Wednesday 06 April 2022, 11:00

Middle Eastern flavour to Kadri’s resolute Tunisia

  • Tunisia have relied on a cohort of Middle Eastern-based players rather than those playing in Europe

  • Carthage Eagles changed their approach in recent years from one centred on attacking football to one built on a solid defence

  • Could one of Qatar 2022’s most mysterious sides spring a surprise in a group featuring France and Denmark?

When the draw for the African play-offs for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™ was conducted, many pundits and fans questioned Tunisia’s chances of making the finals, instead favouring their neighbours Morocco, Algeria and Egypt. However, of the Arab-African quartet, only Tunisia and Morocco made it through. Now the Carthage Eagles can look forward to a second consecutive World Cup appearance and sixth overall. There they will be hoping to showcase their attributes on the world stage, but this time in a different style thanks to a new approach adopted in recent years. Reaching the semi-finals of the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations in Egypt was an important achievement for Tunisian football, coming as it did after a difficult campaign that yielded only three points in the group stage and a penalty shootout win over Ghana in the last 16. Their performance at the subsequent edition in 2021 was less convincing, as they amassed the same number of points in the first phase before going out to Burkina Faso in the quarter-finals. That AFCON elimination, which was preceded by two defeats in the group stage, led to the dismissal of coach Mondher Kebaier, who had been at the helm since 2019. However, a new approach was already being established, and so it came as no surprise when the Tunisian Football Association put their faith in Kabaier’s assistant Jalel Kadri to succeed him.

Focus on local players

Both Kadri and his predecessor relied on players based in Middle Eastern leagues rather than those of Europe, with the exception of names such as Wahbi Khazri, Ellyes Skhiri and Dylan Bronn. This tactic proved successful at the FIFA Arab Cup Qatar 2021™ last December, when Tunisia made it all the way to the final before losing 2-0 to Algeria in extra time. Prior to that they had performed admirably against Egypt in the semis, even if they needed a last-gasp own-goal to secure their final berth. Kadri succeeded in achieving the ultimate goal of reaching Qatar 2022™ – at the expense of Mali – with only two European-based players in the starting line-up. Once again Tunisia got the job done, winning 1-0 over two legs, albeit thanks to an own-goal. Fielding Middle Eastern-based players was not limited to certain positions either. The coach made full use of his squad, so that when new players were brought in, they fitted seamlessly into the system and ensured tactical harmony. However, that in itself was not enough.

Ferjani Sassi, Montassar Talbi and teammates of Tunisia celebrate following victory during the FIFA Arab Cup Qatar 2021 Semi-Final match between Tunisia and Egypt.

Wins built on defence

Having long favoured attacking football, Tunisia have become a team renowned for their resolute defence. The Carthage Eagles have kept clean sheets in 22 of the 47 matches played since 2019 and conceded only 29 goals in 25 matches. Moreover, their rearguard has never been breached more than twice in one game, which happened on just four occasions. During that period, Tunisia suffered only 11 defeats compared to 29 victories, an impressive stat for a predominantly local squad with defensive tendencies. Most are aged between 27 and 30, underlining the tactical maturity achieved by local players in teams such as Esperance, or in other Arab leagues. These include several lighting up the Qatar Stars League, like captain Youssef Msakni and Ferjani Sassi, alongside others plying their trade in Egypt, such as Ali Maaloul and Seifeddine Jaziri, as well as the Saudi-based player Naim Sliti.

Potential surprise package

It seems certain that Tunisia will mainly rely on their defensive style of play and the tactical maturity of experienced players in a difficult group featuring France and Denmark. However, those two footballing powerhouses, who possess tremendous quality, will face an unpredictable opponent in Tunisia, who have shown they can get results with a modest attack. Will Tunisia spring a surprise at the finals in Qatar? Or will we see a repeat of Korea DPR at South Africa 2010, when the Asian side qualified thanks to a defence that let in just seven goals in 16 preliminary games only to concede 12 times at the finals to finish bottom of their group? Only time will tell.