When Egypt won the last of an unprecedented hat-trick of straight CAF Africa Cup of Nations titles in 2010, fans back home boasted about an attacking flair that characterised the hugely successful reign of coach Hassan Shehata. A free fall in the following years, however, lowered expectations among football enthusiasts in the country until Hector Cuper took the reins to gradually drag the team out of the doldrums, albeit without re-instilling the sense of beautiful football which was a hallmark of Shehata’s era.
The veteran Argentinean boss instead put extra emphasis on adding steel to an often flimsy and porous backline, turning a deaf ear to pundits who suggested Egypt rather needed to reinvent themselves as an entertaining side in Africa to make up for their modest physical attributes compared to most of their opponents in the continent.
The current Egypt side might not be as easy on the eye, but records and figures show that Cuper’s strategy is definitely effective, with the team qualifying for the Africa Cup of Nations for the first time since 2010. An opening 0-0 draw with Mali in an uninspiring Group D clash in Gabon had some Egyptian supporters unhappy, lamenting what they believed was a missed chance to kick off the campaign with a convincing win had Egypt adopted a bolder strategy.
But nothing of that sort could really distract the former Valencia and Inter Milan boss, who would never throw caution to the wind as long as Egypt did not fall behind. His cautiousness paid off in the second group game against Uganda and, although Egypt left it late to score a precious winner, they did so when playmaker Abdallah El-Said finished off a trademark breakaway with just one minute left on the clock.
And against heavyweights Ghana, Egypt were barely threatened and Mohamed Salah settled the tie in their favour with a blistering free-kick after 11 minutes, meaning the Pharaohs were the only team at the Africa Cup of Nations not to concede any goals in three group-stage games.
“Football is not just about attack,” Cuper said following the hard-fought victory over Uganda, deflecting criticism of his style. “Like the defence, the attack should be organised as well; it's not just about players pushing forwards in a random manner. Every game has its special plan and strategy.”
Watertight defenceSince the canny 61-year-old took charge in March 2015, Egypt have only shipped seven goals in 21 competitive and friendly matches, often claiming narrow wins. Before Cuper’s arrival, opponents sliced open Egypt’s defence at will, with the team having a disastrous Africa Cup of Nations qualifying campaign in 2014, having lost to challengers Tunisia and Senegal home and away.
“I understand that Egyptian fans would like to see us winning by a big margin every match, but my main target is to control every game,” Cuper said. “We are a team that has an identity now. Our defence is good and we are working to improve our attack.”
The manager cares about every detail. He gives protection to his four defenders by positioning defensive midfielders Tarek Hamed and Mohamed Elneny right in front of them to ensure the central defensive duo will not be exposed or outpaced. Although the footwork of workhorse Mahmoud Trezeguet, nicknamed after the former France striker, can hardly match that of Stoke City’s Ramadan Sobhi on the left wing, the midfielder is still preferred by Cuper because of his knack to drift back and carry out defensive duties, often supporting the full back.
We precisely follow every instruction by the coach and this gives us protection at the back.
In addition, two towering central defenders in Ahmed Hegazy and Ali Gabr make it very difficult for opposing strikers to win any aerial challenges.
“We precisely follow every instruction by the coach and this gives us protection at the back. That’s why any players who play in central defence will produce a top-level performance,” Ahly’s Hegazy said in a television interview.
Following a 2-0 FIFA World Cup™ qualifying win at home to Ghana in November, which was executed in a similar manner after a conservative display by Egypt, several players including Roma winger Salah leapt to the defence of Cuper, insisting it was not a “shame” to play defensively.
Egypt eye a record-extending eighth Africa Cup of Nations crown on their first appearance in seven years, which would see them compete in the FIFA Confederations Cup later this year, with Cuper also determined to qualify them for the World Cup for the first time since 1990.
They seem on the right track as they also top their World Cup qualifying group, which also includes Africa Cup of Nations group-stage opponents Ghana and Uganda, with a maximum six points from two matches.
“We know very well that Cuper has not changed his strategy in over a year. His mindset is focused on tightening defence and trying to score through a counter attack or penalty,” former coach Shehata said while analysing the opening draw with Mali for an Egyptian television channel. “We are not waiting for Egypt to display attractive football or control possession. I’m not criticising him, this is just his way and his style and that’s it."