Egypt is one of the most successful teams in Africa, a country known for its attacking-first style of football (especially under Hassan Shehata’s leadership) and that has won the Africa Cup of Nations a record seven times. On 8 September 2021, the Egyptian Football Association announced the hiring of Carlos Queiroz, a veteran manager who had previously coached Iran, Colombia, Portugal, Real Madrid, and South Africa.
Taking over from former manager Hossam El Badry, whose period witnessed a great fluctuation in performance, this heightened pressure on Queiroz has proven to be successful. The technical staff includes Diyaa El Sayed, Mohamed Shawky, Essam El-Hadry, and Wael Gomaa, as well as performance analyst Mahmoud Seleem.
This piece will look to investigate all aspects of Egypt’s play, including how players fit the game model and training sessions used in the process.
“I want to express my commitment to use the best of my experience and knowledge to fulfill the goals and dreams of such a prestigious football country with passionate and dedicated supporters,”-Carlos Queiroz.
Out of Possession / Defensive Phase
Egypt’s primary formation in all games is 4-3-3 / 4-1-4-1. This system generally defends wide and is also used when playing against an opponent that uses a back 3/5 to help counter the natural width of those formations. The midfield is usually comprised of one 6, while two 8s aim to veer centrally.
When their opposition is in possession in the middle third, they’re aggressive in trying to win the ball back. Fullbacks get in on the action as well, trying to prevent attacks down the flank before the opposition can get in a good position to cross the ball.
The team presses from the center of the pitch to the wide areas where a combination of the winger, the 8, and fullback can overload to win the ball back.
One of the team’s ideas is the concept of isolating a player through pressing angles and winning the ball back with intense pressing based on certain triggers. For example, intense pressure from the midfielders when a line-breaking pass is played, or similarly in the wide zones when a player is isolated.
Defending Goal Kicks Against the Back Four
It all starts with pressing angles and a supporting press, one of the things that Queiroz’s striker should be excellent at.
He should be able to direct the opposition to certain sides of the pitch simply with body shape, covering the other CB’s shadow. He rarely is instructed to press hard, but his body shape forces a pass to one direction or the other.
His movement acts as a pressing trigger for the players around him, who are able to anticipate the next pass and press before or as the pass is made, rather than when it arrives.
Next, the winger and then CMs play a big role in ball recovery as quickly as possible. The winger turns his body from outside to inside and vice versa according to the team’s intention to direct the opposition’s path.
For example, if the opposing 6 is uncomfortable with the ball at his feet, then the team will have a good chance to engage and win the ball back. If the opposing winger is not good enough in 1v1 situations, it’s possible to leave space for him on the touchline and get the ball there, while the two 8s who mark the opposing double 6s must remain ready to engage aggressively.
Defending Goal Kicks Against the Back Three
This is often used to line up the amount of forwards with the number of defenders, whether the opposition uses 3 CBs or drops in a midfielder to create a back three. They also all have an emphasis on the wide areas.
The 3 forwards are matched up man-for-man, with the striker tracking the backward pass or covering the middle CB’s shadow.
The two 8s are matched up with the opposition’s 6, while Egypt’s 6 played conservatively once again. Collectively, all options are closed down (or made useless) and it forces a long ball which is covered comfortably by the backline.
High Block Pressing Against the Back Four
Queiroz will often ask his side to press high up the pitch, trying to force errors in vulnerable positions. It’s just like defending against goal kicks, in which the striker throws himself between the two CBs and tries to direct the opposition into wide areas.
The wingers take fullbacks, the CMs take the double 6s (if the opposition goes with a single 6 and two 8, then one of CMs will take their 6 while the other CM alongside with 6 takes care of their CMs).
Once the ball is played wide, it acts as a trigger for the right winger and two 8s to press. As the fullbacks have already begun to slide to cover his gap, in the end, the opposition has nowhere to play the ball. It becomes more and more apparent that these pressing traps are Egypt’s way of winning the ball.
