Within the seven-year Senegal project

Aliou Cissé embodies the Senegalese spirit of teranga, or family and sharing. The former PSG midfielder played 33 caps for the national team and captained a dangerous Senegalese side that ran all the way to the quarter-finals of the 2002 World Cup.

At AFCON 2002, he was notorious missed the last penalty kick that could have given Senegal its first-ever African trophy at the 2002 AFCON. However, this only motivated him more to bring a title back to Senegal by any means necessary.

He couldn’t do it as a player. So, in 2012, Aliou Cissé joined the Senegal national team as a caretaker. His only recorded game as caretaker was a 0–0 friendly draw with South Africa. Despite the appointment of Joseph Koto, he remained within the Senegalese Football Federation (FSF). He assisted and coached the Senegal U-23 National Team before joining the coaching staff of the senior team.

However, the function was largely ceremonial. The Africa U-23 Cup of Nations only takes place every four years, just like the Olympic Games. Senegal hired Cissé in the middle of that harsh time. Consequently, his only recorded match with the team was a play-off match with Oman to decide Olympic qualification.

After burning out three different managers, Senegal landed on Aliou Cissé as the next manager.

Manager of the first team

He did not disappoint. He won all six of his matches in qualifying for the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations, ran to the quarter-finals of the tournament, beating teams such as South Africa and Burkina Faso. underway to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, their first World Cup in 16 years.

Cisse’s side fell out because of Fair Play tiebreaks in Russia. Even then, the Senegalese media and public praised him for victories over South Korea and Poland that year. He went undefeated again later that year in qualifying for the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations. Cissé sent his Senegalese side to the finals of the competition.

He went undefeated again in a COVID-ravaged qualifying campaign for the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations, which propelled Senegal into something legendary.

From Cameroon to Qatar

You could argue that Senegal’s surprising dominance at the World Cup is imminent. At AFCON 2021, Senegal scored just once in the group stage, an injury time penalty in the opener to beat Zimbabwe. Anyway, it finished top of the group with Zimbabwe, Malawi and Guinea. Senegal then stormed through the knockout rounds.

First there was a dominant 2-0 victory over Cape Verde. 3-1 wins against Equatorial Guinea and Burkina Faso followed. Finally, Senegal had its first major match in the final against an Egyptian side touted to win the entire tournament. Neither could score in the full 120 minutes, so they went to penalties.

A heartbreaking duel marred by “Laser Gate” ended with Senegalese hero Sadio Mane capping off the winning penalty. The Lions of Teranga won their first ever AFCON title.

Senegal and Egypt met again in the final round of World Cup qualification to decide which team would go to Qatar. AS Nancy fullback Saliou Ciss scored an own goal in the first leg. However, vetted striker Boulaye Dia equalized in the second leg. The low-scoring affair again ended in penalties. Again there were lasers, but they didn’t get in Mane’s way. He again scored the winning penalty to give Senegal its third ever World Cup bid.

Mané, who became Senegal’s top scorer in the summer, played a key role in Senegal’s successes in 2021 and 2022. That is why his fibula injury just before the World Cup dampened the festive mood in Senegal. Mané was a big reason why Senegal could be here; he scored three goals in qualifying. Missing the World Cup would not only affect his morale, but it could certainly jeopardize Senegal’s chances of a deep run.

A vintage loop

Mane who? In Senegal’s difficult opener against the Netherlands, it didn’t seem that Senegal missed him too much. The tournament’s AFCON winners and dark horses looked like the better team for most of the game. They had 15 shots (4 on target) and had a lot of time on the ball. They even had some good chances, forcing Andries Noppert to make some great saves. But in the end, the goals of Cody Gakpo and Davy Klaassen were too much for Senegal.

Senegal easily coped with a struggling Qatar team on its second day of play. Senegal looked like it could beat a Goliath, even though it faced a David. Boulaye Dia, Famara Diedhou and Bamba Dieng all scored in a convincing 3-1 win over Qatar.

Senegal’s do-or-die matchup against Ecuador had a lot going for it. Facing a side needing only a draw, Senegal knew it had to bring in its attacking fighter jets. They did, wreaking havoc on the flanks and cutting through the attacking third. Ismaila Sarr won and scored from a penalty, and although Ecuador struck back midway through the second half, he used his mighty air power to give Senegal the full three points.

Senegal’s roar died down to a murmur against England. Although Senegal frustrated England early in the game and made some good saves against Jordan Pickford, the explosive England attack could not be stopped. Their World Cup run ended miserably, but it won’t dampen the lively time Senegal had in Qatar.

Aliou Cissé forces Senegal to shine

Naturally, the stars of Senegal rose to the challenge in their tough matchups. Ismaila Sarr terrorized opposing full-backs and Kalidou Koulibaly was scary on both sides of the ball. Still, most of Senegal’s success came from Aliou Cissé’s tactics.

It is clear to see that the manager sees football more as a game of chess than an art form. All his formations, lineups and substitutions are calculated. His analytical approach to the beautiful game helped Senegal rise to the top of Africa.

Cissé, Senegal’s head coach, provided a rare continuity among national teams. His tenure has helped him establish an established style of play. Traditionally, he played very dynamic formations such as the 4-2-3-1 and the 4-1-4-1, in which you can not only defend solidly and compactly, but also attack very aggressively.

Key features of his tactics include being a lone striker, one who is a force in the penalty area. Salernitana’s Boulaye Dia has recently filled this spot, and for good reason. Of his 45 career goals, only one has fallen outside the box (20 yards from goal). Previous forwards like M’Baye Niang and Famara Diedhou have been too volatile, so Dia delivers a reliability that Cisse appreciates.

He likes to play four positions at the back, which means he can stick to two centre-backs. Koulibaly has been a long-time favorite of Cissé, but he uses a multitude of players in second position. Leipzig’s Abdou Diallo has been a mainstay in the starting line-up lately, but he also uses players like Olympiacos’ Pape Abou Cisse.

The variables

Managing a national team is an endless series of questions, and Cissé can attest to that. He switched lineups based on opponents, fitness and form. His refusal to keep the same lineup in all games is clear.

He currently likes the midfield squad of Idrissa Gueye, Nampalys Mendy, Cheikhou Kouyate and Pape Sarr, but he will rarely use them all at once. It’s a big reason why Senegal fell apart against England; Kouyate was injured and Gueye was suspended.

The great thing about Senegal is the depth of attack. Bamba Dieng is a flexible striker for Senegal who plays Aliou Cissé in multiple positions, and Iliman Ndiaye is growing into a dangerous attacking midfielder. Ismaila Sarr and Krepin Diatta, who were heavily used during the World Cup, were dangerous on the flanks and the main reason why Senegal have made it so far.

Cissé rotates these players through several games, which has become increasingly important as injuries, suspensions and bad games come into play.

Take the two-legged match against Egypt. He switched from a 4-1-4-1 in the first leg to a 4-2-3-1 in the second leg and traded many key players.

He changed many defensive players in the game. After an average performance in the first leg, he benched Famara Diedhou, Cheikhou Kouyate and Diallo ahead of Boulaye Dia, Youssouf Sabaly, Pape Abou Cissé. His gamble paid off as all those players were very good and helped Senegal beat Egypt.

What’s next?

After the crushing 3-0 defeat to England, the Senegalese players get a break from the demanding international season. They will face Mozambique twice in March 2023 in the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations where they would qualify for the Ivory Coast hosted tournament with two wins.

Aliou Cissé, the mastermind behind Senegal’s success, is likely to oversee the two matches. After all he’s done, firing him would be ignorant of his past triumphs.

PHOTO: IMAGO / Pro Shots

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