What is Harambee Stars’ core playing unit?

BY DAVID ONJILI At the time of my writing this article,the 1st round of matches in the group stages of the EURO 2016 in France had been played and in that time, something eye catching had transpired. Andreas Iniesta had provided a lovely chip and Gerrard Pique(both Barcelona players) headed it in to give Spain victory over The Czech republic. Italy had beaten Belgium( 2nd in FIFA rankings) 2 goals to nil. Italy boasted a rock tight defence of Leonardo Bonucci,Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli all whom are Juventus players. Back home, Harambee Stars under new coach Stanley Okumbi  secured their 1st win over Congo, a result that had no value since Guinea Buisau had already qualified for the African  Nations Cup after having secured maximum points by beating Harambee Stars both home and away to go top of the group. Though Okumbi’s 1st win was celebrated, gaping mistakes into the play and selection of players had been evident as it became clear that under him, the national soccer team, Harambee Stars, was not destined to achieve any success, atleast on the pitch. A lesson from top nations When Spain were dominating world football, they had a core of players from Barcelona. Xavi Hernandes, Andreas Iniesta, Fabregas, Pedro and David Villa.  Isn’t it interesting that Spain played ‘tiki taka’, a system that was domestically being  perfected by Pep Guardiola as they were winning any available domestic and continental cup between 2008-2012.  It was thus easy for La Roja coach Mr. Vicente del Bosquet to replicate that at national team by having his nucleus built around the Barcelona players and adding other pieces to his jigsaw. Germany won the World Cup in Brazil. In that team they had Jerome Boateng, Manuel Neuer, Philip Lahm,Thomas Muller, Bastian Schweinsteiger all of whom were Bayern Munich players. Players who were dominating their domestic league and Europe and thus natioonal team coach Low had it easy to build Die Manshaft success on this core of players too. These were players who played together, understood one another and knew the value of ‘tiki taka’ and thus it was easy to replicate the same at national level. It’s simple, playing together breeds continuity, understanding and cohesion. National teams don’t have the luxury of training together for long to build chemistry essential to be cohesive. Yet, as Spain, Germany and Italy have shown, by making the nucleus of their national sides consisting of a core from a particular club, they are able to achieve this. I am not ruling aside the inclusion of a player to the national team based on current form. Do you, however, remember how Costa Diego’s inclusion into Spanish national team changed the dynamics of their play leading to their early elimination in the World Cup? Though a top striker, Costa thrives on being the lone striker and peeling off the defenders. He is accustomed to long balls and quick transition at times  and playing hold up upfront. This was however counter productive since the midfield which consisted of Barcelona players passed the balls into the final third of the pitch. This often made Costa frustrated upfront at the Brazil World Cup and he and Spain ended up having a bad tournament due to lack of cohesion with the other players. Doesn’t this explain why Jesse Were,though a top striker at Zesco United in Zambia cannot replicate that for Harambee Stars. North African nations like Egypt and Algeria and also Zambia too rely on a core of players from their top sides who are supplemeented by their stars in other leagues to make their respective national teams. It is for the same reasons that World’s number one scorer and Real Madrid’s talisman has not proved much of a help to the Portugal’s side in France. The Kenyan failed experiment with Stanley Okumbi Locally, Stanley Okumbi seldom embraces such nous in his team selection. In fact, it appears there are hidden forces in team selection. Isn’t it odd that the federation chairman Nick Mwendwa would appear on national television and proudly speak about certain players being very good and that they would play for the national team. This clearly isn’t the mandate of the federation chair however good his intentions might be. The Importance of having such a core to the national team is that it helps give the side an identity, it is the starting point of the squad. From here the coach adds players who fit into this sytem and not fitting sytems into players which results into having good players played out of position. It beats me why Erick Johanna plays to the left at the expense of Francis Kahata whom I think doesn’t need a starting berth in the national team. Why does he have Victor Wanyama so deep in midfield and denying arguably Kenya’s best player the chance to influence play. Johan Cruyff, may his soul rest in enternal peace, talked of the importance of having your most skillful players in midfield and closer to one another. To him, since the midfield is normally crowded, it needs the most skillfull players who require minimal space normally half a yard to initiate play and beat an opponent or see a pass. With this it makes sense to have Johanna,Wanyama,Timbe closer to one another and Olunga can be further ahead. The Zesco United and Gor Mahia nucleus for Harambee Stars