Did late recruitment drive undermine Tunisia's World Cup effort?


Tunisia were always up against it not to be eliminated from the World Cup after two games, having been drawn alongside England and Belgium in Group G.

That their elimination could be confirmed later on Sunday, if the Three Lions avoid defeat against Panama in Nizhny Novgorod, isn't much of a surprise, but the nature of Tunisia's capitulation is.

The Carthage Eagles appeared to sacrifice their defensive stability for a more ambitious approach against England, and were fortunate to still be in the game at the death.

Against a Belgium side admittedly packed with superb attacking talent in Moscow on Saturday, they capitulated emphatically - losing 5-2 - with Nabil Maaloul's team reshuffle not having the desired effect and the team's defensive limitations brutally exposed.

Tunisia weren't expected to set the world alight in Russia, or even to take a point against the Red Devils, but the nature of their defeat demands investigation.

The Eagles conceded 23 shots, of which 12 were on target, and could have conceded many more had Belgium's finishing been a little more precise.

One possible explanation for their underwhelming showing in Russia might be Maaloul's late attempt at a recruitment drive ahead of the tournament, an initiative which reshaped the Tunisia side that took to the field in Russia.

Using the tournament as a carrot to attract some foreign-based Tunisians - dual-nationality types who had been holding out for a France call-up - Maaloul added several new faces to his squad before the tournament.

Indeed, five of the players who have played for the Eagles so far in Russia - and four players named as starters by Maaloul - played no part at all in the qualifiers.

The coach opted to start Mouez Hassen in goal against England, while Ellyes Skhiri and Dylan Bronn started both matches in defensive midfield and right-back respectively.

Saif-Eddine Khaoui was brought into the starting lineup against Belgium, while Yohan Benalouane was introduced late in the first half following an injury to Syam Ben Youssef.

Their individual contributions have been mixed.

Hassen and Bronn both impressed before being injured against England and Belgium respectively - the former after just a quarter of an hour of the Eagles' opener - while Skhiri contributed little in the middle of the park, and was particularly exposed by Belgium's runners from deep.

Khaoui, too, cut a largely anonymous and frustrated figure against the Red Devils. He was too slow in transitioning the ball from midfield to attack, while his touch and set-piece delivery let him down at times.

Benalouane played his part in a miserable defensive showing after entering the fray at the Spartak Stadium.

Admittedly, it cannot be easy for a centre-back to come into a contest cold, particularly against a rampant Belgian side, but Benalouane, never the quickest of players, was caught out on several occasions and exposed by Romelu Lukaku, Michy Batshuayi et al.

One can perhaps explain Maaloul's desire to alter the complexion of the side that secured qualification for two reasons.

First of all, the introduction of players featuring in the French league or the Premier League was to offer the squad more top-level experience, the kind of which would be lacking among many of the local-based elements of the squad.

Indeed, the players who have come in have largely taken the places of players who have plied their trade - almost exclusively - in the local league.

Aymen Mathlouthi, Rami Bedoui, Hamdi Nagguez, Ghaaylen Chaalali and Mohamed Amine Ben Amor were the players whose World Cup minutes were cut by the new arrivals. All play in North Africa or the Gulf.

Secondly, Maaloul's decision can be seen as a reaction to the injury crisis that affected Tunisia in the run up to the tournament.

Two of their key attackers - Youssef Msakni and Yassine Taha Khenissi - were ruled out of the campaign, while the likes of Ben Amor, Chaalali and Bedoui all recovered from injuries to make the squad.

However, while one or two new faces in the squad - to compensate for the injuries or give the side a little more top-level nous - might have bolstered Tunisia, it was always going to be a risk that the raft of new faces would destabilise the team.

Ultimately, Tunisia are primed to go home after not doing themselves justice in Russia, and after losing sight of the virtues that secured them a spot in the tournament in the first place.

Particularly disappointing - and fitness informed to an extent - is that Tunisia appear primed to limp out of the tournament without having played their starting midfield trio - all of whom are in the squad - together.

The team that defeated the Democratic Republic of Congo at home and then battled back to nab a draw in Kinshasa was organised, drilled, tenacious, resolute and - most importantly perhaps - had character.

The side that shipped five against Belgium did not.

It's too simplistic to just blame the new faces, after all, national-team stalwart Ali Maaloul was arguably Tunisia's worst player against on Saturday. 
 However, it's little coincidence that after a litany of new faces were introduced, the Eagles were devoid of many of the qualities that had previously characterised their success.