Cameroon’s Domitable Lions: What Was Their Coach Thinking?

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Samuel Eto’o and Cameroon look like they’ve booked an early flight home from South Africa after an abysmal performance that saw them lose 1-0 to Japan. And that result was a fair reflection of a game in which the “Indomitable Lions” simply failed to play the game necessary to make the most use of the talents and athleticism of some of their key players. Hoofing long balls into the opposition’s penalty area in the hope that one of your players will, sooner or later, get on the end of one or win the second ball is meat and drink to most top-level defenders, these days — and yet, that’s exactly what Cameroon appeared to be doing, a classic “kick-and-rush” game of lower-tier English clubs in the 1970s, rather than the pass-and-move game that allows them to unlock opposition defenses and play their men into scoring positions.

The Japanese will hardly have believed their luck to be given such an easy time of it by a side that could do so much better. And that’s where you have to ask questions about the strategy of coach Paul Le Guen: He didn’t seem to have any plan to get the ball to the feet of Eto’o, where he can clearly do some damage by running at or behind the opposition defense. Eto’o simply didn’t get the service he needed, and was forced to drop deeper and deeper in search of the ball, which meant his most telling contributions were often from an advanced midfield position, playing in other strikers far less accomplished in finishing than Eto’o himself.

And that spectacle rendered even more mystifying Le Guen’s decision to leave Arsenal’s Alex Song, one of the best holding midfielders in the English premiership over the past season, on the bench. Cameroon desperately needed a player of Song’s caliber and ability to run a passing game, calm things down and dictate the tempo of play; instead, once behind, Cameroon poured forward in a frenzy of desperation that produced one or two close calls, but never methodically challenged the Japanese defense.

This was a shocking performance by a team that should have done better. Japan, for its part, played well within its limitations, shutting the Cameroonians out, maintaining their shape and pouring forward when the break was on. Neither of these teams, however, is likely to offer much resistance to either Holland or Denmark.