David Owino ‘Calabar’, Anthony Akumu and Jesse Were are all integral part of Zambian Champions Zesco United. Were is on top form and is amongst the top scorers in the Zambian league. Akumu controls the midfield and Calabar is their defensive anchor. As a reward of his brilliance, David Owino captained Zesco United as they beat African powerhouse Al Ahly 3-2 on 18 June 2016 at the Lewy Mwanawasa Stadium Musa Mohammed, Bonniface Oluoch, Erick ‘Marcelo’ Ouma(after his debut) are all regulars for Harambee Stars. They are regulars for domestic league champions Gor Mahia too. One important thing to note is that apart from Jesse Were, the other Zesco players I have mentioned earlier are all former Gor Mahia players. Players who have played in Gor’s first eleven for a period of time. They clearly understand one another. Isn’t it easy Okumbi to shore up his defence with Erick Ouma,Musa Mohammed, David Owino, then in midfield have Akumu partner captain Victor Wanyama and upfront we can have Kenya’s top striker Michael Olunga, former Gor Mahia player too partner with Jesse Were. The kind of underastanding that this players have would be easy to get results. From here, Okumbi can add other players to the side, of note is that the number 1 goalkeeper is Arnold Origi and thus Bonny will get benched. Disclaimer This article is in no way trying to champion that only Gor Mahia players past and present play for the national team. Yet, as history has taught us, there was a time when a core of Harambee Stars was Mathare United, Gor Mahai and AFC Leopards in different years. This was on merit and the players I have mentioned are in the national team courtesy of the fact that they’re the best in their respective positions in their respective leagues and clubs. Mr. Okumbi’s tactical failings
Harambee stars Head Coach, Stanley Okumbi
Harambee stars Head Coach, Stanley Okumbi
In his latest match, though he won against Congo, Okumbi continued to show his tactical naivety. He chose to hand Said Gonzalez his debut in defensive midfield alongside Victor Wanyama. Ayub Timbe was wide right and Erick Johanna was wide left with Michael Olunga top. The game ended up being so disjointed, Said Gonzalez was so error prone and it was no surprise he conceded a foul in the penalty area and the resultant penalty gave the visitors a lead. Gonzalez clearly isn’t a bad player but it was interesting to be handed a debut in that role (number 6) yet clearly he was with players he had never ever played alongside in a competitive match. Communication on the field is key in football and several players find it tough even adjusting to play in Europe because of language.  This in turn displaced Victor Wanyama as he sat deeper and was unable to dictate play for the national team, the result was frustrated forwards whose supply of balls was cut off. Even when Timbe scored the opening goal, it was goalkeeper Bonniface who kicked a long ball forward and Timbe hurried off the Congolese defender to thunder home the goal. Kenya never managed to string any passes together. Players like Erick Johanna were simply spectators on the pitch despite their talent. Inclusion of Anthony Akumu for Gonzalez stabilised things, Akumu anchors the midfield. He is the ‘water carrier”. A player who defends and cuts off all attacks, who starts the build up of play. With him in that role, Wanyama was freer and it was no surprise that from a slightly advanced position, free off defensive role he was able to deliver a neat pass which Johanna cooly lobbed past the goalkeeper to earn Kenya victory. The game was more stable after the inclusion of Akumu, a former Gor player as I earlier stated, playing alongside the more familiar defence. There was greater understanding. This does not in any way say that Gonzalez is a bad player,the team especially in midfield lacked balance and understanding especially with him starting. It is hence naive of Okumbi to keep sidelining Anthony Akumu who continues to prove he is indespensable in the team. Okumbi too has this habit of handing players debuts and then never playing them again despite the fact that the players are good. An example is in Ovella Ochieng who is now in oblivion after playing against Guinea Buissau. This raises the questions on who is responsible for team selection especially when Nick Mwendwa talks about a certain player and you see that very player in the starting lineup. Is it part of his scheme to show fans that he is scouting players countrywide yet at the same time killing their careers. Conclusion Despite the fact that he won his first game as head coach. Okumbi is the wrong man to take national team Harambee Stars to Russia come 2018. He is not even the best local coach in the country. In deed he is a good coach, but the national tam is a far bigger job for him. He oozes no confidence, cuts a dejected and defeated personality who is just there due to other ‘forces.’ The national team must be in the hands of a proper tactician, someone who clearly has a plan to implement. Several games down as manager, Okumbi has not even settled on a core of players for his team. He is not even sure on which player/s to build the side around. His tactics are wanting as the team cannot even play and show some element of coaching.

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