Aliou Cissé embodies the Senegal spirit of teranga, or family and sharing. The former PSG midfielder had 33 caps for the national team, and he was the captain of a dangerous Senegal side that ran all the way to the quarter-finals of the 2002 World Cup.

At AFCON 2002, he infamously missed the final penalty shot that could have given Senegal its first-ever African trophy at the 2002 AFCON. However, this only motivated him more to bring a title back to Senegal by any means possible.

He could not do it as a player. So, in 2012, Aliou Cissé joined the Senegal national team as a caretaker. His only recorded match as a caretaker was a 0-0 friendly draw with South Africa. Despite the appointment of Joseph Koto, he stayed inside the Senegal Football Federation (FSF). He assisted and coached the Senegal U-23 National Team before joining the senior team’s coaching staff.

The position was largely ceremonial, though. The Africa U-23 Cup of Nations only happens every four years, and so does the Olympics. Senegal hired Cissé right in the middle of that barren patch of time. Consequently, his only recorded game with the team was a play-off match with Oman to decide qualification to the Olympics.

After burning through three different managers, Senegal landed on Aliou Cissé as its next manager.

First-team manager

He did not disappoint. He won all of his six games in 2017 Africa Cup of Nations qualifying, ran to the quarter-finals of the tournament, and beat teams like South Africa and Burkina Faso en route to qualifying for the 2018 World Cup, their first World Cup in 16 years.

Cissé’s side bowed out due to Fair Play tiebreakers in Russia. Even then, Senegalese media and public praised him for wins over South Korea and Poland in the year. He went on to go undefeated again in 2019 Africa Cup of Nations qualifying later that year. Cissé sent his Senegal side to the finals of the competition.

He went undefeated yet again in a COVID-stricken qualifying campaign for the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations. That set up Senegal for something legendary.

From Cameroon to Qatar

You could argue that Senegal’s surprise dominance at the World Cup has been coming. At AFCON 2021, Senegal scored just once in the group stage, a stoppage time penalty in the opener to beat Zimbabwe. Regardless, it finished top of the group with Zimbabwe, Malawi and Guinea. Then, Senegal stormed through the knockout rounds.

First was a dominant 2-0 win over Cape Verde. 3-1 wins against Equatorial Guinea and Burkina Faso followed. Finally, Senegal had its first marquee matchup in the final against an Egypt side touted to win the whole tournament. Neither could score in the full 120 minutes, so to penalty shootouts they went.

A heartstopping duel marred by “Lasergate” ended with Senegal hero Sadio Mané icing the winning penalty. The Lions of Teranga won their first AFCON title ever.

Senegal and Egypt met again in the final round of World Cup qualifying to decide which team would get to Qatar. AS Nancy wing-back Saliou Ciss knocked in an own-goal in the first leg. However, vetted striker Boulaye Dia equalized in the second leg. The low-scoring affair ended again in penalties. Again, there were lasers, but it did not get in the way of Mané. He slotted in the winning penalty yet again to give Senegal its third-ever World Cup bid.

Mané, who became Senegal’s top goalscorer over the summer, was a key part to Senegal’s successes in 2021 and 2022. That’s why his fibula injury right before the World Cup dampened Senegal’s festive mood. Mané was a key reason why Senegal could even be here; he scored three goals in qualifying. Him missing the World Cup would not only affect his morale, but could definitely endanger Senegal’s odds of forging a deep run.

A vintage run

Mané who? In Senegal’s tough opener against the Netherlands, it did not look like Senegal missed him too much. The AFCON winners and dark horses of the tournament looked like the better team for much of the game. They had 15 shots(4 on target) and had a lot of time on the ball. They even had some good chances, forcing Andries Noppert into some big saves. But at the end, Cody Gakpo and Davy Klaassen’s strikes were too much for Senegal to handle.

Senegal easily handled a struggling Qatar team in its second matchday. Senegal looked like it could slay a Goliath, even though it was facing a David. Boulaye Dia, Famara Diedhou, and Bamba Dieng all scored in a convincing 3-1 win over Qatar.

