Tunisia-Algeria: Finalists under the experts’ microscope
FIFA Technical Study Group members assess Saturday’s final
Steve McClaren and Michel Sablon explain why Algeria start as favourites
Pascal Zuberbühler looks in detail at the North Africans’ ball-playing keepers
With three goals in stoppage time, culminating in a 117th-minute winner, the FIFA Arab Cup™ semi-finals were all drama.
But as fans, neutrals and casual observers became caught up in the emotion, a small team of observers sought to find order amid the glorious chaos. These experts, belonging to FIFA’s Technical Study Group (TSG), have been analysing the tournament and teams in detail and yesterday sat down with FIFA Training Centre to give their assessment on the two finalists.
The former England manager, who led FC Twente to their first-ever Eredivisie title, foresees a major test for the defensive foundation on which Tunisia’s success has been built.
“It’s going to be a great final. For Tunisia, the key will be how they handle Algeria’s front four. They need to be compact and, to win, they must pass the ball well. For Algeria to win, they need to get the ball to that front four of theirs as quickly as possible. It’s a really fascinating game and it’s going to be tough for Tunisia because Algeria, I think, are the stronger of the two teams. But after the semi-final, there was such an emotional high for the Algerian players and they expended a lot of energy. Tunisia are maybe in better physical condition approaching this game, and that can be a huge advantage. They’ve built their campaign on defending. Yes, they score goals, they have some flamboyant players and they’re very good on set plays. But it’s all built on a foundation of being hard to beat.
"They’ll need to defend well in this final, too, because Algeria have the best front four in the tournament: the most inventive, creative in one-on-ones and the toughest to defend against. Tunisia need to be solid, stay in the game as long as possible, but they also need to progress the ball quicker and better [than they did in the semi-final against Egypt] beyond that middle third. They’ve got a chance. But if the game is stretched, end-to-end, and Tunisia keep giving the ball away, Algeria are the kind of team that will really punish them. If Tunisia are in a low block and can defend their box, they’re comfortable and Algeria won’t be a threat. But they will be a threat in transitions and little combinations, and with individuals running at them. Tunisia have big, strong defenders who’re great at defending their box, but put them outside against dribblers and they’re not so effective.”
The technical director credited with revitalising and revolutionising Belgian football views Algeria as the logical favourites to take gold.
“It’s not the final I expected. We were convinced by the way Qatar beat UAE – going 5-0 up by half-time - that they were ready to go to the final. But I’ve watched Algeria several times and what’s excited me about them is the technical skills of their individual players. You see very few unforced errors from them, they have good passing skills and, because the technical basics are all there, they can keep the ball, create good combinations and execute their vision on the field. That sounds very simple, but it’s something you see other teams struggle with. Another attribute is their concentration and mental strength.
"From the first game until the semi-final, they have been the same: always playing a 4-2-3-1. But the thing that is difficult for their opponents to control is the movement of those three men behind the central striker, all of whom are very good players. The final is open. If you [assess] the individual qualities of the two teams, I think Algeria would be of a slightly higher standard. They are objectively a little bit stronger, better developed and have a more consistent way of playing. But as we saw [in the semis], in football, anything can happen.”
The former Switzerland No1, who kept goal for his national team at three major tournaments, assesses the merits of the finalists’ keepers.
“With Tunisia, it’s very interesting. They started with their usual first-choice goalkeeper (Farouk Ben Mustapha) in the first two games, and then for the third game they changed and [Hassan] Moeez came in. He’s the younger of the two keepers, just 26, and you see that he is much more connected to the team in terms of playing out from the back. With him in goal, you feel that Tunisia are creating more by building from defence. What’s also interesting to see is that he stays quite deep in his goal; he is not one who attacks the zone to support the defensive line, which for Tunisia is quite high. He has not had a lot to show so far in terms of massive saves, but you can feel that connection he has with the rest of the team.
"Algeria also play a very high defensive line and I feel that we might see quite a few balls played in behind the two defences; then the goalkeepers’ positioning will be crucial. The Algerians’ goalkeeper, Mboolhi, is 35 years old, hugely experienced and you felt that in the semi-final. His first touch in that game was a back-pass and, against [Akram] Afif, a very sharp player, with 60,000 people watching, he dribbled past him. Unbelievable. Later, he did the same as the last man and you felt straight away, with his attitude, ‘This guy is the boss’. Playing out from the back, he has everything: a nice, relaxed passing style with right and left foot, a very nice long side-volley kick and he can chip into the midfield too.”