In spite of the Uganda Cranes’ failure to qualify for the up-coming Africa Cup of Nations, Ugandan football, at a national level at least, enjoyed a promising 2011. The Cranes’ were crowned CECAFA Cup champions for the third time in four years, finished second to a Samuel Eto’o inspired Cameroon in the LG Cup, and only lost four competitive games all year.

Under the guidance of their Scottish coach, Bobby Williamson, they have developed a pragmatic system of play, based around a 4-2-1-3 formation; defending deep, encouraging teams onto them, restricting space in the centre of the pitch, and hitting their opponents on the break with high and wide wingers and supporting full backs. This system has worked well, to a point. Uganda only conceded two goals in six games in their failed Africa Cup of Nations qualification campaign. Only six other competing nations managed to conceded fewer goals, with all but one of those making it to the tournament finals.

The country’s domestic league, the Uganda Super league, received a significant financial boost in 2011 in the shape a of new five-year, US$ 5 million, TV deal with the South African sports’ network, SuperSport. This lucrative deal helped them retain their existing sponsorship deals with pan-African banking group, Ecobank, and East African Breweries Limited.

However, despite these positives, Ugandan football is suffering from a fundamental problem that is effecting both its domestic league and national team. That is, an inability to develop creative central midfielders. If the country is going to build on the successes achieved on and off the pitch, in 2011, there must be a understanding of the problem and a plan put in place to address it.

Nowhere is this lack of creativity and – as a result – lack of goals, more evident than in the Uganda Super League.

The Ugandan Super League currently sees fewer goals scored per game compared with other regional leagues and three major, sub-saharan, national leagues. Indeed, it is a growing problem.

The average goals per game ratio has been falling for the past five seasons. In the 2007/08 season the league averaged was 1.05 goals per game. In 2011 fans put up with a snoozy 0.80 goals per game. Uganda is the only league in the region that dips below 1.00 goals per game (see below the table showing the average goals scored per game in East African, Nigerian, South African and Ghanaian leagues over the past five seasons).

Why are Ugandan teams struggling to find the back of the net?

One reasons is the move away from the 4-4-2 formation, used so commonly by local coaches, and the increasing popularity of 4-5-1 and 4-3-3 (or variations of both). These formations are, in theory, neither more defensive nor attacking than a 4-4-2. But it depends on the coaches’ interpretations of the formation, and the system of play they build around that formation, which determines how pro-active or re-active players will be.

Before I go any further, there needs to be an understanding of how comparatively poorly Ugandan coaches are supported by their national federation compared with their European counterparts. In Europe, professional football coaches are blessed with structured coaching programs and functioning coaches’ associations which support their continued learning and development. In Uganda there is little support from the national association.

Ugandan coaches have limited access to footballing resources, which affects their ability to develop and grow professionally and therefore adversely affects their capacity to coach different systems to their players.

Until the appointment of Bobby Williamson, in 2008, the predominant formation used by most coaches in the Uganda Super League was a 4-4-2. There are two main ways to deploy a 4-4-2. The first is a ‘flat’ system, which relies on two supporting, as opposed to attacking, central midfielders, with the main attacking penetration coming from the wingers and overlapping wing backs. The second variation sees a diamond-shaped midfield, with a designated defensive midfielder and an attacking midfielder. The wingers operate in a similar way to their role in the ‘flat’ system, but with the full backs supporting rather than overlapping. There are, of course, other variations, but these are the most common tactical scenarios.

A 4-4-2 is excellent from both attacking and defensive perspectives, insofar that it provides cover and support in all areas of the pitch and, crucially, utilises two strikers who are naturally placed close to one another.

As the national team have become increasingly successful, using a 4-2-1-3 formation, coaches in the Ugandan Super League have, not surprisingly, followed suit and opted to rely on a lone striker in a 4-5-1 or 4-3-3 formation.

The problem with both these systems is that you lose the element of natural support to the strikers that you naturally get with a 4-4-2. Both new systems (4-5-1 and 4-3-3) require a greater tactical understanding and level of coaching; to let players know when and where to make attacking runs in support of the lone striker. But how can you expect local coaches to be able to implement these ‘idea’s’ with their players if they are not supported by their local associations and are able to develop their own tactical identity? ‘You cannot’, is the answer!

It’s not just the coaches that suffer, the players do as well. If there is a national acceptance of the lone striker system, then young players have to be given the right guidance, during their development, on how to play in such a system. Emphasis should be placed on developing players’ technical ability and collective awareness, but coaches and players must also have access to tactical resources.

