Deolu Akingbade
1 week ago
3 days ago
4

Is it safe to say that Africa lacks a true dynasty? And by dynasty, I mean the Brazilian and Spanish squads of the 2000s conquering the world or Real Madrid in the 60s. Although Cameroon won back-to-back AFCON titles in 2000 and 2002, and Egypt topped the feat by winning the AFCON in 2006, 2008, and 2010, Africa’s elite is very even in quality.

Their parity shows when it comes to Africa’s performances in the World Cup. The nations enjoy limited success on the world stage. Only three African nations reached the World Cup quarter-finals, and no African nation has gone beyond that. For the most part, AFCON is a merry-go-round that can throw off the favorites with just the slightest tempo changes, and the World Cup dumps the African nations seemingly at the first chance it gets.

It could change going into 2022.

Senegal, led by an astonishing Sadio Mane, took home the 2022 AFCON with so much drama, storylines, and vigor that it would not make a bad movie. They took first in their group despite only scoring once, but went on to smash two past Cape Verde, and three past Equatorial Guinea and Burkina Faso. Facing Egypt, they left things to the very last minute until Sadio Mane coolly slotted a penalty to secure Senegal’s first-ever AFCON title.

They repeated the feat almost the same way in the final round of World Cup qualification, besting Egypt thanks to the heroics of Edouard Mendy and a little help from the fans. Considering their recent accomplishments, their starpower, and the brilliant managerial mind of Aliou Cisse, they could be the team to watch in Qatar.

So I went back around ten months back in time to replicate the whole experience. In a video game, of course.

I greet the head of the Senegal FA gratefully. They inform me that I got the Senegal post over Cisse, and brief me with a quick run-down of their facilities, players, and their roadmap. Of course, I did my research.

Taking advantage of Mane, Mendy, and central defender Kalidou Koulibaly will be crucial to my tenure as Senegal boss, and there are some spirited young players that I can come to rely on in some years(if I stay in the job long enough).

The Senegalese team presents its goals for the 2021 season. It seems easy enough to accomplish. Reach the third round of World Cup qualification? Easy. Advance to the quarter-finals of the 2021 AFCON? Shouldn’t be hard. Qualify for the 2023 AFCON? Too easy. Way too easy.

To succeed in this save, I must accomplish all three of my self-imposed tasks in FM22. Keep in mind this could take years or even centuries.

Win four AFCONS in a row

Egypt set the record for the most consecutive AFCONS won, winning the 2006, 2008, and 2010 AFCON titles. Winning four would not only cement our dominance in the present-day but put us firmly into the history books.

Win a World Cup

No nation from outside Europe or South America ever won a World Cup, or even appeared in a World Cup final. Even getting to the semi-final would be unprecedented for this Senegal side, so winning a World Cup would show the world that Africa means business.

Become the #1 team in the FIFA World Rankings

Other African nations came close to this impressive feat. Nigeria reached #5 in 1994 when they won the AFCON and advanced to the Round of 16 in the World Cup. During Egypt’s impressive run of championships, they reached #9 in the FIFA World Rankings. Yet #1 is held for only an elite clique of countries. Reaching #1 would topple that.

Deolu Akingbade
1 week ago
3 days ago
4
Anarchy in August and one malicious Marseille midfielder

It is August 25, 2021, and I have to pick from my Senegal squad. It does not seem too hard. I choose three goalkeepers, seven defenders, ten midfielders (40% who can count as wingers), and three forwards from my national pool. Aside from missing Schalke defender Salif Sane and Barca wingback Moussa Wague and snubbing Marseille midfielder Pape Gueye, my squad seems good.

When PSG midfielder Idrissa Gueye is forced to drop out of the squad because of his broken ribs, I try to bring Pape Gueye back to Dakar, the capital of Senegal. He refuses.

“I am not interested in playing second fiddle to anyone,” he says stubbornly. “If Akingbade wanted me to play, he should have picked me in his original team.”

This is going to be a very tough job, will it?

In brighter news, my Senegal U20 side dismantles the UAE U20s team 3-0. An exciting midfielder named Serigne Gaye wins Man Of The Match honors, and I ask my scout for national team reports. A few days later, the Senegal U20 side gets demolished by Tunisia U20, 3-0. Gaye is mediocre at best.

Yet I have more important things ahead. I will go into my first-ever match as Senegal's head coach. The Athletic thinks “Senegal should record an easy home win against [our opponents] Namibia.” It should not be hard. The game should give us an advantage over the rest of our group.

