Yannick Bolasie thriving in free role for DR Congo at the 2015 African Cup of Nations
Sometimes, perhaps, you can play too well. After DR Congo had come from behind to draw 1-1 with Zambia in their opening Cup of Nations game on Sunday, Yannick Bolasie posed dutifully in the press conference room with the ugly orange trophy the sponsors Orange give to the man of the match.
There were photos with the man presenting the award and photos without the man presenting the award. Bolasie smiled and looked delighted and, really, what greater prize could there be than a piece of Perspex in the shape of Africa?
He began to walk away: he had a mixed zone to attend in which he already knew he had gaggles of Congolese and English journalists waiting. The Beninois match delegate, a habitually furious man with a strange skull-cap of hair, told him to go back. Bolasie dutifully returned to the Orange sponsors board. More pictures were taken.
He started to leave again, and this time the Beninois was properly furious, shouting at him to go back. The problem was that, as well as man of the match, Blasie had also won the Samsung Fair Play Player of the Match, whatever that is. The sponsors board was turned round, there were more photos and Bolasie was presented with a new mobile phone.
Quite how the two awards differ isn’t clear – I confess I’d always assumed the Samsung award was a way of ensuring a player from each team won something – but Bolasie deserved every prize he could for energising a DR Congo side who had looked like losing to Given Singuluma’s first-minute goal.
Bolasie had started on the left in a 4-2-3-1, looking to drift infield, but as the game went on and it became increasingly apparent that Zambia were set on sitting deep and looking to do little more than defend their lead, he began to pop up all over: in a central role, on the right, deep in midfield. He was the creative inspiration and his movement meant that the glaring weakness in his game – his wild crossing – was to an extent negated.
His low shot from the edge of the box after half an hour forced a fine save from Kennedy Mweene, and he had a free-kick deflected a yard wide just before half-time. Then, midway through the second half, after fine work down the right from Cedrik Mabwati, he ran onto a square pass inside. He had an age to line up his shot – not necessarily a positive for a player whose decision-making has been questioned – but did so superbly, lashing the ball just inside the left-hand post.
“Scoring is a part of my game that I want to add to,” he said. “Overall I’m a bit disappointed, we should have had the three points but we’ve got to recover quickly and go into the next game against Cape Verde. DR Congo is my mum and dad’s homeland so it’s an honour – [there is a] population of 70 million so expectation is really high and I think everyone expected us to win today. It was unfortunate that we conceded really early, which made it a bit tough for us to get back into the game.”
But it was more than that: he was the creative hub, the player responsible for everything good that DR Congo did from an attacking point of view. He had 5 shots, 3 of which were on target. Although a pass completion rate of 69% isn’t great, that says more about the difficulty of the passes he was attempting than anything else, and he complete three key passes, three times as many as any other DRC player.
But perhaps the most telling statistic was his crossing. For Palace, only 16 of 111 crosses this season have been accurate, but for DRC (admittedly from a very small sample size) two of the six crosses he attempted found their target, the suggestion being that his freedom to come inside meant that when he was crossing, he was doing so from better positions rather than always having to sling balls across the box.
With Cape Verde and Tunisia drawing 1-1, the group is extremely open. DRC could progress, but if they are to do so, they need Bolasie firing as he did on Sunday.