As domestic teams and organizations struggle to develop such creative, tactically aware, players, the effect is being felt at the national team level.

Over-Reliance on Obua

Under Williamson, the Hearts of Midlothian midfielder, David Obua, has been the Cranes’ creative heartbeat. Given free attacking license, to operate anywhere behind the lone striker, he was the Cranes’ top scorer in the Africa Cup of Nations’ Qualifiers (in which Uganda scored six goals) with two goals and two assists in five games. Only one country who qualified for this month’s Africa Cup of Nations – Botswana – scored few goals (see below the average goals scored and conceded in the 2010/11 Africa Cup of Nations Qualifiers, by Uganda and the eventual qualifying nations)

The creative pressure heaped upon David Obua’s shoulders was unsustainable and, as the qualifiers wore on, his lack of ability to handle this pressure began to tell. In June, a frustrated Obua reacted angrily to being substituted, after a less than convincing performance in Uganda’s 2-0 home win over Guinea Bissau. Another disappointing performance in Luanda saw the Cranes’ concede their first goals of the qualifying campaign, the 2-0 loss to Angola heaping the pressure on David Obua and his team mates in their final, must-win, game against Kenya’s Harambee Stars.

With a day to go before the Crane’s crucial match with Kenya, and as the side were asked to break training, yet again, to meet another government big wig (on this occasion no less than the president, H.E.,Yoweri Museveni), the lanky midfielder walked out of training, after being refused a request to ask the president a question. For this ‘misdemeanor’, Obua was dropped from the squad; for what was his country’s most important game in thirty-two years. Some pundits suggested Bobby Williamson’s hand was forced over the issue, by FUFA President, Lawrence Mulindwa. Regardless of who ordered his exclusion, David Obua’s absence from the game with Kenya, which ended in a dismal 0-0 draw and resulted in Uganda missing out on qualification for the finals, highlighting their over-reliance on Obua as their creative architect.

As I touched upon earlier, Uganda’s defensive performances in the Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers must be applauded. The defensive system that Bobby and his coaching team devised, around a 4-2-1-3 formation, was extremely effective. With the central midfield three of Mudde, Mawejje and Obua dropping back when out of possession, it restricted the space in central areas for opposition teams to operate. This forced opponents wide and meant their only consistent attacking threat came from crosses into the box. Uganda dealt with this threat by employing two, towering, six foot plus, centre backs, Andrew Mwesigwa and Ibrahim Sekagya. This further lessened the attacking threat of their opponents. Simple, but effective.

Going forward, in possession, a 4-2-1-3 system is most effective in the final third of the pitch, when the front line either interchanges laterally or are able to move the ball at pace, and there are runners from deep midfield positions who can burst into the spaces created and receive the ball.

Uganda’s regular front three in the qualifiers were Vincent Kayizi, on the right, Geoffrey Massa, through the middle and Mike Sserumaga, down the left.

The problem with this front three was that they were not flexible enough, despite the obvious quality of Kayizi and Sserumaga, in particular. Kayizi is more of a touchline hugging winger who, to his credit, is an excellent deliverer from wide areas. Massa is an effect striker, in front of goal, but is relatively limited at holding the ball up and combining effectively with runners from deep and wide areas. Sserumaga is the most talented of the three, a left footed forward who drifts into wider areas, usually the left, where he can operate 1v1 against opposition full backs, and is impressive cutting inside, for a shot on goal, or outside, for a cross into the box (see below the most common Ugandan lineup from 2011).

Going forward

Bobby Williamson has to find a solution to his side’s creative problems. If David Obua is to be left to the shadows then there is a gaping hole in the attacking centre of his side.

Towards the end of 2011 Williamson stuck with his 4-2-1-3 formation and system of play in both the LG Cup and CECAFA Cup, but selected a youthful squad, mainly made up of U20 ‘Kobs’ players.

Promisingly, these tournaments saw Uganda open up and increase their average goals scored per game ratio (see below the average goals scored and conceded per game in the 2011 CECAFA Cup).

Bear in mind, however, the opposition in the CECAFA Cup were lesser mortals than those Uganda faced in the Africa Nations Cup qualifiers.

For most of the CECAFA Cup tournament, Mike Sserumaga operated behind the central striker, who rotated between Robert Ssentongo and the youngsters, Emma Okwi and Hamis Kiiza. This central role didn’t entirely suit Sserumaga who, on occasions and against lesser teams, found it difficult to cope with the expanded playing space and options around him, as opposed to his usual position on the left flank.

