FT World Cup 2018: Senegal's Tournament in Review

The best African team of the Tournament denied a knockout spot due to the controversial tiebreaker

Here at FirstTouch, we predicted Senegal would have a good tournament. As reported by Dennis Takaendesa, Aliou Cisse's men were well coached and well prepared to make a statement at the World Cup 2018 similar to the Senegalese team from 2002, but they just fell short of their knockout round goal. They did, however, play a brave and tactically effective brand of football that can and should be a blueprint for their fellow African representatives at future tournaments.

Senegal vs Poland [June 19]

Senegal vs Poland 4.jpg

FirstTouch was in Russia to cover this game live from Moscow. Spartak Stadium provided the arena for the Senegalese team to seize their first chance to make an impression on the World Cup 2018 tournament, and they did not disappoint. Cisse organized his team in a 4-4-2 formation to effectively punish a sluggish Polish side that was all too tentative in possession. Sadio Mane provided a consistent attacking spark for his side and his powerful run into the Polish half helped set up the chance for Idrissa Gueye to shot and score from an admittedly fortunate deflection. Senegal had created their own luck, however, and was rewarded towards the end of a good first half. The game shifted in the second half with Poland chasing the match and Senegal sitting slightly deeper to defend and then counterattack. In games so tightly contested, opportunities to score are at a premium and Niang took advantage of a poor back pass from Poland's Krychowiak to score the second goal of the match. Krychowiak, however, was able to make amends for his mistake, although it proved too little too late when he scored a well-directed header from a Polish set piece towards the end of the match. Senegal was able to see out the rest of the match and effectively limit the impact of one of the world's top strikers in Robert Lewandowski. This first victory represented an important and symbolic result similar to the 1-0 victory against France that Cisse led his Senegalese side to achieve, but also represented the first victory for an African nation at the World Cup. 

Senegal vs Japan [June 24]

With an all-important three points from the first game, Senegal just needed a result in their second match against Japan to stay in contention for a knockout round spot in Group H. However, the same level of organization and focus in important moments would be required to achieve success against a Japanese side that also won three points from their first game. Sadio Mane helped Senegal have a strong start with an 11th-minute goal, but that early goal was canceled out in the 35th minute by a Japanese goal from Inui. In a first half littered with chances for both sides, 1-1 was a scoreline that betrayed the amount of attacking football that was on display. Inui proved a constant threat for Senegal throughout the game and especially in the second half. However, Senegal was able to retake the lead with a second goal from Wague. The lead did not last long enough because a crucial moment in the game did not produce enough focus from Senegal's goalkeeper, and N'Diaye did not properly deal with a cross that Keisuke Honda was able to capitalize on and bring Japan level. Although one point was a result that kept Senegal's knockout chances very much alive, it was in hindsight an opportunity missed getting all three points. 

FIFA must surely change their ‘Fair Play’ tiebreaker, which unfortunately eliminated a brave Senegalese side that played well at the World Cup 2018.

Senegal vs Colombia [June 28]

With four points heading into their final Group H matchup against Colombia, Senegal's destiny was not completely in their own hands and the points dropped against Japan came back to haunt them. This last match pitted Mane's men against a Colombia side attempting to create their own path into the knockout rounds and that had just comprehensively beaten Poland 3-0. Senegal started strong again, creating a number of chances that they should have capitalized on, and VAR was used to overturn a penalty awarded to Sadio Mane after a last-ditch tackle from Davidson Sanchez. The game grew tenser as it progressed with fewer chances being created. Poland assuming a 1-0 lead against Japan meant that both Senegal and Colombia would have gone through with a tie, however, Yerry Mina's header from a 74th-minute corner kick meant that Senegal had to chase the game. Their efforts bore nothing by the end of the game and this represented Senegal's first loss in a group stage game of the World Cup. This loss also meant that a tiebreaker was needed to separate Senegal and Japan. FIFA's new tiebreaker is based upon a 'fair play' ranking that keeps track of a teams' yellow and red cards. Such a tiebreaker has been deemed by many experts and fans as wildly inefficient, especially when watching the end of both games. Japan was more than happy to keep possession between their defenders and Poland, with nothing left to play for, saw little need in pressing them to retrieve the ball and score the second goal. Senegal, unfortunately, were made to chase the game due to another lapse in focus during a set piece. Yellow and red cards are not a measure of a team's success nor should be a deciding factor in a tournament with such differing standards in referee judgments. Senegal should feel hard done by such a tiebreaker, but ultimately, it was two decisive moments where a lapse in focus in each moment cost them a spot in the knockout stages. With that 1-0 loss to Colombia, it meant that for the first time in 36 years there would be zero African nations in the Round of 16 at a World Cup. 

Lessons Learned

1. An organized game plan and tactical flexibility is great until it is all undone by lapses in focus

2. Senegal must continue to improve, but already have a solid group of talented players led by Sadio Mane and coach, Aliou Cisse

3. Can Senegal play this well at AFCON 2019 next summer? They must certainly improve their goal-scoring ability to do so. 

Evaluation

Senegal was the best African team at the World Cup 2018 but still came up short due to lapses in focus during crucial moments. In a Group H that was there for the taking, Senegal should not have allowed themselves to be eliminated by a senseless tiebreaker. However, Aliou Cisse did provide a blueprint for the other African nations looking to perform in future World Cup tournaments. Tactical flexibility coupled with an organized team structure can help all African teams close the gap on the rest of the world. Perhaps, the fact that Cisse was a former player and was able to inspire and demand the respect of his team since he had led Senegal to the Round of 16 as a player also played a part in the overall team cohesiveness that was certainly missing from some of the other African nations. 

Critical Issue

Unfortunately, this seems to be a consistent issue with not just African teams, but all teams throughout the world and that is solid goalkeeper play. A better goalkeeper would have certainly meant a different fate for Senegal, but also a sharper focus during set-pieces and other critical moments during the match.