High Block Pressing Against the Back Three
Carlos Queiroz does not usually resort to pressing with a high block against teams with a back 3 line (except for goal kicks or in emergency moments), so we will skip this part and pass to mid-block pressing. The defensive line is high in the previous two phases, defending goal kicks and high pressing to make sure the whole team is compact.
One of the CBs (depending on which fullback has jumped to press) drifts wide slightly, covering the fullback who jumps to press the opposition’s fullback/wingback. This should not pose a threat to the two CBs, especially as they are proactive in defense and good at aerial duels.
Mid-Block Pressing Against the Back Four
Against teams that are more skilled with the build-up and that can break a high press, Queiroz will make his midfield the line of engagement its most aggressive. Queiroz’s defense aims to win the ball high up the pitch as its line still aims to prevent forward play further up the pitch.
Once the ball passes the halfway line, one of the two 8 will track the ball if it’s in the middle of the pitch while the other drops deep to join the 6. The wingers will remain in a similar position, remaining mobile enough to track back and block opposing efforts to pass down the flanks.
The striker begins to put pressure on the right-sided CB, forcing him into the wide area, whilst the left-sided 8 and left back take opposition’s right 8 and right winger respectively, while the left winger makes sure that their fullback is shut down by closing lanes down.
The right 8 jumps into the 1st pressing line while covering the opposition’s 6 shadow, making sure he’s isolated before waiting for a signal from his teammates who are closing channels on the opposition’s left back, forcing him to pass into the middle.
Mid-Block Pressing Against the Back Three
There’s a general rule for the team against a back 3 line as mentioned above, They are often used to matching the number of forwards with the number of defenders. One of these variations can be seen within the 4-3-3 specifically. You’ll sometimes see the two 8s step up even higher than the wingers, and press the outside CBs due to two reasons:
1- Because it becomes a necessity to initiate the pressure and take the ideal form to sit while defending.
2- If the oppositions have a high-quality FB/WB, they should not allow them to receive in high zones of the pitch by closing down outside CBs and preventing them from passing into wide areas.
Once the ball passes the halfway line, they will take a 4-1-4-1 narrow shape, the winger will initially sit in the channel, allowing space for the opposition’s WB to receive, and then the team will start pressing.
The winger will make sure that he closes down the opposition’s WB, while the fullback tracks the opposition’s winger with the 6’s help. The opposition’s WB is forced to pass backwards and then the 8 is ready to press the left-sided CB as the striker comes close to ensure ball circulation.
The reference here for the two CBs is space, they must defend space well. They will have to track the opposition striker a little further into the middle just for protection and to make sure he is isolated from the interaction, so they don’t have to get too caught up in the tracking process. Ahmed Hegazy is good enough at this part, but El-Wensh has to improve in this aspect.
It should be noted that this phase, along with defending wing play, is also the most vulnerable. This is primarily due to fullbacks’ lack of technical skills needed to deal with different defensive situations from body orientation, space awareness, communication to defending 1v1.
Low Block Pressing
This is how Egypt will likely set up in a low block. At this point, their structure is a 4-5-1. The block is usually narrow, shifting according to the ball location where the striker tries to put pressure in advanced areas.
The CM that sits deep will now step out to close down the space in the midfield, while the 6 remains tight to the backline. Perhaps the most noticeable element of this structure are the wingers; they remain wide, reacting with the midfield line to provide help in defending and forcing the play inside and acting as pseudo-full-backs.
There were several occasions when they set up in a 6-3-1 shape in an attempt to deny any opportunity for the opposition to penetrate their backline and force them to take shots from distance.
In Possession /Attacking Phase:
Starting from the back, Egypt have used the same build-up structure across the board in their build-up, even with variance in shapes. When deepest, like in goal kicks, it resembles almost a 2-2 shape, where Hamdi Fathi and Amr El Solia become a double pivot while full-backs remain on the same horizontal line.
This shape creates problems for them in the build-up because it does not match the tactical and technical characteristics of their midfielders, so it was easy to put them in pressing traps, especially since their full-backs are not good at inverted runs into the middle, and a such, it was difficult for them to get out of narrow areas.
