Sammy Bartels writes: Time is running out for Chris Hughton to find an identity that works

Sammy Bartels writes: Time is running out for Chris Hughton to find an identity that works

Confidence in Chris Hughton’s ability to succeed with the Black Stars is eroding, fast.

The opening defeat to Cabo Verde last Sunday has reopened the half-healed wounds of the embarrassing exit at the hands of Comoros last time around. The Black Stars have become the strange case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

Goal scoring was always going to be the biggest headache for the Black Stars at AFCON 2023, especially after Mohammed Kudus was sidelined with a thigh strain.

The West Ham United forward was directly involved in 50% of Ghana’s goals in the qualifiers for this tournament, scoring three times and assisting one (4/8).

The lone shot on target for Ghana against Cabo Verde was Alex Djiku’s 54th-minute equalizer.

The paradox is why the team has such glaring defensive frailties and a lack of organization. Against Cabo Verde, these were exposed together with cohesion issues.

The central defensive partnership between Alexander Djiku and Mohammed Salisu looked more budding than established while the midfield combination of Baba Iddrisu, Majeed Ashimeru and Ransford Yeboah Konigsdorffer looked more experimental than assuring.

Their positioning, link-up, compactness and passing was not organic.

This was evinced in the build-up to Cabo Verde’s opening goal. Baba Iddrisu and Ashimeru in midfield were poles apart while Salisu was caught out, forcing Djiku to step out to the left with Odoi filling in at center back leaving the right of the defence completely exposed.

As Dennis Odoi rightly observed post-match, “the lines were too far apart – The Cabo Verdeans could easily find their guys between the lines”. Had Bebé been prolific the islanders would have been out of sight.

Both Odoi and Djiku believed the Black Stars must be more aggressive and pressure as a team.

Djiku was pumped up for the game and this was clear from his standout performance. Sadly, the rest of team could not match that energy. This explains why they could not build on the momentum from the equalizer.

The disappointing show partly boils down to the lack of a clear identity for this iteration of the Black Stars. Should the team sit back and wait for opportunities to transition on the counterattack using the pace of Paintsil, Williams, Nuamah and co.

Can they dominate possession and create chances without relying on the ball playing ability of Mo Kudus? Can the Black Stars press opponents high up the pitch?

Milovan Rajevac and Avram Grant both took the Black Stars to the finals of the AFCON (in 2010 and 2015 respectively) with unexceptional teams because they recognized their limitations and decided play to their strengths by being compact defensively.

Chris Hughton seems to be caught in the middle somewhere – neither expansive nor defensively astute.

The finalists of the 2021 AFCON, Egypt, and Senegal scored just 2 goals each at the Group stages.

This shows that a team does not need a ton of goals to qualify out of a Group at the African Cup. But a team cannot also not afford to concede as recklessly as Ghana did.

While all is not lost for Ghana at AFCON 2023, Chris Hughton urgently needs to settle on a clear identity for his team and implement it quickly.

Tournament football does not have to be pretty, just effective. There is very little margin for error.

Credit: Samuel Bartels (@SamuelBartels)

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