Ghana vs. USA: Key Selection Decisions for Kwesi Appiah
With Portugal and Germany lying in wait, both Ghana and the USA know that defeat is not an option in their opening World Cup game in Natal on Monday night.
Indeed, both sides will surely be targeting a win, aware that there won’t be many, if any, future opportunities to claim three points and take a step toward the last 16.
The affair will likely be cagey but, by the same token, the two sides are fairly evenly matched and both will seek to play their own game, take the initiative and force their opponent to operate reactively.
Both managers need to get this one right.
In Kwesi Appiah’s side there is a fairly clear dichotomy within the squad. First of all, there are the big-name players, those who play at major European club sides and who have, at one time or another since the last World Cup, removed themselves from contention from the national side. Beyond that, there are the “workers"—the less-heralded players who were present at the 2013 Cup of Nations and have formed the backbone of Appiah’s side over the last few years.
How the manager juggles and compromises between these two groups and how he manages his diverse options will be fascinating to watch.
This editorial outlines some of the key decisions the manager faces ahead of his side’s opening Group G battle with the United States.
Does Jordan Ayew Start?
While the injury suffered by Waris Majeed came as a major concern to Kwesi Appiah and his staff, the Spartak Moscow forward has made a speedy recovery and may even be in line for an appearance against the United States.
If Waris is good to go, then Appiah will have a decision to make.
The great revelation of the friendly victory over South Korea was Jordan Ayew, who replaced Waris in the opening minutes before going on to score a hat-trick.
Having been wholly underwhelming in the friendlies up to that point, Ayew’s impact against Korea was unexpected.
So how does the manager use the on-song striker? Against Montenegro and the Netherlands he played just off the striker in a 4-4-1-1 formation, while against Korea he thrived while taking a role on the right.
Does Appiah have confidence enough in his player to start him from the off against Korea?
Who Makes Up the Defence?
Normally, Jerry Akaminko, who started four consecutive matches ahead of the Korea friendly, including both legs against Egypt, would have taken one of the centre-back positions.
Unfortunately, the Eskisehirspor man was injured in the dying moments against the Netherlands and did not make the final cut for Brazil.
In his place, the squad boasts three centre-backs: John Boye, Rashid Sumaila and Jonathan Mensah. While all three have their respective qualities, there is a brittleness about any of the potential pairings.
Boye and Jonathan started against Korea and performed admirably, but Appiah will need to give the pair some protection. They will relish tackling the aerial threat of Jozy Altidore, but they may struggle when the ball is played into the channels. Both will want to avoid being isolated against the Haitian-born striker as Joseph Yobo was when the United States beat Nigeria in a recent friendly.
Appiah needs to decide both who populates the centre of defence and how to protect them.
The Cote d’Ivoire thrived against Japan by playing to their strengths in the second half of their opening World Cup clash. Cameroon didn’t play to their strengths and were beaten by Mexico. I think this could be a key theme for Africa in this World Cup.
Ghana’s key strength is Kwadwo Asamoah, a talented central midfielder who offers a myriad of qualities—both defensive and offensive—as well as big-game experience and a familiarity with high-level competition.
In all likelihood, the Juventus man will be shunted out to the left-flank, where he will either play as a left-back or a left wing-back. Appiah needs to ask himself, however, whether this is really the best way of utilising the team’s supreme talent.
Asamoah is an excellent left wing-back and, indeed, plays in this position at club level, but being stationed out on the flank prevents him from having the kind of influence that he might enjoy in the middle of the park.
Who Starts in Goal?
Worryingly, the identity of Ghana’s first-choice goalkeeper remains unknown heading into the first game of the tournament.
Fatau Dauda was the incumbent for almost all of 2013 but lost his place at the beginning of the pre-tournament friendlies after being unable to get regular game time with his club side, Orlando Pirates, in South Africa.
In his place, Adam Kwarasey returned between the sticks.
It seemed like the Stromsgodset man would manage to hold the position over the summer, but a thigh injury and the birth of a son allowed Dauda to step back into the side for the victory over Korea.
The latter is a fine keeper but struggled to assert his authority in the box and was guilty of a few uncertain moments when coming to claim crosses or set pieces.
Appiah needs to side with who he trusts the most, or rather, who he mistrusts the least.
Can Appiah Afford to Risk Essien and Muntari Together?
For the first leg of the CAF World Cup Qualification play-off match against Egypt—the mesmerising 6-1 victory—Kwesi Appiah started the old hands Michael Essien and Sulley Muntari in the centre of midfield in a 4-4-2 formation.
The conditions of the day and the specifics of this particular match meant that the two old boys came into their own and dominated the contest as the Pharaohs played into their hands.
The fact that Appiah chose the pairing for such a big game against Egypt means that he is surely considering it as one of his preeminent midfield options this summer.
However, at 31 and with years of destructive injuries behind him, can Essien really be trusted to start against the energetic Americans? Would Muntari, who can always be trusted to dive into a tackle or two, be capable of delivering a disciplined performance alongside him in the midfield?
Appiah has more energetic, mobile options available: men such as Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu, Afriyie Acquah, Asamoah or Mohammed Rabiu, for example. But will he decide that the occasion calls for the experience and understanding of the two Champions League winners?