In the FIFA Arab Cup, Queiroz tried to use his winger to fall into the middle and provide support by going with the same shape in their build-up, but that did not help either due to the same reasons mentioned above.
This actually forced Queiroz to go with another structure, 3-1, creating a shape that looks very similar to the diamond in the build-up.
This form allowed the CBs more time on the ball to have a more clear vision on the pitch and gain a number of yards forward, enabling one of the fullbacks to push up high and take more advanced positions down the flanks, while the other one stuck to a deeper position, forming 3-2 shape on some occasions.
This shape perfectly matches the characteristics of the players in the back:
1- Ahmed Hegazy and Mahmoud Al Wensh need more time on the ball to play progressive passes.
2- Akram Tawfik is not good enough in terms of passing and offensive positions in 1v1 on the touchline and the final third to involve himself in the creation phase. He can also be used in rest defense, protective coverage and counter-pressing. He may not currently have a good body orientation and space awareness around him, but he’s good at tackles.
3- Ahmed Abou El-Fotouh is comfortable on the ball and also has enough vision to involve himself mainly in the team’s progression and creation phase.
As we progress slightly higher up the field, there are several variables that occur.
First, the striker plays a big role in this phase. His first touch must be excellent and accurate, and his vertical and horizontal movement must be good and appropriate to the pattern followed, otherwise they will find themselves trapped.
Second, the far-sided CMs will float in the half-spaces as a quick vertical option. For the most part, they rarely receive the ball, but they can be used in winning the second ball or creating midfield rotations that create space to receive. Some of these rotations create opportunities for the midfielder who rotates into space to receive whilst facing forward.
The left midfielder starts to drop deeper to contribute to the progression phase, getting the opposition’s right 6 out of his position. This allows the far-sided CMs (right midfielder) to have a certain space in the middle when the left winger finds him after falling into the left half-space without being tracked.
Third, the central midfielders running the channels. This often happens when the full-back finds time on the ball, allowing the midfielder to freely decide in possession. We should not forget that players (FB, CM and Winger) must form a triangle in order for the team to progress the ball without problems.
The CM puts himself in the opposition’s cover shadow and within seconds, he starts making his decision to run the channel. In that time, the winger falls deeper to pull the full-back and create space for his teammate.
Often it can be said that the “second ball” is one of Queiroz’s approaches to progress the ball. It pushes the team further forward by skipping the build-up phase completely and allows them to get faster into the final third of the pitch. Players were able to understand this pattern well and in a short time, which gave them a direct threat to the opposition box and the possibility to play through a disorganized and unprepared defense.
The goalkeeper or one of the CBs starts sending long balls forward, and here there are two paths to direct the ball: either sending it into the center or the half-space. This really depends on the opposition’s weaknesses, but in both cases, the CMs are well-prepared to engage and get the second ball from an opposition that often gives up the ball.
If the team goes with the first path, this means that the opposition has a problem with ground or air duels at the center of the pitch or insufficient protection for zone 14, causing the wingers to drift inside more, followed by aggressive CMs.
And if the team goes with the second path, this means that the opposition has a problem with the space down the flank (whether the opposition’s defense is narrow or the full-back easily gives up the ball), and then the full-back will be ready to get involved.
Egypt are also able to progress against other man-marking opposition through wide combination play. These patterns are designed so that when a player receives, they’re receiving the ball in a threatening situation. An example of this can be seen below against another man-oriented side: Tunisia.
While this specific combination didn’t quite work out, it showed us the myriad of options posed to each player as they received based on common patterns.
- The striker is looking for space to receive.
- The winger is wide and able to receive, with the right body shape so he’s able to act as a ‘wall’ or a man where a pass can be bounced off of.
- The 8 provides an option to run down.
Chance Creation Principles
In attack, Queiroz aims to break quickly to the wingers often positioned deep down the flanks, where they choose to take fullbacks on 1v1, cross into the box, or take advantage of the spaces created and vacated by their movement, namely to the striker or the incoming center midfielder.
