The night before Gambia kicked off their campaign against Mauritania, head coach Tom Saintfiet sent me a voice note simply saying, “We are really ready for tomorrow and looking forward to it.” He wasn’t joking.
The Gambia, despite being one of two debutants at the tournament, have been one of the standout performers and off the back of their win over Guinea now have booked a historic quarterfinal berth against hosts Cameroon.
But what makes Gambia so interesting? They have been one of the dullest nations to watch at the tournament. Of the nations in the quarterfinals they have both the lowest number of goals scored and goals conceded with every match ending 1-0 or 1-1
What surprises many is the relative ease in which they have made the step up from playing in pre-qualifiers as one of the eight lowest ranked sides in Africa to playing some of the biggest sides in Africa without losing. The explanation is simply the brilliance of Tom Saintfiet and the tactical variety which Gambia have employed.
Gambia have utilised three different starting formations in their four matches. Against Mauritania, the weakest opposition they have faced so far, they employed a 4-4-2 to get the most out of creative wide players Musa Barrow and Ebrima Colley.
Against both Mali and Tunisia, Saintfiet moved the team into a nominal 4-5-1. Despite the similarity in formation the style of play varied greatly. Against Mali, Assan Ceesay started up front and Musa Barrow, playing on the left, moved high and centrally in possession to win the ball off Ceesay’s hold up play.
But against Tunisia, Saintfiet dropped Ceesay and played Barrow up front, bringing in Modou Barrow on the left wing who provided a lot more width and defensive stability than Musa.
In their round of 16 clash against Guinea, Gambia changed again to play a more expansive 4-2-3-1 to combat Guinea’s strength in midfield. It worked a treat as they nullified Guinea’s midfield who without Naby Keita looked bereft of ideas.
But Gambia’s tactical flexibility does not end with the starting formations. What has been notable in all of Gambia’s matches is their game management. In every game Gambia have completely shut down the first half. In all of their games, only one goal has come in the first half, Ablie Jallow’s brilliant long-range finish against Mauritania.
But in every match, Saintfiet brings on substitutes and changes the formation of the Gambian side to become more expansive. With quality players like Ebrima Darboe, Ebrima Colley, and Ceesay coming on in different matches to change the game, opponents have not been able to deal with the changes.
And they have not been orthodox changes either. In the final 15 minutes against Guinea, Saintfiet elected to bring on two forwards in Ceesay and Njie to play more directly and release the pressure on his team.
Despite the incredible tactical flexibility that Gambia have shown, what has made them so effective is their continual commitment to the system in place. Gambia have been one of the most defensive sides in the competition. They have the highest Passes Per Defensive Action (PPDA), a measure of how much a team presses, of any team in Cameroon. This indicates that they are the side that presses the least in the competition.
Further outlining their commitment to defending deep and in a low block is their average start distance of open-play sequences. Gambia begin possession sequences on average 33.8 metres from their own goal, the deepest of any team in the competition.
The team also has one of the lowest number of direct attacks in the competition, having only created three chances from direct attacks. Any idea that this is a conventional team that likes to sit deep and counter attack is completely off.
Instead, Gambia use the technical quality of their attacking players to build up team goals through passing sequences. The team sits very deep, allowing their opposition to have possession, without penetrating the backline. Once the game is stretched in the second half, Saintfiet uses the quality on his bench to create chances through controlled football.
It is a system that is quite risky, because if Gambia don’t score, there would be a strong sense of a lack of attacking initiative. It is also a system that requires a large amount of buy-in from the players. Key players like Ceesay and Ebrima Colley have had to be content spending time on the bench and coming on to make the difference in the second half.
But the players clearly do buy into the system. Gambia have used the greatest number of players so far in the Cup of Nations. Of the 28 players who travelled, 26 have featured. There is a remarkable amount of trust Saintfiet has in every one of his players and that trust is fully reciprocated.
Against Cameroon, Gambia will have an entirely new challenge. They will be playing the hosts and top scorers of the tournament, but if we have learnt anything from Tom Saintfiet and The Gambia, they will have an answer to the challenge.