The local Amavubi were Tuesday night bundled out of the 2018 African Nations Championship (CHAN) finals.
It is tempting to conclude that the result was harsh for Rwanda because the Mediterranean Knights snatched their goal three minutes into stoppage time but, well, for neutrals, it must have felt like justice had been served.
As was the case in their CHAN 2018 opener against Nigeria, Antoine Hey set his team up to defend rather than set out to earn the solitary point they needed to reach the quarterfinals. The Amavubi approached the game with a bizarre mindset of ‘protecting’ what you do not have (just yet).
In fact, against Libya, Amavubi looked far more clueless than they were against the Super Eagles. The stats paint a grim picture. For example, Rwanda had no single shot on target and could muster only 5 shots off target all night, while Libya had three shots on and 18 off target.
Rwanda made 250 passes, completing only 64 per cent of them during the entire match, against Libya’s 434 passes, 76 per cent of which were successful, while the wasps also received all the five yellow cards dished out by the referee. And, as fate would have it, Libya’s relentless attacks ultimately paid off in one of the most dramatic scenarios you’ll ever see. Simply put, the better team won.
Here are the five basic reasons why Hey should never have set the team up to play a boring, suicidal defensive game in a make-or-break clash.
- We should have drawn a few lessons from the Nigeria clash
Amavubi played a similarly defensive game against Nigeria in their first match at the tournament, and somehow the game ended 0-0, but the result flattered the Rwandan side.
Indeed, the following morning, a colleague joked that this newspaper should have gone with something like “Rwanda survive Nigeria”, instead of “Rwanda hold Nigeria…” The Super Eagles dominated in all departments but were simply unlucky having struck the woodwork on three occasions.
On that cold night in Tangier, Amavubi rode their luck and escaped. Unfortunately, they learned no lesson from the match because, somehow, they again chose to deploy the same tactics against a Libya team that simply knew that anything less than a win would see them bow out of a tournament they so cherish and have won previously (2014 in South Africa).
- Amavubi players are still kids and overly defensive games don’t suit them
The average age of Amavubi’s starting eleven on Tuesday was 22. Thierry Manzi, possibly the team’s best defender at CHAN 2018, is only 21, and none of his partners in the Amavubi backline is above 25.
And with no natural striker in the starting lineup, the coach’s intentions were very clear.
But it’s also clear that it’s unwise to field a team of mostly lively post-Genocide kids and put them under undue pressure deep in their own half for the entirety of the game and then expect them to ward off wave after wave of attacks from a spirited opposition side that has nothing to lose.
Overly defensive games are simply a reckless and dangerous gamble, even the most experienced centre-backs will crack under sustained pressure from attack-minded opponents.
- When you know that goals have been hard to come by you must try to keep your opponents at bay – as far away as possible
The Amavubi have lately been struggling to score goals. And that’s not necessarily Hey’s problem. Prior to the Libya match, the Amavubi had scored only six goals in nine games, a good number of them from defenders.
It is irresponsible to create a situation that will likely result in conceding a goal yet you are keenly aware of how hard it has been for your team to get on the score sheet. We have learned from Barcelona and lately, Manchester City, that the best way to defend is to attack.
In addition, the Azam Rwanda Premier League lacks good strikers in general – largely thanks to the policy adopted by major local clubs to not have foreign players in their squads. This means that most of our defenders lack experience in marking and dispossessing top forwards. And that partly explains why they kept making silly fouls in dangerous positions against Libya.
- In the end, Amavubi shot themselves in the foot
Amavubi’s only goal at CHAN 2018 tournament came through a defender – a header from Manzi, off a corner kick. They have also created problems for opposition teams through their natural wing-backs in Eric Rutanga and Fitina Omborenga (who, unfortunately, had limited game time in Morocco). Indeed, the closest that Amavubi came to scoring on Tuesday night was when Rutanga surged late on and unleashed a powerful shot that hit the side-netting.
Maybe, just maybe, Amavubi could still be in the tournament had the coach allowed his full-backs to express themselves against Libya by making those runs down the flanks, and allowed more yellow shirts to move out of their own half and into the final third to get on the end of crosses.
Unfortunately, that didn’t happen and instead we saw a team helplessly fighting for their lives inside their half for long uninterrupted spells, at one point whopping 10 minutes!
5. Nobody can blame you when you give your best
Nobody expected Amavubi to win CHAN. Probably, very few believed that the team could actually go past the group stage. But at least fans expected the team to give their best. And probably the players did give their best.
But did we see the best of Amavubi from a tactical point of view? I don’t think so. You don’t play five – young and generally inexperienced – defenders and four defensive midfielders, and then deploy an attacking midfielder as a forward in a do-or-die tie and expect a result better than Tuesday’s.
I am almost certain many fans will have felt that the team had more in the tank that, in the end, was never exploited, thanks to negative tactics.
Amavubi only have themselves to blame for their injury-time heartbreak on Tuesday. Yet I feel for the boys. They were let down by the coach’s negative tactics and must have felt hugely disappointed.
Individually, the Amavubi players are a talented lot with immense potential to thrive together as a team. They are still a young group of players and should be given every support possible. I hope they can take some encouragement from loads of positives we saw in their performances – at least from an overall perspective.
The write is an editor with The New Times.