Just as the final whistle was being blown by Malian referee Boubou Traore at the Roumdé Adjia Stadium in Garoua, Comoros head coach Amir Abdou had his hands up in the air complaining to the fourth official his team were on the attack and could score a possible fourth to compound Ghana’s misery. The Black Stars were on the ropes; bruised and battered.  Milovan Rajevac on the other hand, looked on cluelessly as the 10-men Ghanaian players buried their faces in the turf exhausted. This sequence epitomised Ghana’s campaign at the African Cup of Nations in Cameroon.

The unthinkable had happened.

40 Years of Hurt

The four-time AFCON champions had crushed out of the group stages for the first time in 16 years. In addition, this was the first time the Black Stars had failed to win at least a single game at the continental showpiece, having won at least one game at all 22 previous editions of the tournament that Ghana had qualified.

The elimination means that Ghana’s failure to win the continental showpiece will extend to 40 years. At least the team will get another opportunity to end the drought in just about 18 months’ time when the competition is hosted by neighbours Ivory Coast.

Pre-tournament, our prediction model gave Ghana an 86.3% chance of qualifying from Group C. The figure dropped drastically to 64.0 % after picking up one point in the first two games. Losing to tournament debutants Comoros – the FIFA ranked 132nd best team in the world – means the 2021 edition of the AFCON will be remembered as Ghana’s worst.

But what accounted for the lack of spark in the Black Stars in Cameroon?

The Attack That Never Was

Weeks before the tournament kick off, Rajevac was informed that Roma forward, Felix Afena-Gyan, would not join the Ghanaian team despite receiving a call-up. It was said that the 19-year-old and technical team at the Italian giants believed it was more prudent for the teenager to decline the call-up and continue his development in Italy.

This left the Serbian coach with two listed strikers in Benjamin Tetteh and Richmond Boakye Yiadom – both of whom Rajevac didn’t trust so much, as he gave them a combined 36 minutes this AFCON.

A lot of responsibility was left on Jordan Ayew and his older brother Andre Ayew going forward. The pair played a combined 469 minutes in the tournament and were Rajevac’s go-to-men.

Ghana’s playing style varied in all three games. The Black Stars began their campaign against our pre-tournament favourites Morocco. In the opening game, Rajevac chose a more cautious approach against the Atlas Lions as Ghana had just 39% of possession and was very lethargic with the ball bereft on any ideas.

Ghana AFCON 2021

The second game brought immediate improvement as Ghana had more control; recording 52% ball possession.

The 1,108.6 km travelled from Yaoundé to Garoua brought the Black Stars their best attacking display of the tournament – albeit forced by circumstance. Against Comoros, Ghana were very direct, had 62% possession whilst managing 21 shots despite playing the majority of the match with ten men – the issue was the quality of the shots as an expected goals (xG) tally of just 1.7 was attained.

Ghana shots AFCON 2021

Throughout the tournament, Ghana managed 32 shots in three games and only accumulated an xG of 2.35 with most of their efforts coming from distance.

Overall, in the group stage, only seven sides posted a lower expected goals total than Ghana did – including the team that finished third at their expense, Comoros (1.85). In fact, Comoros only attempted four shots on target in the group stage overall – three coming against Ghana, of which all were scored.

The Jordan Ayew Enigma

In the past two years at Crystal Palace, Jordan Ayew has predominantly been deployed as a winger, so it came as no surprise when the 30-year-old was listed in the Ghana squad…as a winger. However, it did come as a shock when Ghanaian fans saw his starting position up front in the opener against Morocco.

He was left isolated against the North Africans and failed to register a single touch in their penalty box. 

Jordan Ayew vs Morocco

In the second game versus Gabon, Jordan started on the right wing and played as a second striker in the final game against Comoros.

Could it be that Rajevac doesn’t even know the best position for the Crystal Palace player?

