particularly, they exploited the space between the left sided center back and the left wing back to play in Kago on the right. (This had been the same space exploited for the opener, with Baraza playing the ball in the space between the right sided center back and the right wing back.)
What was strange is that while Sofapaka was having joy in this period, Sam Timbe opted to make a change by removing Agwanda and replacing him with the midfielder, Elli Asieche. While this allowed Humphrey Mieno to push further forward into an attacking midfield position, it did seem odd considering that the twin threat of Agwanda and Baraza was causing a threat. Even though it now ensured that the midfield was balanced at 5 vs 5, it seemed a redundant substitution considering the four midfielders were already dominating the midfield.
The danger that this change had however was that it threatened to cause Gor’s three man defence to become superfluous (there were now three defenders up against one striker). It did not however do so and Gor Mahia slowly got back into the game, their growing pressure seeing them score the winner in this period.
The disappointing feature from Gor Mahia’s new system was that the wing backs did not function as expected in theory. It is the one con of having a single wing back running up and down the whole wing. While they do provide width, their positioning has to be spot on to ensure that the defence is not caught out from wide areas. At the same time, it is upon them to make overlapping runs forward.
Musa Mohamed on the right did provide a bit of a threat attack wise (although that may be down to Sofapaka defending poorly down that side), but considering how attacking he is from a left back position, Godfrey Walusimbi was largely disappointing. Apart from Gor’s second goal where he overlapped to provide the assist for Rama Salim, he rarely made those forward forays.
It seems like much the same problem Pep Guardiola faced with Barcelona in the 2011-2012 season, where he regularly played Dani Alves in the right wing back position. As attacking as he is, that one step forward in position seemed to take away part of the momentum the Brazilian generates when running from a deeper position. From a purely theoretical point of view, maybe that was what Walusimbi was suffering from and it could be that he is — paradoxically — a better attacking option from left back than from left wing back.
In the end
The talking points that decided the game will be debated, but this was tactically exciting to say the least. Williamson seemed prepared for the threat of Sofapaka’s 4-4-2 even though Timbe’s side did well in periods to manage the spaces that were cancelled out.
The questions for them however remain. Why did Williamson change his system to try and counter Sofapaka’s? Was not that reactive and should he have let his side play to their strengths rather than trying to minimise the strengths of the opposition? At the same time, why did Timbe change things when his team was in the ascendency?
The fact that these two managers know each other so well from their time together with the Uganda Cranes (Timbe was Williamson’s assistant) may have contributed to these attempts to outfox each other. For Williamson however, it will not matter for he eventually got all three points. But for both managers, this was a game in which they probably tried to be too clever in fixing what was yet to be broken.