One of my best attackers, Bordeaux forward M’Baye Niang, says it should be dangerous to look beyond Namibia. “After all, it is essential the players are completely focused,” Niang shrugs.

But I cannot help but look forward to the looming AFCON. As I set our new formation: an attacking 4-3-3 that should place pressure on the opposing wingbacks, I wonder whether I can replicate the feat Cisse did.

My first game as Senegal gaffer

Matchday. The Lions of Teranga, noble and storied as ever, enter the stadium to an audience of 31,139. Our enthusiastic fans help us dominate Namibia. After only ten minutes, center-forward Boulaye Dia has a go from close range, Ismaila Sarr forces a great save out of the Namibia keeper, and we have 1.02 expected goals from 10 shots. Not bad for my debut.

The only thing I need from my Senegal team is a goal.

Ten minutes later, we get it. Or something close to that. Namibia’s Kelvin Nyirenda trips Sarr in the box, and I appoint Ismaila Sarr to take the penalty. He steps up to the spot, rages to the center of the box, and slams his attempt right to the Namibia keeper.

Luckily for Sarr, the ball squirts out of the keeper’s gloves, letting Sarr rebound the ball and put it in for a score. Senegal 1, Namibia 0. Some minutes later, Dia finally gets his score after shot after shot. Sarr explodes down the right-wing and booms a cross towards Mane. The Liverpool forward heads a pass to Dia, and Dia converts at point-blank range. Senegal 2, Namibia 0.

Sarr continues his torrid form by swinging a corner towards the center of the box. Abdou Diallo, a PSG defender, meets the cross mid-air and heads it in for Senegal’s third goal. Right before halftime, Mane streaks down the left wing to slide a floater towards Sarr, where Watford winger slams a strike past a beleaguered Namibia goalkeeper. Senegal 4, Namibia 0.

After halftime, I try to ease the offensive engines and keep the clean sheet. I do not want to risk injuring Mane or Sarr. Besides, I feel bad for the Namibia team. Sadio Mane finds the net from a Youssouf Sabaly cross in the 53rd, lengthening our lead to five. I make the first substitution of the day, sending off Kalidou Koulibaly as Alfred N’Diaye trots onto the pitch. Then I send on Mamadou Coulibaly for Chiekhou Kouyate 20 minutes later and take off Man Of The Match Ismaila Sarr for Cagliari’s Keita Balde.

To round out the scoring in the 85th minute, Mido plays a through ball to Balde, who rolls a slow ball past Namibia’s keeper. Senegal 6, Namibia 0. Well, scratch that. Coulibaly sends a long ball to Balde for the same results for our seventh goal.

In the first minutes on the team bus, as we leave Dakar, social media is buzzing. Sarr is at the top of his game as Senegal dominatesthe Senegal Soccer Chronicle exclaims. Of course, no one in or out of the locker room is surprised or even mildly excited after our 7-0 romp. My goalkeeper, Edouard Mendy, tells Planet Football the final score does not mean anything but a win. A leading Senegalese reporter agrees with him. I guess we need to up our game against Togo. Mamadou Coulibaly and Mido break down when he gets his first cap. We smile as we board the airport for Togo, but a tense, apprehensive state looms over us.

The days before our game with Togo are relatively chill. 12-times-capped left-back and Milan prodigy Fode Ballo-Toure says our team cannot afford to be complacent. I glance at Senegal’s U20 match against Zambia. Gaye is average again, and a 17-year-old forward named Lemou Dioum wins Man of the Match honors as we lose 2-1.

Everything seems to be going according to plan. The Athletic thinks we should have an easy time against Togo, who lost 1-2 against Congo. I decide to take the advice of my assistant: If it is not broken, do not fix it, and keep my current formation and lineup.

In only the eighth minute, our defense starts crumbling. Togo burns us off an organized counter-attack, with Matthieu Dossevi finding Floyd Ayite with a precise through-ball. He tucks it away, and I begin to sweat. This could be tougher than I thought. Togo 1, Senegal 0.

Immediately, I signal to my players. We stop burning energy and focus on the long balls that destroyed Namibia. In the 31st minute, we attempt to respond. Dia finds Mido with a cutting through-ball. He breaks through the back line to set up a 1v1 and smashes the ball at the keeper. It was the best chance we had this game, and we just squandered it. In the 44th, we ping-pong the ball from one to another, aimlessly searching for a good look at the goal. Sarr goes down from a Togolese tackle that could have been a penalty, but the ref lets Togo clear it.