That might have been the case judging from how the Serbian moved him around like a pawn throughout Ghana’s stint at tournament. Despite the lack of stability, Jordan was involved in Ghana’s build-play and contributed to more open play shot-ending sequences (7) than any Ghanaian player. He also completed all his six attempted dribbles, attempted the most open play crosses, and carried the ball for the longest distance (479.3 m).

It was clear that he was active and all over the pitch but his failure to register a single shot on target will be a major concern, especially for Rajevac who admitted he missed the experienced figure of Asamoah Gyan in his pre-match conference ahead of the Comoros game.

Ghana squad AFCON 2021

Bittersweet Campaign for Andre

When Andre Ayew’s strike from outside of the box flew into the bottom corner against Gabon, he celebrated with passion. The Al Sadd forward kept on hitting his chest as if to say he is still the man.

Indeed, he has been the man for Ghana over the years. The 32-year-old’s strike made its way into the record books, making him only the fourth player to score in six different AFCON tournaments and joining an exclusive list of legends including Samuel Eto’o, Kalusha Bwalya, and Asamoah Gyan – the man he replaced as captain in 2019.

That goal against Gabon also meant Ayew had now reached double figures for AFCON goals (10), a feat no other Ghanaian has achieved, while another landmark reached by the former Swansea City forward was the most appearances by a Ghanaian at the AFCON (35).

All these records were set during the Gabon match as Andre was enroute to leaving his mark on the tournament. He pretty much has toppled all AFCON records of his father, Abedi Pele Ayew, but the most important one remains elusive.

Since being appointed as captain of the Black Stars in 2019, Andre is yet to lead the country to silverware. In Cameroon, he was deployed in more central areas this tournament and had the most shots on target (3) for any Ghanaian player. However, his tournament crumbled after receiving a controversial red card for dangerous play on Comoros keeper Salim Ben Boina. Already 1-0 behind at the time of being sent off, Ghana had to make do with 10 vs. 11 for the remaining 65 minutes.

Before the tournament started, Gideon Mensah spoke to The Analyst about the leadership qualities of Andre.

“I think on the field you’ll see Andre as a captain and a fantastic player but when we come back to the hotel or we’re eating, you see him as one of us because he’s the one who likes to joke with everyone. He speaks a lot of languages, French, English, [and local Ghanaian languages] Ga and Twi, so it’s a good thing. You can go to him anytime, speak to him and so I think he’s been a good captain.”

His journey in Cameroon ended on a disappointing note but the Al Sadd captain assured Ghanaians the team will be back. Unfortunately, Andre is likely to miss the crucial World Cup playoffs in March due to the red card.

Defence On the Decline

In the 2019 AFCON, Ghana faced 28 shots in the group stages, conceding two goals from an xG tally of 1.99. Fast forward to 2022, the Black Stars’ quality declined in the defensive department by a considerable margin. This is in sharp contrast to the major hallmarks of Milovan Rajevac, a man who had built the reputation for building a team with outstanding defensive organization.

Ghana goals conceded AFCON 2021

In Cameroon, Rajevac’s men allowed 38 shots in the group stages, conceding five goals from an xG tally of 3.3 – exactly half of these shots (19) were from inside the penalty area.

Andy Yiadom and Baba Rahman – both of Reading – were the only survivors from the backline in 2019, while Alexander Djiku and goalkeeper Joe Wollacott made their AFCON bow in Cameroon.

In fact, the back five of Wollacott, Yiadom, Amartey, Djiku, and Rahman had only played 90 minutes together prior to the AFCON. Wollacott, who was born in England, naturalised for Ghana in 2021 and made his debut against Zimbabwe in a World Cup qualifier. According to Opta’s expected goals on target data, the Swindon Town goalkeeper faced shots that on average would have produced three goals at the AFCON but ended up conceding five.

Perhaps, the defensive setup which Rajevac stuck to all tournament is in its budding stages and can only get better. Throughout the tournament, there were various cut scenes of players expecting more from others defensively and also a bit of confusion about positions to take without the ball – most glaring signs that the team is still a work in progress.

