There was a scene during Ghana’s friendly with the Netherlands in Rotterdam on Saturday that summed up Ghana’s most critical problems ahead of the World Cup in Brazil.
Jeffrey Schlupp, the young Leicester City left-back who Ghana coach Kwesi Appiah started on the day, had slipped when it mattered most, sprawled out in despair as a cool, calm and collected Robin van Persie - who had snuck up his blind side - slotted in short cross from teammate Wesley Sneijder.
When Sneijder started the move that led to the goal, there were five Ghanaian players — three defenders and a defensive midfielder — behind the ball and two more seen tracking back to help out. But despite having the numbers, Ghana lacked the defensive intelligence and anticipation to stop the goal.
Sneijder passed to Arjen Robben, who had all the time and space in the world to turn towards goal and survey his options. He side-footed a brilliant pass through the Ghana defence back to Sneijder, who had made a clever run into the box. Sneijder took one touch into the box and slid the ball across for Van Persie. The orange-clad Feyenoord Stadium went wild.
It was such a well-worked goal, and the way the Dutch went about it - the intricate passing and intelligent movement — made it look so simple. From Sneijder, it took just three passes, amid seven Ghana men, as the Oranje nonchalantly marched their way into Ghana’s box.
The image of Schlupp — who was later dropped from the squad - lying on the turf, looking helpless and clueless, served a befitting microcosm of the Ghana defence on the day. They were all over the place, and looked amateurish and worryingly disorganized.
The team had started the game in better shape than the Dutch, passing well and applying pressure. But they looked unimaginative. The lack of ideas, of a plan, was telling. When the Dutch got hold of the ball, the difference was glaring, and they showed Ghana how it’s done. They were effective, concise and precise as they carved open the Ghana defensive setup with just their first move.
In the Dutch dugout, coach Louis van Gaal had his eyes firmly fixed on his notepad, making notes as the players celebrated with Van Persie. On the Ghana bench, Appiah was sweating. He knew the goal painted a picture of the state of his defence ahead of a tournament as big as the World Cup, and the picture wasn’t pretty.
Samuel Inkoom, the Greece-based right-back, looked as lost as the central-defensive pairing of Rashid Sumaila and Jerry Akaminko — not to mention Schlupp — as the Dutch continuously exposed the porosity in their midst.
Going into preparations for the tournament, Appiah had a lot of tough decisions to make regarding Ghana’s defence. Veteran and former captain John Mensah was not picked, nor was the tall and robust Isaac Vorsah, two decisions that divided a lot of opinion. Appiah had risked that bold decision on the grounds that they weren’t fit, but many nonetheless feared that their absence would strip the Ghana defence of the needed composure and experience.
After the game against the Dutch, Appiah’s defensive woes worsened, with Akaminko sustaining an ankle injury that will keep him out for three months. The dropping of Schlupp, who many feel isn’t quite ready for the big stage yet, leaves Ghana’s defence with only six men — three central defenders and three full-backs.
Among the central-defensive trio, only Jonathan Mensah has World Cup experience, but his performances in Ligue 1 for Evian last season were uninspiring. John Boye, owner of the most caps of Ghana’s defence, endured an injury-plagued season that saw him make just 10 league appearances for Stade Rennes. Rashid Sumaila, once the Ghana Premier League’s best defender, is a star on the rise, winning the South African league title with club Mamelodi Sundowns in his first season with the club, but he is the least capped of the lot.
Appiah faces a dilemma to settle on a preferred partnership that he can trust, a partnership that will be confident enough to face the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Mario Goetze and Jozy Altidore.
On the flanks of Ghana’s unhealthy defence are the likes of Inkoom, Harrison Afful and Daniel Opare — formerly of Standard Liege and now bound for Porto. Inkoom is seen by many as a favourite of Appiah, having retained his place while inactive at club level. Perhaps it’s for that reason, coupled with his underwhelming performances for his country, the majority of Ghanaians disapprove of his place in the squad.
There are also issues with Opare and Afful. The former is generally seen as inconsistent and untrustworthy, whereas the latter — who’s right-footed — has often times looked like a square peg in a round hole at left-back, where he is normally deployed. The trio needs considerable work, and could do with a helping of confidence, too.
Away from the headaches at the back, Appiah’s side also lacked enough chemistry to muster a clear sense of purpose in their play. He has been experimenting with the team a lot over the past few months, and a lack of consistency and continuity is quite evident. Appiah needs to forge a team spirit by the time the team finishes their last preparatory game against South Korea in Miami on June 9.
A clear, effective plan needs to be in place — probably mapped out conscientiously Van Gaal-style in a notepad — by the time they board that flight to Brazil. Otherwise, the Black Stars might just be on an early flight back to Accra.
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