The big disappointment, from a Uganda perspective, was the performance, or lack of it, of Mike Mutyaba.

This nineteen year old midfielder has the potential to become a key member in Uganda’s new creative hub. He is a right footed, attacking midfielder, with a low centre of gravity, quick turn of pace and excellent skills’ set. Crucially, his decision making in congested areas of the pitch is far better than many of his seniors in the Uganda squad. Because of his age, he had been both sparingly used by Bobby on the international stage and, when he was thrust into the side, usually deployed on either flank; where he had more time and could combine, to cut in on the diagonal. It would be an interesting move to see Mutyaba operating in a more central area of the pitch, or at least rotating that role with a wide player during a game.

Just before Christmas, Sudanese champions’ side, Al-Merriekh, splashed out a reported US$40,000 to make Mutyaba one of the most expensive Ugandan players of all time. The move is an excellent opportunity for the youngster, both to taste African Champions’ League action this coming year and to continue his development as a player in a team that has one of the best domestic goals scored per game ratios in the region (2.6 goals per game).

This move should also benefit the Uganda Cranes’, particularly if he can improve his physical build and ability to hold off opponents, which is crucial to working successfully in a advanced central area.

Mike Mutyaba still needs time to develop, so one possible short-term option could be Swedish team, AIK’s, Martin Mutumba. The Swedish born attacking midfielder has reportedly been monitored by Bobby Williamson and there are suggestions that the Scot will attempt to persuade the flamboyant forward to represent the country of his parents’ birth. Should he be successful in doing so, this would likely signal a extension to Mike Sserumaga’s time in the centre of the Cranes’ attacking line, as Mutumba is more effective operating down the flanks.

The trust shown in Mike Sserumaga, to play a central role in the CECAFA Cup competition, suggests he will continue to hold down a place in the national team setup, and so he should.

The presence of Vincent Kayizi would seem in doubt. The winger was dropped for the CECAFA Cup, after a string of disappointing performances in the final two games of the Africa Cup of Nations Qualifiers and the LG Cup.

Kayizi’s selection to the national team will likely depend on the type of lone striker Bobby Williamson decides to deploy. If the games against Kenya and the LG Cup are anything to go by, then Brian Umony appears to have worked his way back into Bobby’s plans. Umony is a solid, all-round, striker effective with his back to goal and in front of goal; who times his runs into the penalty area well. An in-form Kayizi would be an obvious choice, on the right, if Umony gets the nod, but the striker is yet to finalised his move to South African Premier Soccer League side, Ajax Cape Town, and he begins 2012 without a club.

This may leave the door open for the young, live-wire, striker, Emma Okwi. The second highest goalscorer in the recent CECAFA Cup, with four goals in as many games, has impressed of late. He still needs to work on his effectiveness, back to goal, but he showed glimpses of development in this area in the CECAFA Cup.

Okwi is blessed with a lightening turn of pace and is one of the Cranes’ most intelligent movers off the ball. If he is selected ahead of Umony then a different type of winger, on the right flank, may be a more effective option for the team. Moses Oloya, a stocky right winger, who prefers to make angled runs inside from wide areas, Hamis Kiiza or Sula Matovu for that matter, would ‘fit the bill’. All three are able to commit opposition defenders and would unsettle any side’s defensive balance. Coupled with Okwi’s awareness of space around him, they could pose a more potent attacking threat than the current side can muster.

The other change could be a slight tactical alteration, to support the central attacking player. If Musa Mudde or Tony Mawejje were pushed slightly further forward, into a 4-1-2-3 formation, when in possession, it would give the Cranes’ more balance in midfield; allow them to recycle the ball in the centre of the pitch; provide Sserumaga and Oloya with a supporting central player to bounce the ball off, when they cut inside; and Mutyaba could offer support to Okwi in a more advanced position (see below a possible Uganda team of 2012).

The need for Ugandan football to address the growing creative problem is clear; long term and short term.

Long term: coaches and players, in the Uganda Super League, need access to coaching course and material to help develop more creative players; those who will be capable of understanding what is required of them in the newly adopted formations.

Short term: the Uganda Cranes’ qualifying group for the 2014 World Cup will test the undoubted progress made by the national team over the past three years, in a group consisting of Senegal, Africa Cup of Nations heartbreakers Angola and Liberia.

Uganda must find a balance between their current pragmatic approach and their obvious need to create more goalscoring opportunities.

Tom Legg is UEFA B qualified football coach and an East African football enthusiast

On twitter: @tomlegg Personal Blog:

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