Analysis: Why Harambee Stars will be at their optimum in a 3-5-2/3-4-3 iteration over the long-term

Analysis: Why Harambee Stars will be at their optimum in a 3-5-2/3-4-3 iteration over the long-term

Mark Kinyanjui 13:00 - 24.06.2024

This is why Harambee Stars could become unstoppable in a 3-5-2 or 3-4-3 formation in the future as was seen during their 0-0 draw against Ivory Coast:

The Kenya National Football Men's team Harambee Stars were recently held to draws by Burundi and Ivory Coast in their third and fourth matches of the 2026 FIFA World Cup qualifiers.

Both games marked the 11th and 12th match in which Engin Firat has been in charge of the nation since being given the job on a permanent basis.

Over those matches, Firat has managed to build a go-to team since the ban on the country’s football was lifted back in 2023. 

As the team has continued to evolve, he has been setting them up primarily in a 4-4-2 formation, adopting a cautious approach for a majority of those ten matches.

There has been an emphasis on being defensively compact and then choosing moments to win the ball back as quickly as possible and then exploiting those gaps the opposition leaves in counter attacking situations.

The approach has helped deliver decent results, such as the famous 2-1 win against reigning Asian champions Qatar, and the 2-2 draw against 2018 World Cup quarter finalists Russia. There have also been wins against Malawi, Zimbabwe and Seychelles.

However, Firat has been hinting at adopting a back three formation for quite some time now. 

Lest it is forgotten, his first ever match in charge of the national team - the forgettable 5-0 loss to Mali away in Morocco- saw him implement a 3-5-2 formation, and the team was understandably incoherent considering they had never used that formation under previous coaches.

The coach intended to use it for the Malawi Four Nations tournament, but an injury to Erick ‘Marcelo’ Ouma, who has played as a left wing back since launching his professional career in 2017, prevented him from having to use it.

However, he still managed to implement it during the heroic 0-0 draw against Ivory Coast. It was impressive considering the issues the team went through on and off the field during that camp. 

From player unavailability either due to injuries, paperwork not being completed on time or being forced to host home matches outside the country due to a lack of FIFA-approved stadia, it was problems galore for the Turk and his coaching staff.

However, It proved to be effective, and offered a glimpse as to why it may be the best formation to use moving forward. This is how it was implemented:

How they lined up

For the Ivory Coast match, Firat started Patrick Matasi in goal, but introduced Alphonce Omija ( a midfielder who can also play center back) into the fold as the right sided defender. Johnstone Omurwa played as the central defender, with Daniel Anyembe - a right back by nature- playing on the left. 

Kenya Police’s Aboud Omar played as the left wing back, with Rooney Onyango playing as the right wing back.

Kenneth Muguna, Richard Odada and Teddy Akumu were the midfield three, with Timothy Ouma and Michael Olunga completing the line up.

Out possession

There was an understandable necessity to be cautious and not to take too many risks considering the quality of the reigning African champions on the ball.

This was evident from the get-go given the Ivorians kicked off proceedings at the Bingu National Stadium that afternoon.

In the screenshot below, Stars drop into a 4-5-1 low block formation, and decide not to press high, letting Ivory Coast aimlessly try and pass the ball back.

Stars adopt a 4-5-1 low block formation from the get go off the ball

Rooney Onyango becomes a right winger off the ball  tries to put pressure on the Ivory Coast left back and forces him to pass the ball to his center back

Rooney Onyango puts pressure on the Ivorian left back which forces him to pass it sideways to Evan Nd'icka


The ball is recycled, before Willy Boly attempts a long ball to find Simon Adingra on the right, but Omar (who stood in for Marcelo who never played a part due to injury) heads the ball towards Ouma, and Kenya successfully try and play their way out of trouble.

In the match, Ouma was playing as a forward in possession, but tucked to a more natural left wing position without the ball to track the runs of Wilfred Singo down the right.

Odada and Akumu -who have played with each other consistently over the 12 games- stayed in midfield, but in that game,  Muguna was asked to drop into the midfield to form a three-man axis and  make sure Ivory Coast barely created any inroads on that left half space.

The players never panicked one bit and were disciplined throughout the game. As earlier stated, Firat has made his team difficult to beat, which makes it difficult for teams to create chances.

In posession

Stars opted to concentrate and try and use their pace on the break, and one moment by Rooney Onyango in the 31st minute showed why his partnership with Marcelo once he recovers from injury could be very vital for the side. 

Rooney bombs forward having won over possession, but unfortunately, his fellow Harambee Stars players don't attack the box as rapidly he does so he can get an option to pass to.

Rooney Onyango wins posession down the right flank
Before he carries it forward towards the Ivorian initial third. Michael Olunga and Timothy Ouma run forward to support him.

Olunga is the only available option here, and Ouma takes too long to get there. One can only imagine how the situation would have been has Marcelo, who is known for his pace, quickly paced down the other flank to get on the end of the pass.

But Olunga gets ahead of his cut back, and Ouma does not get to the box on time. Marcelo's speed on the other flank would have helped had he been playing.

Given Daniel Anyembe was playing on the left side of the defence rather than his natural right back role, Alphone Omija, who was making his debut in the match, tried to combine well with Rooney Onyango as a wide right center back, and on one occasion, it led to a proper passage of play that resulted in Olunga hitting it wide off target.

Omija (number 5) takes an unusually high position and exchanges neat passes with Teddy Akumu in the tight space.
The ball ends up in the feet of Olunga, but he hits the shot wide.

There is another moment just before the break where Timothy Ouma broke free on the counter attack but failed to spot Olunga on the other side who was preparing to run in behind

While his ball retention skills and hold up play was impeccable, he was taking too long to release passes at the right time, and that moment was a missed opportunity to put the Kenyans ahead

The biggest chance for Kenya came midway through the second half from another quick counter-attacking situation that saw Olunga, Ouma and Odada bomb forwards to offer him support.

Akumu won the ball and sprayed it long to Olunga, who then run with it forward and cut it back to Ouma who failed to find the back of the net, again, showing his lack of quick decision making having taken too many touches of the ball.

Odada managed to win the ball back and pass it towards the captain, but the goal was protected by the time he was preparing a shot. However, there is a feeling that the wingbacks (Omar and Onyango) should also have bombed forward to offer support by overcrowding the box.

Teddy Akumu wins the ball and passes it long to Olunga
Olunga then runs with it forward before setting up Timothy Ouma, but the youngster dallies on the ball too long and attempts a shot too late
Odada wins the ball and lays it back to Olunga, but it is too late as two Ivorian players have already covered the goal.


Moving forward, this formation may be a way to maximize the wingbacks Rooney and Marcelo, considering they are some of the team’s best players. Besides, on the counter attack, Stars are a dangerous team, as has been proven now.

Firat had earlier insisted that some of the players in the team such as Marcelo and former Kariobangi Sharks forward Masoud Juma were profiles that were impossible to replace.

Juma is good at creating one v one situations and can hold on to the ball well, which means Firat may be planning to get Olunga and Juma to play as a partnership in a 3-5-2 formation moving forward.

Against Seychelles, we saw him implement an asymmetric 4-4-2 formation  that saw Juma join Olunga in attack with Erick Johanna Omondi operating behind them, and it worked to a tee. 

Firat will certainly be hoping he has his best players available for the next assignment. If the 3-5-2 formation is to work, players like Joseph Okumu, Marcelo, Juma and even English-born defender Zak Vyner will have to be integral.

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