He wants to move the ball quickly, overlap, pass and drive forward – movement to create chaos for the opposition and then the opposing forward must come into a central striker position.
As such, it’s not surprising to see a striker play as a winger if that player has the requisite skillset and adequate speed because he’ll often drift to and from both positions depending on the situation. This encourages players to move in and out by swapping positions and forces the opposition back into uncomfortable situations.
With attackers running to the right flank, the left winger would then move inside in order to accompany the striker, giving the team two strikers when deep in the final third.
The right winger may then take on the opposition’s defender thanks to the right 8’s help, and the right winger can keep the ball and pass it towards his main striker or cross the ball.
When attacking through one side, Queiroz also loves to send his opposite center midfielder up to support, creating a sort of lopsided four to four/five.
There are two zones where Queiroz would like to have his side win the ball and then make the transition to attack. The first zone is the center of the field thanks to his aggressive midfield. Midfielders will wait until the right moment to engage the opposition, and Queiroz’s teams are impressive at this facet.
If the 6 jumped to press and the team succeeded in winning the ball, the wingers and the two 8s would immediately make a run into the space (if one of the 8s jumped to press, the 6 would sit back in his position, leaving the other 8 to make the run with the wingers), creating an obvious numerical superiority over the disorganized opposition.
The second zone is down the flank, aiming for their target man (or the active-side winger) up front and trying to get the ball forward as quickly as possible in deadly counter-attacks.
Mostafa Mohamed and Mohamed Salah are key in their link-up play and the structural dismantling of the opposition. Having a clear outlet up front to aim for who also pins the defence and creates space is crucial to Egypt’s attacking plans.
Mostafa Mohamed provides the focal point up front to get the ball to their ball-carriers in midfield while Salah takes care of getting the opposition out of position and out of the tight areas.
Mostafa is pinning the defenders and that creates separation between the opposition’s backline and the midfield line, ultimately giving Egypt space to work with when carrying the ball forward.
The defensive transition has been one of Egypt’s strongest phases since Queiroz’s arrival. They learned it very quickly and it can be easily seen from the second game of the new era, a 1-1 draw against Algeria. The team in this phase relies on counter-pressing and recovering the ball quickly in the opposition half.
If the players did not succeed in ball recovery, they would try to stop the opposition from progressing the ball until they can organize themselves again. Egypt have changed their tactics based on opposition, whether that’s man-marking, finding a specific spot to exploit, or understanding their zonal marking schemes.
“I congratulate my players for their performance and also for deploying the coach’s strategy. The winning spirit already existed inside the players’ hearts. They became unrestricted inside the pitch and they began to have fun in both training and matches, and that gave them more freedom to express themselves. But we still have a lot of work to do to reach the perfect performance,”-Carlos Queiroz.
It has been a hot-and-cold decade for Egyptian football. After winning three straight Africa Cup of Nations tournaments from 2006 to 2010, Egypt failed to qualify for the next three editions after the Egyptian government shut down the domestic league for two years following the tragic Port Said Stadium riot that resulted in the deaths of 74 people.
They returned to AFCON in 2017, advancing to the Final in Gabon where they would lose to Cameroon. The 2019 edition saw them win each of their three group stage matches, before losing in the Round of 16 to South Africa, which resulted in the sacking of Mexican manager Javier Aguirre.
Egypt kicked off their AFCON tournament on January 11 with a 1-0 loss to Nigeria, before narrowly defeating Guinea-Bissau via a goal from Mohamed Salah. Whilst Nigeria have sealed their place in the knockout round, Egypt have three points from two matches in contrast to Guinea-Bissau and Sudan’s one point, meaning that the Pharaohs will need a positive result against Sudan in order to guarantee their spot in the Round of 16.
With a squad featuring the likes of Mohamed Elneny and Ahmed Hegazi, a world-class attacking talisman in Mohamed Salah, and a weathered, veteran manager in Carlos Queiroz, only time will tell if Egypt have what it takes to go the distance and win their first AFCON in 12 years.
By: Omar Mokhtar / @OmarMokhtar6643
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Matthew Ashton – AMA / Getty Images