Senegal’s do-or-die matchup against Ecuador had a lot of good. Facing a side that only needed a draw, Senegal knew it had to turn on its offensive jets. They did, wreaking havoc on the flanks and cutting through the attacking third. Ismaila Sarr won and scored off a penalty, and although Ecuador struck back in the middle of the second half, Kalidou Koulibaly used his mighty aerial prowess to give Senegal the full three points.

Senegal’s roar quieted to a murmur against England. Although Senegal frustrated England early in the match, forcing some good saves against Jordan Pickford, the explosive English attack could not be stopped. Their World Cup run ended miserably, but it will not dampen the lively time Senegal had at Qatar.

Aliou Cissé commands Senegal to brilliance

Of course, Senegal’s stars rose up to the challenge in their hard matchups. Ismaila Sarr terrorized opposing wingbacks and Kalidou Koulibaly was scary on both sides of the ball. Yet, most of Senegal’s success came from Aliou Cissé’s tactics.

It’s clear to see that the manager sees football more like a game of chess, rather than an art form. All of his formations, lineups, and substitutions are calculated. His analytical approach to the beautiful game helped Senegal rise to the top of Africa.

Cissé being the head coach for Senegal established a continuity rare among national teams. His tenure has helped him set up an established play style. Traditionally, he’s played very dynamic formations like the 4-2-3-1 and the 4-1-4-1, where you can not only be solid and compact on defense, but also very aggressive on offense.

Key features of his tactics include a sole striker up, someone who is a force in the box. Salernitana’s Boulaye Dia has filled this spot recently, and for good reason. Out of his 45 career goals, only one has come outside the box(20 yards away from goal). Previous strikers like M’Baye Niang and Famara Diedhou have been too inconsistent, so Dia provides a reliability that Cisse appreciates.

He loves playing four-at-the-back positions, meaning he can stick with two primary center-backs. Koulibaly has been a long-term favorite of Cissé, but he uses a multitude of players at the second position. Leipzig’s Abdou Diallo has been a mainstay in the starting lineup recently, but he also uses players like Olympiacos’ Pape Abou Cisse.

The variables

Managing a national team is a never-ending merry go round of questions, and Cissé can attest to that. He’s switched lineups based on opponents, fitness, and form. His refusal to keep the same lineup across games is evident.

He currently likes the midfield core of Idrissa Gueye, Nampalys Mendy, Cheikhou Kouyate, and Pape Sarr, but he will rarely use all of them at once. It’s a big reason why Senegal fell apart against England; Kouyate was injured and Gueye was suspended.

The great part about Senegal is its attacking depth. Bamba Dieng is a flexible attacker for Senegal that Aliou Cissé plays in multiple positions, and Iliman Ndiaye is growing into a dangerous attacking midfielder. Ismaila Sarr and Krepin Diatta, used heavily throughout the World Cup, were dangerous on the flanks and the main reason Senegal made it so far.

Cissé rotates these players throughout different matches, which has become more and more important as injuries, suspensions, and bad games enter the fray.

Take the two-legged match against Egypt. He switched from a 4-1-4-1 in the first leg to a 4-2-3-1 in the second leg and swapped out many key players.

He swapped many defensive players in the match. After average performances in the first leg, he benched Famara Diedhou, Cheikhou Kouyate, and Diallo for Boulaye Dia, Youssouf Sabaly, Pape Abou Cissé. His gambles paid off as all of those players very well and helped Senegal beat Egypt.

What’s next?

After the crushing 3-0 loss to England, Senegal’s players get a break from the demanding international season. They play Mozambique twice in March 2023 in 2023 Africa Cup of Nations, where two wins would secure them qualification to the Ivory Coast-hosted tournament.

Aliou Cissé, the mastermind behind Senegal success, will likely oversee the two matches. After all he has done, sacking him would be ignorant of his past triumphs.

PHOTO: IMAGO / Pro Shots

Guide to World Cup 2022

Here are some resources to help you get the most out of the biggest event in soccer!
TV Schedule: All the info on where and when to watch every game
The Groups: We breakdown each group and all the teams
The Kits: Check out what every team will be wearing on the field this fall
Predictor: Play out every scenario with our World Cup Predictor
World Cup Bracket: Map out the entire tournament, from the groups to the final