Rahman was given more freedom to bomb forward and contributed to attacks from the left side as he was involved in six shot-ending sequences – only Jordan Ayew had more.

Partey More Dangerous When Given Freedom

One of the big conversations heading into the tournament was which position brings the best out of Thomas Partey.

Since making his debut in 2016, the Arsenal midfielder has been deployed in the number 6, 8, and 10 roles. The 28-year-old has enough armoury to play across the midfield but the question still remains where he is most potent.

In the first game against Morocco, the Arsenal man was played in a double pivot and was limited throughout the game as Ghana was pinned back by the North Africans.

His pass map below demonstrates a player who barely had any influence on the game.

Partey vs Morocco

There were improvements in the next game against Gabon with Partey getting more freedom to move around playing in a double 8 system alongside Daniel-Kofi Kyereh in a 4-3-3 formation with Baba Idrissu as the pivot. He was more adventurous and assisted Ghana’s first goal of the tournament. Rajevac kept alternating in the second half as Partey played as a number 8 and number 10 in the latter stages of the game – possibly a sign of things to come.

Partey vs Gabon

The Arsenal midfielder had his best game of the tournament against Comoros when Ghana played over 75 minutes with 10 men. Partey, playing alongside Daniel Kyereh in midfield, was more involved and drove forward at every opportunity. However, a lack of a proper defensive midfielder exposed the team in transition time and again.

Partey vs Comoros

After going a man down, Rajevac played a 3-1-2-3 formation with Partey playing in the two behind the front three. The former Atletico Madrid man showed his prowess in the air assisting Djiku’s goal.

His performance against Comoros saw him complete 39 passes – nearly equal to his previous appearances against Gabon and Morocco combined (41), while he was able to complete 26 of those in the opposition half of the pitch, more than against both Gabon (11) and Morocco (6).

Maybe things could have been different if Rajevac released the version of Partey that we witnessed versus Comoros, earlier in the tournament.

A Future with Hope

After a humiliating exit from the group stages, focus shifts onto a rebuilding process. With Ghana sending 17 tournament debutants to Cameroon, it is evident the process might have already been cut out for them.

Amid adversity, a few players stood out with their efforts and make a case for Rajevac to build the team around them.

Kyereh and Djiku were standout performers especially in the last game against Comoros when Ghana’s backs were against the wall. The pair had the most tackles, interceptions and recoveries combined (24) in the Ghana team during the tournament. Djiku went into every challenge like it was his last whilst Kyereh never stopped running. The latter came close to scoring directly from two set-pieces with both of Ghana’s goals coming from his corners.

Kamaldeen Sulemana may not have had the most explosive tournament but he’s still a teenager who is expected to have an excellent career. His inexperience and lack of composure showed in Cameroon but it could be a learning experience for the Rennes winger. Currently being linked with a move to Liverpool over the summer, Sulemana has the world at his feet and will play a crucial role in this rebuild.

His academy mate and close friend, Mohammed Kudus didn’t have the chance to participate in his debut AFCON tournament due to injury. Since the start of last season, he has averaged more dribbles (5.8) per 90 minutes and completed more dribbles (4.1) per 90 minutes than any other Ajax player in all competitions. Kudus, who joined the club’s mid-season training camp in Portugal, will also have a role to play if Ghana is to climb back to the pinnacle of African football.

The Ghanaian squad was filled with several talented youngsters such as Fatawu Issahaku, Abdul Mumin, Joseph Paintsil, Gideon Mensah, who are all 23 or under, while the more experienced guard of Thomas Partey, Andre Ayew, Daniel Amartey, Jordan Ayew, and Baba Rahman can also help the younger players transition.

The toughest part of a rebuild is getting the right tools which in this case is the players. Ghana has a gifted crop of players and with the right technical direction, the Black Star will shine sooner rather than later.

There is not enough time to brood over this calamitous campaign as the Black Stars have two crucial World Cup Qualifying playoff games in March 2022.The few positives must be picked up and strive to book a place in Qatar.

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