Despite regularly producing players who are good enough to play in top European leagues, Senegal will be making just its second-ever World Cup appearance this year. This is good news for fans who want to see extremely cool players do extremely cool things, because there are some fun guys on this squad. The only problem is that they haven’t yet found the best way to deploy their talent.
The good news for Senegal is that they find themselves in what is probably the most wide-open group in the tournament. Colombia, Poland, and Japan will all be formidable opponents, but there are no superteams lording over this group and blotting out all hopes of advancing. This should be close to an even four-team race, and Senegal have just as good a shot at getting out of the group stage as any of the others.
The lack of tactical vision may not even end up being all that big of a problem, either. At least not in the group stage. It doesn’t always take a beautiful, Guardiola-esque philosophy and system to advance in these sorts of tournaments, in part because installing those kinds of systems takes a lot more time and practice than national teams can manage. Often times all it takes to make some noise at the World Cup is a solid defense and enough attacking gusto to capitalize on a decent percentage of scoring chances. If there’s a reason to be bullish about Senegal’s chances, it’s because they have both of those things in droves.
Senegal’s strength starts with its defensive spine, and at the base of that spine is Kalidou Koulibaly, a 6-foot-5 battleship of a center back who is one of the best in the world at his position. In front of him will be a midfield full of rough-and-tumble players who like to tackle. The attacking duties will largely fall to Sadio Mané, but he should get support from youngsters like Keita Baldé and M’Baye Niang.
Goalkeepers: Abdoulaye Diallo (Rennes), Khadim N’Diaye (Horoya), Alfred Gomis (SPAL)
Defenders: Sailou Ciss (Valenciennes), Kalidou Koulibaly (Napoli), Kara Mbodji (Anderlecht), Salif Sané (Hannover 96), Youssouf Sabaly (Bordeaux), Lamine Gassama (Alanyaspor), Moussa Wagué (Eupen)
Midfielders: Idrissa Gueye (Everton), Cheikhou Kouyaté (West Ham United), Cheikh N’Doye (Birmingham City), Alfred N’Diaye (Wolverhampton Wolves), Badou Ndiaye (Stoke City)
Forwards: Moussa Sow (Bursaspor), Mame Biram Diouf (Stoke City), Sadio Mané (Liverpool), Moussa Konaté (Amiens), Diafra Sakho (Rennes), Ismaïla Sarr (Rennes), M’Baye Niang (Torino), Keita Baldé (Monaco)
The Lions of Teranga
I’m just going to be straight with you: Sadio Mané is fucking awesome. You probably know him as just one of the many fearsome attacking players that make Liverpool such a spectacle, but he’s always been somewhat overshadowed at Liverpool, first by Philippe Coutinho and then by Mohamed Salah. What will be fun about watching Mané in the World Cup is that he is undoubtedly The Guy on his national team, and he’ll have every opportunity to flash his skills.
And, hoo boy, does he have some skills. Mané is the best type of winger, a guy with all the speed necessary to go barreling down the flanks and open up attacking lanes for his teammates, but also the goal-scoring determination to cut inside and create shots for himself. He’s never met a shooting opportunity he didn’t like, and when he does shoot spectacular things tend to happen:
If you want to guarantee yourself a good time during this World Cup, just watch every Senegal game and wait for Mané to find himself one-on-one with a defender. He might rinse the poor sucker with a series of nasty dribbles, he might boot the ball upfield and beat his man to the touchline, or he might careen towards the center of the field and uncork a shot from 20 yards out. The point is that he’s going to do lots and lots of cool stuff whenever he’s on the field, and you will love it.
I’m just going to be straight with you once again: Idrissa Gueye isn’t that tight. If you’re looking for a deep-lying midfielder who is going to slice defenses open with long, precise passes, he’s not your guy. If you’re looking for someone who is going to lope up to the edge of the opponent’s box and bang in the occasional goal from 18 yards out, he’s not your guy. Basically, if you’re looking for a midfielder to do all the cool, highlight-reel stuff that midfielders sometimes do, you should look elsewhere.
And yet Gueye is still very much worth paying attention to, in part because he makes it impossible to go unnoticed. He’s going to stick out to anyone who watches Senegal play this summer, because he’s going to be the guy who is sprinting from one box to the other, tackling and harassing every opponent who dares dawdle with the ball at his feet. Gueye is a pest, an attack dog of a defensive midfielder who is constantly bumping, pulling, kicking, and snapping at the heels of his increasingly annoyed targets. He’s very good at what he does, too, and has spent the last few seasons establishing himself as one of the best tacklers in the Premier League.
His freelancing isn’t always a good thing, as it often breaks his side’s defensive shape and leaves his teammates scrambling to cover vacant areas on the pitch, but with Senegal he’ll be surrounded by smart, stout defensive players who should be up to the task.
This is where things get a little bit dicey. The problem is that nobody is really quite sure how Senegal are going to play from game to game. Manager Aliou Cissé has yet to find a system that maximizes his squad’s considerable talent, and has been experimenting with different formations that have yielded disappointing results. A round of March friendlies brought them a 1-1 draw against Uzbekistan and a 0-0 draw against Bosnia and Herzegovina. Then came a 0-0 draw against Luxembourg and a 2-1 loss to Croatia. They did manage to win this week’s final tune up against South Korea 2-0, but that was thanks to an own goal and a late penalty.
Senegal’s best chance is probably to lock themselves into a standard 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 formation and rely on their strengths, which start on defense. If things are going well for Senegal, it will be because Koulibaly is busting up any attacks that reach his box, and because some combination of Gueye, Badou Ndiaye, and Cheikhou Kouyaté are controlling the midfield and dispossessing attackers. From there they’ll need to ping the sucker out to Mané and Baldé quick enough for them to find some space to attack into.
There aren’t any passing wizards on this team who are going to control the game and orchestrate intricate attacks, but there are lot of guys who can rumble and run and cause problems. Sometimes, that’s all you need.