Harambee Stars: Five reasons why switching to a back three formation makes a lot of sense for Kenya ahead of AFCON 2027

Harambee Stars: Five reasons why switching to a back three formation makes a lot of sense for Kenya ahead of AFCON 2027

Mark Kinyanjui 08:00 - 05.06.2024

Harambee Stars coach Engin Firat has been hinting at switching to a back three formation for a while now, and here are five reasons why his thoughts make alot of sense.

Harambee Stars are currently in Malawi preparing to face both Burundi and Ivory Coast on June 7 and June 11 as they go on in their quest to qualify for their first ever World Cup in 2026.

Head coach Engin Firat has managed to build a go-to team since the ban on the country’s football was lifted back in 2023. He has been in charge of the team for 10 matches since March, and the team has continued to evolve, setting them up in a 4-4-2 formation.

The team has adopted a cautious approach during 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 has plans to implement it. This article will try and look into the reasons as to why playing it would make so much sense for the long term, as he continues building a strong-enough team to compete at the ‘home’ 2027 Africa Cup of Nations:

1.A lack of dependable pure wingers with flair

When Firat named the final squad to travel to Malawi for the qualifiers, eyebrows were raised when Bruce Kamau and Adam Wilson, two natural wingers, were omitted entirely. Ayub Timbe has also been ruled out through injury. This means, there are no natural wingers in the squad.

This is a big reason to worry. Firat will also have to do without Masoud Juma, who has been playing as a winger at the side given he values his ability to create one v one situations, despite being a natural winger. 

This means, Kenyans will likely have to see Rooney Onyango playing as a winger once more (where he has been effective since his debut against Russia to be fair). Clifton Miheso of AFC Leopards has also been called up as a replacement for Eric Johanna Omondi, who was left at home for the second window in a row due to disciplinary issues.

Although Miheso is a natural winger, he has recently been playing as a number 10 for AFC Leopards. Speaking of attacking midfielders, Firat still has a lot of options. Austin Odhiambo traveled with the squad, while experienced attacker Kenneth Muguna is also in the camp(more on this down there).

2. Will maximize Marcelo and Rooney’s capabilities as wingbacks

As mentioned before, Marcelo has been playing as a left wing back for most of his career abroad, which has involved spells in Georgia, Sweden and now Poland.

He has barely featured as an out and out left back in a back four, and under Sebastian Migne, used to play as a left winger for Harambee Stars. Given his effectiveness as a left wing back, playing a back three will make sense, so he can be the player who provides width.

The same applies for Gor Mahia’s Rooney Onyango, who has been playing as a right winger despite being a full back at club level. He has proven effective at influencing the final third, given he has now scored a goal and provided three assists in five caps for Kenya now. 

If you play him as a right wing back, you will fully capitalise on his athletic capabilities bombing up and down the flank, but without worrying too much about his defensive capabilities, considering there will be a right sided center black in one of Daniel Anyembe, Zak Vyner or Johnstone Omurwa -more on these three later  to cover that right had side.

3.The country’s best center backs play in that system at club level

Firat has recently turned to Joseph Okumu and Johstone Omurwa as the first choice pairing, but following the addition of London-born dual citizen Zak Vyner, there is another high quality option added.

Okumu plays mostly in a back four formation at Reims, but on occasion, they have played in a back three formation, where  he plays in the middle due to his excellent reading of the game and his excellent distribution skills.

Omurwa has been playing on the right side of the Portuguese top flight side  Estrela Amadora defence in a back three, but has not seen much gametime for the club over the last three months. Given the familiarity of the role, he should fit in seamlessly there.

This leaves Zak Vyner, who has been an ever-present for Championship outfit side Bristol City as a player who could play on the left side. He could even play on the right, with Omurwa, who is relatively ambidextrous, on the left to cover Marcelo on that flank. With all defenders fully fit, this is an option worth considering.

4.Will help maximize floating attacking midfielders 

If Firat choses to move to a back three formation, specifically a 3-4-3 formation, he could opt to play floating 10s behind Olunga who can give the side more central access.

During the 3-1 win over Zimbabwe, it was Muguna who changed the game after the side went a goal down. Chris Erambo, who is more of a box to box midfielder, had to be sacriificed in the 25th minute, and it reaped reward.

Kenya will play Burundi, who are compact off the ball and dangerous on the break. Firat might opt to go for two 10s behind Olunga. He also has Duke Abuya and Timothy Ouma as options, although Ouma has been playing as part of a double pivot for his side lately.

Either way, this will allow Firat to maximise as many of the midfield options at his disposal as possible.

The Turk will likely stick to Richard-Odada and Teddy Akumu as his first choice double pivot (double 6) role, which means, playing two more midfielders behind Olunga will allow the side to overload the midfield as much as possible, especially against Ivory Coast, who play with three athletic and ball dominant midfielders.

5.Will give the coach freedom to continue using split strikers

Firat has used two strikers on occasion. At the Mauritius Four Nations tournament, he used Moses Shummah and Michael Olunga, and during their 5-0 rout of Seychelles, subbed on Benson Omala, who netted the side’s last goal.

He called up John Avire and Omala for the qualifiers, and could turn to either striker to partner Olunga if the gamestate will allow for the coach to use two strikers.

Either way, playing a 3-5-2 formation will make sense, as it effectively means you can still play three midfielders, with a number 10 to create central access, or three workaholics, with the Turk a big fan of Erambo. 

Avire is very good at anchor play and creating an extra overload by dropping deep, which could free up Olunga to get the goals. (Refer to Kenya’s win over Tanzania at the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations).


Adopting a back three formation could offer numerous tactical advantages for Kenya as they pursue their first-ever World Cup qualification. 

It addresses the current squad's limitations, maximizes the strengths of key players, and provides tactical flexibility. Firat’s willingness to adapt and innovate could be crucial in achieving success in the upcoming qualifiers and beyond.

The only issue is, we might not get to see it implemented immediately, considering you don’t want to experiment a lot when the competitive fixtures are upon us.  If there is a window for friendly matches, perhaps it might be applicable.