Algeria may have bowed out against Germany following a 2-1 extra-time defeat, but there are few national sides who have impressed more at this summer’s World Cup. In fact, are there any who have overachieved more in comparison to their pre-tournament expectations than the Fennecs?
Admittedly, this was down to, in no small part, overly pessimistic pre-tournament expectations for the Desert Foxes on behalf of many pundits. None of Bleacher Report's experts, for example, backed Algeria to escape from their World Cup group.
These predictions appeared to ignore some of the realities of the current Algeria set-up, as outlined by myself here, and were too entrenched in the failures of more distant times. To an extent, this was understandable.
Their last World Cup showing, in 2010, was obdurate, but lacking in quality, their Cup of Nations display only 18 months ago was dire, while their 3-2 defeat at the hands of Burkina Faso in their CAF World Cup qualification first leg had little about it to suggest that they would make the last 16.
It is, therefore, to the great credit of Vahid Halilhodzic that Algeria have managed to take the place of many people's World Cup darlings this summer. In an African context, the Desert Foxes’ performances, in contrast to those of the Ivory Coast, Ghana and Cameroon, have been a breath of fresh air.
All three, and Nigeria, would do well to take note of Halilhodzic’s work at the helm of the North Africans.
There are certainly lessons to be learned.
As alluded to above, it is important to place Algeria’s performance within the context of the side’s struggles over the last four years.
At the 2010 World Cup, they were one of only two teams (along with Honduras) not to register during the competition. They were eliminated with one point, zero goals and without having made any tangible contribution to the tournament.
Eighteen months ago, at the 2013 Cup of Nations, they were pooled in a tricky group alongside North African rivals Tunisia, Togo and continental giants the Ivory Coast. A taxing pool, certainly, but the Desert Foxes didn’t equip themselves well and were dumped out after two games.
Notably, they were, once again, eliminated without having scored a goal. It was only in the final group game, the dead rubber against the Elephants, that they found the net.
Halilhodzic kept his job (just) after the dismal Cup of Nations showing and set about rewarding the Algerian people for their faith in him. Over the next 18 months (until the match against Germany), the Desert Foxes lost as many games (only two) as they had done in their opening two games at the Cup of Nations.
Halilhodzic was ruthless and, as Rabah Saadane had done four years beforehand, set about renovating the side.
Of the 14 players who featured in the Desert Foxes' decisive CAF World Cup play-off second-leg victory over Burkina Faso, six hadn’t even been named in the Cup of Nations squad.
Of the squad chosen for the first leg, when Algeria were defeated 3-2, a further six weren’t called up for the World Cup.
Of those Algerian players who featured in Brazil, three (Nabil Bentaleb, Aissa Mandi and Riyad Mahrez) had only made their debuts in the preceding few months.
Halilhodzic proved himself neither scared to mix things up, nor afraid to cast his net further afield for players who could improve the team.
He also turned to youth.
I wrote this about the squad in my Bleacher Report Algeria Team Guide:
In the past, the side have suffered from imbalances, have been packed with defensive players and have often struggled for creativity.
The recent squad additions of Faouzi Ghoulam, Aissa Mandi, Saphir Taider, Nabil Bentaleb and Yacine Brahimi have gone some way to changing this. None of those listed have more than nine caps, however, and their true benefit may come after this summer.
While the latter caveat may still ring true, these players and others proved that they were ready to step up this summer.
Such an approach comes in stark contrast to Ghana and the Ivory Coast, for example, who have become weighed down by the burden of underperforming veterans and have failed to harness a wider pool of talent, respectively.
Halilhodzic’s meritocracy has increased competition for places and improved the performance of individuals. Bentaleb, Mandi and Ghoulam have proved that if you are good enough and if you are the right man for the occasion, you will get your chance.
The manager recognised the areas of weakness in Algeria’s side and set about addressing them, both by assessing new options and by experimenting with the options he had.
The Fennecs were transformed from a side that had failed to score in two games against Togo and Tunisia at the 2013 Cup of Nations to one that scored against Belgium, Germany and Russia, and spanked South Korea 4-2. No one could have guessed, back in the dirge of 2010 or the lethargy of early 2013, that Algeria would become the first ever African nation to bag four goals in a World Cup match.
What impressed me most about Halilhodzic during the World Cup was the ability with which he manipulated the resources available to him and the way he employed various strategies and personnel to face specific challenges.
Of the 20 outfield players to have travelled to Brazil, only one—centre-back Liassine Cadamuro—didn’t see a minute of action. Only one outfield player (Sofiane Feghouli) played the full 90 minutes in each of Algeria’s four matches, while only one other, Rafik Halliche, started all four matches.
This is quite remarkable, particularly when contrasted to the other African nations.
Seven players started all three of Ghana’s games, and it surely would have been eight had Sulley Muntari not been suspended and sent home.
Eight players started all four of Nigeria’s games, with six of them playing the 90 minutes on each occasion.
For the Ivory Coast, again, eight players started all three games.
Algeria only had two.
Naturally, this statistic could go either way. Had the Desert Foxes bombed out of the tournament, then Halilhodzic might have been accused of “not knowing his first eleven,” of disrupting the team with excessive changes and of a muddled approach in Brazil.
This would simply be a wrong reading of the situation, however. The manager has cultivated a squad shorn of egos, where (almost) all of the outfield players stand on even footing—20 specialists who are totally committed to the team ethic and the good of the collective.
One left-back may be used for one situation, for example, while another might be a better bet for a different type of match.
It is an approach that Halilhodzic has perfected and, uncomfortably, comes in stark contrast to some of his peers across the continent. Stephen Keshi, for example, threw on the thoroughly untested pair of Reuben Gabriel (for the injured Ogenyi Onazi) and Uche Nwofor against France as he attempted to overcome the European giants.
Gabriel, who was released by Kilmarnock earlier this year, hadn’t played a minute for the Super Eagles in the 18 months preceding the pre-tournament friendlies.
Nwofor may have scored three goals in his seven full international appearances to date, but he has never started a match for the Super Eagles and was ignored by Keshi as the Super Eagles chased a goal against Iran.
Similarly, there would be none of the furore and dismay that surrounded left-back Elderson Echiejile’s tournament-ending injury were Faouzi Ghoulam or Djamel Mesbah to pick up a knock.
Halilhodzic’s method gives a side options, it gives them a collective spirit and it reduces any potential player power by making (almost) all of the players expendable and easily replaceable components.
While the players of Cameroon, Ghana and Nigeria set about calling presidents, boycotting matches and missing training, Vahid’s Algeria worked selflessly for each other and, ultimately, made history.