The table topping Nzoia rallied from behind to overpower Sharks at Utalii Grounds.
Enterprising Nzoia Sugar have earned plaudits from local football enthusiasts owing to their endearing style of play, their resilience, and how they look to dominate the opponent with positional and quantitative superiority in every aspect of play.
When the Millers traveled to Nairobi for their encounter against Kariobangi Sharks on Wednesday, an equally well-drilled side, the match promised to be a firecracker even before a ball was kicked, and it delivered just that.
It was a game of two coaches trying to control the space on Utalii Grounds playing surface with the space in their heads. A game of plans made, then remade, stratagems and counter-stratagems. None of the two coaches deserved to lose the match, but Nzoia wanted the win more. In the end, they earned not only the three points but also praise from the opposing coach William Muluya.
Kariobangi Sharks are the perennial glamour boys of Kenyan football and it was without a doubt going to be an entertaining encounter facing off with an opponent with an almost similar display.
Coach Salim Babu has come up with a beautiful mixture of positional and relationism with a dash of ruthlessness for Nzoia when need be, and it was all seen on Wednesday.
But, what was the respective approach of the two teams in the match?
Nzoia set up in a 4-2-3-1 while Kriobangi Sharks were in their favoured 3-4-3 formation.
The main and most interesting tactical aspect of the game was Kariobangi Sharks setting up in a very aggressive 3-4-1-2 midblock to deny Nzoia central penetration. They looked to funnel the league leaders out wide where they had a set a trap, with the trigger being the wide CBs receiving possession they looked to close down instantly using the touchline as their best friend.
Sharks pressed the Nzoia wide receivers to go long where they would look to be aggressive and swarm the second ball area. This forced Nzoia initially to look and hit long balls into the channels which is against their norm of patient and controlled build -up play.
With this, they were playing right into Sharks hands, Dan Guya and Collins Obanda, Sharks wide CBs, were up to the task and not fazed at all when defending being turned or runners in behind.
The controlled approach by Sharks saw them get a goal, a very good goal. It was the epitome of overload creation and quick combination play. Creating wide overloads Fortune Omoto and Geoffrey Onyango on the left with Julius Masaba, Matthew Kibiwot and Tyson Otieno on the right.
Sharks looked to move the ball around, Keith Imbali the main orchestra, moving the team from right to left where good combination play let Geoffrey Onyango fizzle a cross from the left but there was no one to tap in as it went past the goalmouth in one instance
Nzoia could not clear their lines and Sharks kept playing ‘keep ball’ and looking to recycle the ball. Tyson dropped deep attracting his markers, freeing Kibiwot and Masaba to combine well which mostly saw Kibiwot through on goal.
Imbali was always a willing runner to go for the cutback which saw him slot the ball well into the far right of the keeper. The goal, however, came from Nzoia’s inability to clear their lines and failure to track runners off the ball.
The interesting aspect of the game was how Nzoia’s build-up seemed to alter as they looked to provide answers to Sharks’ questions
Nzoia usually build up with a 4 man structure in their preferred 1-4-4-3 formation during build-up with GK Humphrey Katasi included in the backline (This is a good example of what Graham Potter was doing at Brighton).
The CBs split into the half spaces while Boniface Munyendo drops next to the goalkeeper. This creates numerical superiority in their first line and fullbacks push very high up to play in line with Kevin Juma and Joseph Mwangi.
Sharks were prepared for this as they cut all lanes centrally in the first half and forced Nzoia wide. After conceding and a rather overwhelming first half, Nzoia looked to alter their initial approach.
Babu had another trick up his sleeves for the second half, and before Sharks knew what had hit them they were trailing courtesy of two goals in quick succession by Mwangi.
Instead of approaching their build-up with four, they opted to go for a 2-1 shape that saw Munyendo push into midfield to go man for man, with Felician Okanda inverted to create an overload centrally.
The Millers further dropped their backline slightly deeper to look and create space deep for their playmaker Juma who could now dictate play in space. As a result, he found Mwangi with a sumptuous pass for the first goal, a very important goal for Nozia in the match.
Nzoia looked for positional superiority in the game, playing bodies in from and behind the midfield line of Sharks to exploit as Sharks initially lacked cover for the three CBs when turned on transition.
This was a game that was centred around denying Central penetration and Nzoia looking to provide answers to the question asked of them which they did emphatically with a 3-1 score line.