Mention Ghana to an unsuspecting American soccer fan and the shudders start shortly thereafter. It’s hard to blame them, really. The involuntary reaction is created by the role of this African footballing power in the demise of the U.S. national team in the past two World Cups.
The prospect of facing Ghana for a third tournament in succession inspires exactly the sort of fear expected after the events of the past two quadrennials. The memories of Nuremburg and Rustenburg and the visions of Stephen Appiah and Asamoah Gyan celebrating rose all too clearly when Ghana inevitably landed in Group G last December.
Those reminders are the cautionary of opportunities lost along the way. Relying on those historic markers rather obscures the task at hand in Natal on June 16, though. Ghana isn’t the same side as eight years ago. It isn’t even the same formidable outfit from four years ago. There are common faces and familiar tendencies to draw a line through the three teams, but this Ghana side presents a new challenge to conquer.
It is an assignment kinder than perhaps at any other point since Ghana made its World Cup debut in Germany. Gone are some of the previous stalwarts such as Appiah, Richard Kingson, John Mensah and John Paintsil. Their departures stripped away some of the familiar solidity so crucial in the past two trips to the knockout round. Michael Essien watched his career at the pinnacle of European football crumble in the wake of heinous injuries bound to limit his relentless industry. Gyan swapped the Premier League for petrodollars long ago. Several of his compatriots also ply their trade below the top level. Others do not play as frequently as they should for their clubs, while a few only turn out intermittently for their country.
And yet this Ghanaian side continues to produce results despite its evolution. Homegrown coach James Kwesi Appiah took control in April 2012 and unleashed the pace and the power within his ranks shortly thereafter. Ghana led all African nations in qualifying with 25 goals scored, though the pliable presence of Lesotho and Sudan in the second round group certainly boosted the total. Gyan topped the individual goalscoring charts, too.
Those numbers aren’t an illusion: The Black Stars pose a considerable threat when they move forward. The evisceration of Egypt in the first leg of the World Cup playoff last year – poor Bob Bradley couldn’t escape the Ghanaians even during his tenure with the Pharaohs – reflects the threat posed when they play at a high tempo. There is genuine width in the team with André Ayew often deployed on the right and in-form Juventus winger Kwadwo Asamoah (also an option centrally) on the left with Albert Adomah and Christian Atsu in reserve. The central midfield trio combines directness and power with Essien, Muntari, Kevin Prince-Boateng and Wakaso Mubarak all in contention. And the sum of that midfield group provides ample support to Gyan as he runs the channels and searches for chances in the final third.
The combination of those qualities heaps pressure on the opposition to disrupt the rhythm through midfield and force the selected players to contemplate less desirable alternatives. This group isn’t designed to dominate in possession or play directly through the air to Gyan. Appiah sometimes adds a second striker to free up Gyan to roam a bit more, but his plentiful midfield choices restrict him to 4-2-3-1 more often than not. The preferred modus operandi – quick and incisive combinations and movements in the middle third to apply pressure in the channels and on the flanks – is rather well established at this stage, but this group’s ability to adapt those principles in a World Cup setting remains rather more uncertain.
Previous managers Ratomir Djuković (2006) and Milovan Rajevac (2010) adopted pragmatic approaches to negotiate the higher standards. This squad may not possess the defensive components required to implement similar tactics this time around. The absence of Isaac Vorsah after an injury-plagued season depletes the center back options considerably, though potential touchstone John Boye at least boasts experience with Rennes. The fullback positions inspire further uncertainty with Harrison Afful, Samuel Inkoom and Daniel Opare all among the contenders for a starting berth. The back four must congeal quickly to provide the proper protection for promising number one Adam Kwarasey.
The potential frailty at the back reveals the importance of pressure and tempo across the board. Ghana places the opposition under duress willingly with its ability to play at a high tempo and its eagerness in closing the ball down, but it struggles when confronted with those same tactics. This group must organize deftly and summon the resolve to soak up the forays from other sides to truly meet its potential in Brazil.
U.S. coach Jürgen Klinsmann and his players will expect to test all of those qualities in the World Cup opener. They understand the urgent need to procure all three points in this game and shrug off those Black Star demons forever. It is a modified brief now, perhaps even one suited to the strengths of this American side. But the memories of the past ensure the doubts will still linger unless they are banished once and for all in Natal on June 16.