Netherlands 4 (Kuyt, Van der Vaart, Sneijder, Van Persie (pen)) Ghana 1 (Gyan)
Michael Essien may be out through injury, but a strong showing at the World Cup is still expected from Ghana’s large and zealous fan base. Tonight’s result however, a 4-1 defeat at the hands of Bert van Marwijk’s Netherlands, may have tempered some of the enthusiasm surrounding this young Ghanaian side.
Although the Dutch are, on the evidence of tonight’s fixture, a fantastically well-drilled and incredibly technically gifted outfit, Milovan Rajevac, Ghana’s Serbian coach, will undoubtedly be disappointed with some aspects of his team’s performance. Despite playing the entire game with a compact flat back four, the Black Stars looked extremely vulnerable to the counter-attack and displayed a worrying inability to deal convincingly with many of the Dutch set pieces, as was most clearly demonstrated by Wesley Sneijder’s goal which saw the Netherlands take a 3-1 lead.
The game also saw Ghana’s zonal marking system cruelly exposed by a rampant Dutch side. There is little doubt that the marking of space rather than individual players is the best option for a defence blessed with pace but little by way of physical presence (John Mensah aside), but the centre-halves in particular need to be much more careful not to be dragged out of position as they were for Rafael Van der Vaart’s goal this evening. Rajevac has at his disposal a number of dynamic defenders capable of shining on the international stage, but he needs to instill in them a greater capacity for concentration and positional awareness – Isaac Vorsah being particularly guilty of lapses tonight – something which was noticeably lacking at times tonight and undid much of the good work the side did manage to do when in possession.
Despite the defensive glitches, the performance wasn’t a total write-off for the Black Stars. Rajevac’s squad is incredibly fit and showed impressively high levels of stamina to press the Dutch high up the pitch throughout the entirety of the game. With the strikers leading from the front in their relatively flexible 4-2-3-1 system, Ghana pressed as a unit and, although they were far from faultless in executing their plans, caused the Dutch serious concern at the back at times, pressure which eventually resulted in Asamoah Gyan’s consolation goal 12 minutes from time.
There were also encouraging performances from Derek Boateng and Prince Tagoe (the latter coming on as a substitute at half-time), both of whom have limited experience at the top level but are becoming increasingly important figures amidst this new generation of Ghanaian players. Boateng was arguably the Black Stars’ best performer, making several strong runs from deep and tirelessly pressing from his role in central midfield. In the absence of the influential Essien, Boateng is a possible solution Rajevac’s problems in the middle of the field and certainly did his chances of claiming a starting place in Ghana’s opening game against Serbia no harm at all. Tagoe, Hoffenheim’s 23 year-old striker, looked bright after his introduction and, in his role on the right flank, tested Giovanni Van Bronkhorst and gave an added impetus to his team’s creative and attacking play during the second period.
Rajevac does have reason to fear for his team, defensive naivety and a lack of a clear structure being his most serious concerns, but he can be pleased with the energy and commitment of his players, their clear willingness to improve upon their faults and shouldn’t read too much into a defeat to a team which are bona fide contenders to lift the World Cup this summer. This Ghanaian squad is clearly very capable and has the high fitness levels required to provide a stern test to the very best sides in South Africa. If the Serbian can iron out the chinks in the armour of his young squad’s approach, then the Black Stars can be confident of a good showing in South Africa. The problem is, he doesn’t have long to do it.