The round of 16 picture has been given clarity at the 2022 World Cup for Gareth Southgate’s England after the Three Lions ran out 3-0 winners against local rivals Wales on the back of a brace from Manchester United star Marcus Rashford as well as a strike from Manchester City starlet Phil Foden.
With the expected passage into the next stage of the tournament via finishing as group winners now confirmed, England is set to meet holding African champions Senegal in the first knockout hurdle at Al Bayt Stadium on Friday night.
Senegal entered the World Cup this winter as a popular dark horse favorite for many pundits and fans alike on the back of their success in Cameroon last year when the Lions of Teranga won their first-ever major international honor after defeating Egypt on penalties in the African Cup of Nations final. But an injury to star man Sadio Mané in Bayern Munich’s final Bundesliga fixture of the Hinrunde during a 6-1 thrashing of SV Werder Bremen saw the former Liverpool man removed after just 21-minutes of action, putting a serious dent in the hopes of both Senegal and African football at large.
Cissé's men deserve the utmost credit with navigating a group containing a possible resurrected European giant in the Netherlands as well as an unheralded Ecuador outfit despite the existence of host nation Qatar and the inability to secure a single win in group play; the first time in tournament history where a host nation failed so spectacularly in front of home support.
Even without Mané, Senegal will pose a threat to England when the two lock horns on 4 December that cannot be overlooked as the nation has reached the next round of the competition on merit despite the lack of true star power in their ranks.
Many Senegalese players will be familiar to both England players and followers of the national team after Cissé included ten players in his 26-man squad that is currently plying their trade in the Premier League as well as the Championship, to say nothing of the fact that many can be found sprinkled across Europe at clubs that feature in both the Champions League as well as the Europa League in some of Europe’s top leagues.
What can England expect to come up against when they set off on the next phase of their journey that could see them better their showing four years ago in Russia? Here are three key takeaways on opponents Senegal that Southgate and co. cannot ignore.
No Mané? Some problems
Five goals across three group-stage matches without the presence of Sadio Mané presents a fairly decent rate of return for Senegal on the surface, a number bolstered by the fact that both the Netherlands and Ecuador scored fewer goals (2) against bottom-dwelling Qatar than the African side mustered in their 3-1 win over the hosts. But despite that goal total, it remains abundantly clear that there is no attacking focal point for Senegal after their overall returns in the final have come from five separate sources; Ismaïla Sarr, Boulaye Dia, Bamba Dieng, Famara Diédhiou, and Kalidou Koulibaly.
On the plus side, four of the five goalscorers being forwards means that the responsibilities are, in theory, spread across the squad depth that Cissé has on offer in a myriad of attacking options, but the reality is that, without Mané, lacks a real consistent goal threat from start to finish. It does stand to note that Diédhiou’s 11 goals in 26 caps offer the best rate of return of any player in the Senegalese camp in Mané's place but the fact that he is not guaranteed to start against England could be a noteworthy talking point.
Shot generation remains credible despite creative facilitators
Sticking with the Mané theme, or lack thereof, Senegal does deserve a bit of praise for still generating more chances than their opposition in each of their three group-stage fixtures despite the absence of the most potent attacking threat in the nation’s footballing history. Cissé's outfit out-chanced Ecuador fourteen to nine earlier tonight in their 2-1 win against the South American outfit, with the data line reading the same when they, unfortunately, lost 2-0 to the Netherlands to open group play while Qatar came closest to matching them with their 10 shots just missing out on pipping Senegal’s eleven.
This stands up against the fact that Senegal lacks real midfield facilitators from a creative standpoint off the back of a midfield triumvirate that will likely consist of Pape Gueye, and two of Nampalys Mendy, Pathé Ciss, or Cheikhou Kouyaté after star midfielder Idrissa Gueye will miss the match due to yellow card accumulation.
With all of the aforementioned midfielders profiling as holding midfielders, or at a stretch, box-to-box options, Senegal certainly thrives on being direct and allowing wide players freedom to generate chances either by being played into space or being presented with chances to drive play when on the ball; a tasking that certainly highlights the strengths of Watford’s Ismaïla Sarr. Southgate will do well to make sure their pace on the counter can be shot-down if England is to limit Senegal more efficiently than their previous opponents.
Aerial struggles can be targeted
Despite the presence of Kalidou Koulibaly and Abdou Diallo in defense, it can certainly be postulated that an avenue to attack Senegal is through Southgate’s myriad of options that can boast aerial dominance. The likes of Harry Kane, Harry Maguire, John Stones, Eric Dier, Conor Coady, and Ben White can all call upon some measure of presence on both sides of the ball when it comes to their ability to challenge in the air, and this could certainly come into play when England plan for set-pieces.
Senegal managed to win just 43% (24/56) of their aerial duels won against the Netherlands, who hardly boast a serious threat in that avenue past Virgil van Dijk and Nathan Aké. The same can be said once again during their win over Qatar, in which they only slightly improved to 45% (14/31), while Ecuador managed to win more headers (21) in comparison to Senegal’s seventeen. There is joy to be found here and with the plethora of creativity that England can boast on dead-ball situations, the pathway to the quarterfinals may be through aerial service.