One of the main problems I have with our inconsistent offense is Ismaila Sarr. Although he was brilliant against Namibia. He slips into all the right places but cannot do anything with it. He smashes passes into defenders for corners we cannot score off of. That, and our inability to start our offense, makes for a dismal first half.

I take off Sarr for a Monaco winger named Krepin Diatta at halftime for my first substitution of the match. Yet I will not make any tactical changes. We have nine shots to their three and .63 expected goals to their mere .27. We just need a clinical finisher to take advantage of the chances we create.

In the 56th minute, Togo burns us again. Kalidou Koulibaly puts his head to a fine cross, but a Togo defender clears his shot off the line. It sets off a blistering counter-attack that our fatigued defense cannot keep up with. Dossevi crosses a floater towards Issa Ouro, who easily converts. Togo 2, Senegal 0. I take off Koulibaly for Alfred N’Diaye minutes later. Next off is Kouyate for Coulibaly in the 68th. Abdou Diallo powers a header towards the Togo keeper, but he comes up with a great save. Just minutes later, Mane fires from close range, but the keeper turns it away.

Yet all our chances accumulate into, finally, a goal. Nampalys Mendy sends a corner into the Togo box, where N’Diaye meets the cross mid-air. He nods it over above the Togo keeper to get one back for us. It is not much, but it gives us something. Togo 2, Senegal 1. Late in the 74th minute, I take off Mido for Henri Saivet as we hunt for an equalizer.

Diatta acts like Sarr: flashy, quick, but unable to make a real impact. Yet he helps us with his speed in the 75th minute. He breaks loose from his Togolese marker and tries to get the ball. One untimely tackle later, and the Togolese defender gets his second yellow. With our advantage in numbers, I decided to go all in and take off a tired Sadio Mane for Keita Balde. Time stretches on, and we grow more and more comfortable. We get into all the dangerous positions. And finally, the equalizer comes in the dying seconds of the game.

Diatta receives a dangerous ball from Balde and squares it to an otherwise mediocre Youssouf Sabaly. Sabaly feeds Diatta again, who turns it around for Mamadou Coulibaly. He bangs a strike from outside the box to equalize the game in style. I can finally breathe. Although I wanted the win, a draw will have to do. I shrug as the final whistle blows and sprint to the locker rooms as an angry Togolese crowd hurls insults onto the field.

Although my front line of Mane, Sarr, and Dia dominated Namibia, they were surprisingly average against Togo. Despite Sarr’s pace, he could not impact the game. Mane found some players with incisive balls but was not aggressive enough to help us find a goal earlier. I started to get results when I replaced Mane and Sarr with Diatta and Balde.

Even the defense flopped against Togo. Sabaly played a part in getting the equalizer. Yet he was burnt on counter-attacks by Dossevi and the Togo offense. The entire back line was not quick enough to track back on counter-attacks, and it played a big part in why we lost. The only consistent player that showed up against both Namibia and Togo was Nampalys Mendy. He set up our first goal against Togo, made a whopping 84 passes, and played eleven key passes(passes resulting in a shot) to Senegalese attackers. Against Namibia, we did not need him as much, but he still made 63 passes and played twelve key passes.

So now we know who our threats in the group our. Namibia, who lost 4-1 against Congo, are the dregs of the group. Togo will not go down without a fight, and Congo will be the team to beat. We trail Congo by two points, which we can make up for in October.

Deolu Akingbade
1 week ago
3 days ago
4

One of the perks of being a national team manager is the free time between international windows. You can go on a two-week-long vacation, manage another club, or even enjoy a game of Football Manager. 

But no. My assistant thuds a thick packet of fixtures. “I’ve taken the liberty of providing you with a list of fixtures for the next week. You may wish to attend some of the matches to run the rule over some of the players in the Senegal setup,” he says. So I have to hop on a plane from my office in Dakar to wherever I want to go.

I decide if I must do this, I must do it right. So I target key positions I want to bolster. One of them is a center-back, preferably quick. Both Togo’s goals came from the counter-attack in our troubling match against them. Some of the blame relies on our slow back line, which could not keep up with the pacy attackers. I want a defender to combat that.

Another is a consistent winger I can rely on. I know I have players like Sadio Mane and Ismaila Sarr. Yet I want depth so I can rest them for big matches. Keita Balde or Krepin Diatta could be a good choice, but I need more from them to show they can fit in the lineup.

