Ghana a hard team to open up
Ghana plays a compact shape, with emphasis on men behind the ball
Ghana has not scored more than one goal in a game since last November
Michael Essien's replacement Kevin-Prince Boateng has been erratic
John Mensah's grin and shake of the head when asked about the team's tactics is revealing. "The coach is good," Ghana's captain said. "We all know that. He does his tactical thing and we do what he says. This compact play, that's what he wants and it's what we do and we all believe this compact play will help us move forward."
The impression he gives -- and it may be that as the cold of the Veld bites he is being mischievous and looking simply to return to the dressing room -- is that Milovan Rajevac's tactical instructions leave him mystified, but he accepts their efficacy. Mensah, the Rock of Gibraltar as he is nicknamed (or the Crock of Gibraltar as he rather cruelly became in an injury-ravaged season at Sunderland), doesn't really do the "tactical thing;" he just does the being big and defending heroically thing.
It seems probable Mensah's back will stand up to the game against the U.S., which prepares the ground for a fascinating physical contest between him and Jozy Altidore. Ideally, Rajevac would like to have Isaac Vorsah back alongside Mensah, but he remains a doubt as he recovers from knee ligament damage. Mensah's namesake, Jonathan, who seems to be known by his forename, has provided perfectly adequate cover in the last two games, but he is not such an imposing figure. If Altidore can engineer aerial challenges against the right Mensah, he may prosper.
At fullback, Ghana have John Pantsil and Hans Sarpei, both of them solid, defensive players. Against Germany the back four made just two serious errors; once in misjudging an offside from a long pass, giving Mezut Ozil a one-on-one with the goalkeeper, and then for the goal, when Sarpei allowed Thomas Muller to drift inside and tee up Ozil. Landon Donovan may see hope there, assuming he starts on the right, but it was an isolated incident, and generally speaking this Ghana side has been as resolute and as well-organized as probably any African side at a World Cup has ever been.
Ghana's real strength, though, is probably the midfield, or at least the defensive aspect of the midfield. Anthony Annan sits very deep, operating almost as an auxiliary center back, and he will pick up a deep-lying forward should Bob Bradley opt not to start with two center forwards. Annan is an odd player, forever being linked with major European clubs, but seemingly doomed -- perhaps by his relative lack of height -- to play forever in Norway (although he is still only 23). He is, though, a disciplined and aggressive figure and, as Australia discovered, he has a pragmatic, cynical streak.
Flanking Annan will be Kwadwo Asmoah, to the left, and to the right, Kevin-Prince Boateng. Boateng has frustrated at times in the tournament with poor pass selection while Asamoah, although never hitting the shimmering creative heights that might have been hoped for, has been a diligent presence, tempering his natural attacking instincts to fit Rajevac's demand for compactness. If the USA plays its usual 4-4-2, Ghana will have an extra man in the central area, although Michael Bradley and whoever partners him will have support from the tucked-in wide midfielders. They just about coped with similar outnumbering against Algeria, but this will be a tougher test, as Ghana's players are more disciplined.
Dede Ayew, the son of Abedi Pele, has had a fine season with Arles-Avignon, and has maintained that form in this tournament so far, an explosive and skillful presence who can operate on either flank. On the other side so far has been Prince Tagoe, who drifts infield, but has been rather less effective than Ayew, and it would not be a great surprise if Sulley Muntari, despite a training-ground row with Rajevac this week, was selected ahead of him.
That leaves just Asamoah Gyan, a magnificently industrious front runner. He never stops working, chases down lost causes, holds the ball up, is quick, strong, and has a ferocious long-range shot. He was much-mocked at the 2008 African Cup of Nations in Ghana, derided by the local press after the opening game to the extent that he had to be dissuaded from walking out on the squad by Michael Essien. However, he has since emerged as the perfect lone striker in Ghana's 4-5-1. When Ghana have the ball, Ayew and Boateng (or Muntari) get up to support him, but often he is left isolated.
It is partly because he is able to retain possession even when he is rampaging alone that Ghana have had such success over the past six months. This is a side that has not scored twice in a game since a World Cup qualifier against Mali last November, and yet it reached the final of the Cup of Nations. Four of its last seven competitive games have been won 1-0, all working largely on the principle of getting the ball to Gyan, hoping he does something, and then sitting nine men behind the ball.
Ghana certainly won't be afraid of allowing the U.S. to dominate possession, and that is where U.S.' lack of width may be an issue. Even Germany needed a special goal -- albeit one permitted by a momentary lapse in the marking structure -- to beat Ghana. This is not going to be open game and, even more than usual, it is one likely to be decided by the first goal. Ghana is a fine team at holding a lead; rather poorer, as it showed against Australia, when the onus is on it to take the initiative. Not since that Mali game last November has it successfully overcome a deficit.
The key is probably the extent to which the U.S.' creative players, Donovan and Dempsey, can be brought into the game. Overlapping runs from the fullbacks could create space -- although they must be wary of granting Ayew or Tagoe/Muntari space to advance into, but -- once again, thanks to the string of dogged opponents the U.S. has faced -- it may come down to whether Michael Bradley and his midfield partner can impose themselves and find the range of passing to circumvent Ghana's central midfield trio.
Jonathan Wilson is the author of Inverting the Pyramid; Behind the Curtain; Sunderland: A Club Transformed; and The Anatomy of England.