Take the handbrake off! Unleash this golden generation of attacking players! In a World Cup that has felt at times one tedious Twitter spat about differences of perspective and who has the right to criticise whom, it’s heartening to find some things are reassuringly the same wherever you are.
The clamour for Iliman Ndiaye has perhaps not quite been as vociferous as that for James Maddison but Aliou Cissé has been, as the Senegalese newspaper Le Quotidien put it, “heckled daily for his tactical choices, caricatured for his conservatism”.
Cissé was appointed in 2015, a year before Gareth Southgate became England’s manager. He, too, has overseen steady progress and he too has faced attacks that feel as rooted in familiarity and fatigue as much as reality. But earlier this year Cissé led Senegal to the first Africa Cup of Nations triumph in their history. Whatever else he does, he has achieved that. It’s no longer about trusting the process: the process has been proven. Remember the success.
There had been a sense Senegal’s time was coming. They lost on penalties to Cameroon in the Cup of Nations quarter-final in 2017, Sadio Mané missing the decisive kick. They qualified for the World Cup in 2018 and, after beating Poland, were eliminated in the group stage only because their disciplinary record was worse than that of Japan, with whom they had an otherwise identical record. They reached the Cup of Nations final in 2019 and lost 1-0 to Algeria.
If that tide had not been taken at the flood, what then? A life of shallows and miseries, of lamenting the fortune missed? Just before the World Cup, Mané spoke of feeling real pressure for the first time at the Cup of Nations in Cameroon this year, of being unable to sleep, of a sense that if this Senegal team couldn’t do what the side of 2002 had failed to do and, for the first time, win the tournament, perhaps they never would.
They did, Mané converting the decisive penalty in the shootout against Egypt. Hail, Cissé! Mané then did the same, against the same opposition, in the playoff for World Cup qualification. The impression he gave, though, was that winning the Cup of Nations was the priority, any progress at the World Cup a bonus, even if there must be a desire to break new ground for African sides, to go a round further than the Senegal of 2002 and reach a semi-final.
Senegal’s rise has been a triumph for that rarest of things in African football, long-term thinking. Cissé become national manager seven years ago but his work with this group of players started three years earlier when he was assistant coach of an Olympic side that included Mané, Idrissa Gueye and Cheikhou Kouyaté.
With Mané recovering after surgery, Gueye suspended and Kouyaté still struggling with a hamstring injury, it is unlikely any of the three will play against England, but it is testimony to Cissé that Senegal may not be unduly weakened by their absence.
Even without Mané and, for much of the group stage, Kouyaté, Senegal have impressed in Qatar. They were robustly impenetrable against the Netherlands – it is to their credit the game had the feel of the Cup of Nations – before being undone by Édouard Mendy’s hesitation with six minutes remaining.
There was a period in the second half against Qatar when Senegal came under pressure – and Mendy made one remarkable reflex save – but they were already 2-0 up and on their way to a comfortable win. Against Ecuador, although they ceded control of possession while 1-0 up in the second half, the equaliser came as something of a surprise, the result of confusion while defending a corner as Youssouf Sabaly remained on the post as everybody else pushed out. Having regained the lead, they held Ecuador at arm’s length with relative ease.
The experience of the Cup of Nations has perhaps benefited Senegal in Qatar. Consistency of approach means the players know their roles. “We have our team,” Mané said. “When we press we know how to press, when we drop back we know how to drop and then we play counter.”
Senegal were by some distance the best pressers at the Cup of Nations. In seven games they conceded twice. In that sense, no clean sheets at the World Cup after five in Cameroon is perhaps a slight concern and an opportunity for England on Sunday. If there is a flaw there, in might be to do with another absence.
Saliou Ciss’s forays from left-back were a major part of Senegal’s attacking plan at the Cup if Nations but, at 33, he has been without a club since leaving Nancy in the summer and was not included in the squad. Against the Netherlands, RB Leipzig’s Abdou Diallo operated at left-back, but he is not a naturally forward-minded player and has registered seven assists for club and country in an eight-year career. Injury forced him off after 61 minutes, with Ismail Jakobs of Monaco taking over. He, too, is far less comfortable getting forward than Ciss.
But tactical decisions are only part of a broader picture. Like Southgate, Cissé’s greatest strength may be his capacity to shut out the noise that always surrounds sides and stick to his principles. He has been noticeably reserved at this tournament, letting El Hadji Diouf, an assistant coach and the special adviser for sport to Senegal’s president, Macky Sarr, do a lot of the talking.
That seems another wise decision: Diouf is good at talking and his presence fosters the sense of continuity with 2002, the side that inspired many of this generation. Dedicating the win over Ecuador to Papa Bouba Diop, on the second anniversary of whose death it fell, felt entirely natural.
Cissé and Southgate are very different men from very different backgrounds in charge of very different teams, but the fundamentals of their management are similar. Both have been criticised for sticking to their principles. The big difference is that Cissé has his trophy, while Southgate still awaits his validation.