I roll my eyes when I reach Camp Nou to watch Diatta play Barca in the Champions League. Before I even settle in my seat, Barca is already dominating Monaco. Gerard Pique tucks away a penalty in the seventh to put the visitors down by one. Diatta isn’t even starting. Although Monaco finds an equalizer thanks to Sofiane Diop’s score, Barca responds with a Frenkie de Jong strike. As time passes, and I intermittently look from my phone to see Diatta warming the bench, I look at Diop.

He’s played twice for the French U21 side, even scoring once for Les Bleus. Yet he is eligible for the Senegal team and even speaks good Wolof, a commonly spoken language in Senegal. He plays virtually every attacking position available, except striker. The downside to this Rennes talent is his eligibility for France and Morocco. Although we have stiff competition from Morocco and France, it would not hurt to reach out to the wunderkind. Diop helps his side equalize with a cutting through-ball, and I think he could make a great Lion of Teranga. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang pulls back a late winner as Diatta finally is substituted on. Diatta’s only mark on the game is a weak shot on target as Barca emerged with a 3-2 win.

I leave Camp Nou with virtually nothing. Diatta only plays two minutes, Diop flatly rejects my offer, and I am left in a cloud of uncertainty over the future of my wingers.

Yet my scout brings me good news. Sadio Mane scored against Wolfsburg to cap off a spectacular night in Anfield, while Sarr scored against Brentford. Despite playing 78 minutes, Balde doesn’t score and plays miserably for Cagliari.

I give most of the work to my scout, asking him to detail most of the matches. One game I have my eye on is Napoli vs. Inter, where Kalidou Koulibaly will star. This match will determine whether I look for more defenders.

Koulibaly does well. He passes the ball 66 times for a 93% passing completion percentage while winning 13 headers. Sure he lost 2-1 at home, but I liked the performance. Sarr also impresses me. He scores again against Basaksehir FK and wins Man Of The Match honors.

Yet there’s nothing that really impresses me. I’m left to grapple with questions, depth dilemmas, and my course of action against Congo in between all the free time I have.

I expect Edouard Mendy to be my number-one keeper when I head to Brazzaville for the Congo match. He was not rock-solid against Togo like I would want him, and he is having an unfortunate run of bad form, but he’s the best option I have in the keeper department. Rennes keeper Alfred Gomis is a step below Edouard Mendy; we do not have a keeper who can compete with him. So he is usually the first one on the team sheet.

So is Kalidou Koulibaly. After a closer, more intensive look at Koulibaly’s stats and attributes, I chalk up his poor performance against Togo to my inferior tactics. He was too high up on the pitch, so high that he would be ahead of the strikers on corners. I make a mental note to play him as a no-nonsense center-back rather than an offensive one. Same with Abdou Diallo. He can jump very high, something needed when we try to swing in corners.

Yet the fiasco with my wingback, one of our most pressing issues, is taking a turn for the worse. One of our best wingbacks, Moussa Wague, is still injured. His damaged cruciate ligaments could keep him on the sidelines for weeks or even months.

It leaves me to pick between two other contenders. I can go with Youssouf Sabaly, whose performance against Togo left a bad taste in my mouth. Or I can veer to the lift and pick Bouna Sarr, a Bayern B-team regular that is not getting the first-team football he needs. I would probably trust Sabaly more than Sarr, but if he plays poorly against Congo, I will hand the starting right-back role to Sarr. Fode Ballo-Toure is the only right-back I will consider calling up, so Sabaly or Sarr could get extended minutes filling in for the Milan leftie.

In the midfield, I decide Nampalys Mendy will be one of the first on the team sheet. He is enjoying a good run of form for Senegal, and we need his momentum. Idrissa Gueye will follow him as one of our midfielders: he is one of the best players in the French Ligue 1 and warrants a call-up. I elect to reach out to Marseille’s Pape Gueye, who unsurprisingly rejects me. So Mido or someone else will get the third midfield spot.

Now, for the most crucial part of the call-up process, I deeply inspect the status of my forwards. Ismaila Sarr scored multiple times for Watford. Sarr is enjoying a great run of form for the Hornets and will be vital to the squad if he can activate his club form for us and make good passes into the box. Sadio Mane will also start in our 4-3-3 because he is one of the best wingers in the world. Benching him would be criminal. Boulaye Dia gets a start as the lead striker because he’s the best in the center-forward position. He does not get a lot of minutes for his club Villarreal, but he has the quality we need nonetheless.

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