Cameroon doomed by failure to react
It wasn't that Volker Finke failed to react properly; it's that he didn't react at all.
The Indomitable Lions were second-best from the first minute to the last in their 1-0 defeat to Mexico, playing the incoherent, abjectly dull brand of football they have become notorious and castigated for. Had it not been for some erroneous officiating, with two Mexico goals wrongly disallowed for offside, El Tri could have raced into a two-goal or three-goal lead by halftime.
Finke had promised a lineup that was similar to the one he employed in the warm-up friendly against Germany. When the announcement came, there were only two changes from that game, with Benoit Assou-Ekotto preferred over Henri Bedimo and Aurelien Chedjou over Joel Matip.
Both of those changes caused some contestation. The raiding Bedimo has had a productive season with Olympique Lyonnais at club level, amassing 10 assists from left-back. In a Cameroon team that struggles to fashion chances, he seemed the better option than Assou-Ekotto in terms of form and sheer mathematics.
Chedjou, meanwhile, offers the aerial prowess in the Cameroon defence, but he had partaken in just one of Cameroon's four pre-World Cup friendlies. That solitary appearance came in last week's 1-0 win over Moldova. In a desperate, last-ditch bid to prove his fitness, he played the full 90 minutes, but he had looked far from convincing on the few occasions he was tested during the game. Certainly, he hadn't done enough to regain his position from Joel Matip, who has exuded ease at centre-back in recent weeks.
There had also been expectation that Allan Nyom would start at right-back. But it was Cedric Djeugoue, the only domestic-based outfield player in the squad, who was favoured ahead of him. Unsurprisingly, he looked horrendously out of his depth and was spared further humiliation at halftime when he was hauled off for Dany Nounkeu.
Beset by lack of guile and creativity behind Samuel Eto'o, the consensus was that Cameroon's best chance of winning the game was to sit back and initiate attacks from deep, utilising the pace of wingers Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting and Benjamin Moukandjo.
Posed with Mexico's 3-5-2 formation, Cameroon struggled in dealing with the uniqueness of the system. The wingers, given the nauseating dilemma of having to balance tracking back and also doing some attacking themselves, became pre-occupied by the sojourns of wing-backs Paul Aguilar and Miguel Layun into their own territory. In doing so, they essentially become wing-backs themselves.
There is nothing wrong with playing risk-averse football as a means to an end, of course -- if you're an underdog and seeking to make a World Cup run, defensive solidity is the most important criteria. And if Cameroon have a strength, then it's undoubtedly the names in their defence.
But failure to find a balance in defending, especially down the wings, left Eto'o incredibly isolated and routinely absorbed by the Mexican back three. Any opportunity to counter, unhelped by Cameroon lacking a figure to link the midfield and attack, was negated by a Mexico side quick to get back and form their defensive structure.
When Mexico did go a goal just past the hour, Finke's biggest fault, for such an experienced coach, was his failure to react when a drastic change in approach was needed. Choupo-Moting and Moukandjo continued to track the Mexico wing-backs; Giovani Dos Santos continued to find space behind an increasingly leg-weary midfield. With 10 minutes to go, Alex Song was withdrawn for Pierre Webo and the formation was changed to a 4-4-2, but it was too little too late.
The Cameroon fans had expected to see more fight from a side that had hotly-contested their bonuses last week -- to the extent that they came into the World Cup as Africa's highest-paid side. Fight they could have, but they were comprehensively out-thought on the day.
They will now require something bordering a miracle to complete their mission of reaching the second round.