Two days before the match against Senegal, Ecuador coach Gustavo Alfaro warned of “an excess of triumphalism” in his team after victory over hosts Qatar and a draw with the Netherlands. The “La Tri” coach feared this would lead to his team’s elimination.
We don’t know if this was the cause of Ecuador’s loss, but Enner Valencia and Co. were unrecognisable against Senegal, and failure against the Africans sent Gustavo Alfaro’s side home just when people expected them to be one of the revelations of the World Cup in Qatar.
“La Tri” was not even a shadow of the team in the matches against Qatar and the Netherlands. Against Senegal, the Ecuadorians lacked that tactical order, that solidity in defence. Their performance was linked to the emotional side, in which perhaps there was that overconfidence of seeing the country qualify without having played the game, which the coach spoke of.
“La Tri” lost space on the field, almost in all its lines. Senegal coach Aliou Cissé read the game better than Alfaro, outplayed the latter. He won the ball in all the spaces, did not let him breathe neither in defense, nor in midfield, nor in attack, where Énner “Superman” Valencia did not have the ideal complement to overcome that solid Senegalese block.
Still, there is hope, a generation of 20, 21 and even 24-year-old players who will probably play in the next qualifiers or maybe two more editions, according to Alfaro himself.
What were the mistakes?
What was missing? The 2-1 defeat to Senegal leaves tactical and emotional lessons. Was the starting formula wrong? Gustavo Alfaro changed the midfield, which had been a strength in previous matches.
The reason: Jehgson Méndez was sent off for two yellow cards. Alfaro introduced Alan Franco and Carlos Gruezo, who looked out of rhythm and at times failed to cope with the Senegalese attitude and physicality.
He varied the defensive and midfield blocks depending on the opposition. Against Qatar, the back line, which also played against Senegal, was not as much in demand in the first match as in the Netherlands; in the latter match Jackson Porozo played as a substitute.
In recent days there has been talk of the “tragic” five minutes, the minutes when you concede or score a goal. There, concentration was essential, but it was not there against Senegal, a strong opponent who was superior to the South American team, all over the pitch.
Ecuador lacked basic concentration, especially in the first half, when they lost the ball frequently, especially in midfield, an area that has been key at this World Cup.
Alfaro admitted at the press conference, where he seemed very distressed, that “we made a lot of mistakes in a key match”.
Ecuador’s future is bright. No one doubts that. And Alfaro acknowledged this. The average age of the team is 24.8, and the same core will start playing in the regional qualifiers at the end of next year, in the same all-against-all system.
“La Tri” has maintained its solidity across the board since March this year, when it drew with Argentina in qualifying. Since then, until 25 November, only two goals have been scored against them (including the Dutch one). The defence has been solid, as has the midfield. That, with Senegal, had its problems as the Africans, backed by their physical agility, exposed weaknesses the Ecuadorians need to improve on as the future looks bright.
Alfaro has built a team to his liking, made it to his liking, in a scenario that started from scratch, without a player base, which has merit, because the original project was to reach the 2026 World Cup. The goal was achieved four years early.
The Argentinian has called up 56 players in his two years in charge of La Tri. His thesis is that those he calls up respect each other, become friends…
Moises Caicedo, who left the field after the Senegal game in tears, ended up leading the new generation of La Tri players. His quality has taken him to Brigthon in England, where he is wanted by other big teams in Europe. After him is Piero Hincapié, who on Tuesday showed many coordination errors with his teammates Pervis Estupiñán and Gonzalo Plata, from whom more was expected at this World Cup.
There are other players, such as Jeremy Sarmiento, Jackson Porozo, José Cifuentes, who are between 20 and 23 years old and will probably be a mainstay for the next few years. But they will have to maintain regularity for their clubs to be called up.
Will Alfaro remain on the Ecuador bench?
Alfaro’s contract with the Ecuadorian Football Federation (FEF) expired on the day of the game against Senegal. The organisation intends to extend the agreement, so wants to sit down at the table to review the new terms.
Alfaro and his team earn around $2 million a year, and a new deal will likely be higher.
The Ecuadorian federation wants the coach to renew his contract as soon as possible so he can plan a busy schedule for early next year, including friendlies, Copa America and qualifiers.
However, the coach said, “With the Federation we agreed to meet after the World Cup to thank each other, but today I feel I have to stop the ball rolling to find out if I will continue coaching or not.”
The lesson of the World Cup is that Ecuador has strengthened a new generation of footballers, who will need to continue to mature on the basis of experiences like those at this World Cup. The paradox is that you have to play the games to win them. And work on the mental side and leave space for others to support the new generation.