It didn’t seem so possible a few weeks ago, but Asante Kotoko are now just a point off the summit of the 2020/21 Ghana Premier League log.
Only in mid-December, remember, did Kotoko fall to Accra Great Olympics — their first loss in the season’s first four league games, yes, but also the third match in that run which the Porcupine Warriors had failed to win.
Maxwell Konadu lost his job as head coach in its immediate aftermath, marking the beginning of the interim tenure of his assistant, Johnson Smith. A month later, last Wednesday, the former Karela United trainer won a third game to send Kotoko up to third on the table.
It was the second time Kotoko had been victorious on the road under Smith, and the team’s travels have yielded two more points in that period. Those results, together with a convincing 2-0 win at home to Liberty Professionals last week, have helped propel Kotoko to their current heights.
Even better, they’ve done so directly at the expense of archrivals Hearts of Oak, leapfrogging a side supposed to be on a surer route of recovery from a similarly inauspicious start to the campaign.
The main reason why Hearts might give off the impression of being in healthier spirits, though, is that they’ve scored nearly twice the number of goals Kotoko have.
Heck, even King Faisal — down and deep in the relegation mix — have been more prolific than Kotoko, but it isn’t like goals were a luxury that suddenly dried up for Smith’s team. It was obvious from quite early in the season that Kotoko wouldn’t be scoring an awful lot; thus far, they’ve averaged a goal per game.
As the competition’s record champions, Kotoko have won the league in nearly two dozen different ways in the past, but this doesn’t look like it could be the most comfortable.
Still, it isn’t improbable; quite the contrary, one of football’s most revered tacticians — a serial winner, if there ever was one — argues this is probably just the way to go for Kotoko.
“Attack wins you games,” Sir Alex Ferguson famously said, many years ago. “Defence wins you titles.”
For Kotoko, the latter seems the overarching guiding principle. They might not be exactly potent upfront — but for six-goal striker Kwame Opoku, in fact, they’d be in a really bad way — yet Kotoko seem to be building their latest title challenge on a tight backline.
In front of whoever has been in goal, a fairly consistent four-man spine — Christopher Nettey (right-back), Imoro Ibrahim (left-back), Habib Mohammed and Ismail Ganiyu (centre-back) — has held firm, even with occasional shuffling of its composition.
There are games in which Kotoko have had up to five defensive outfield players on the pitch — with the likes of Samuel Frimpong, Yussif Mubarik and Wahab Adams taking up shifts necessitated by strategy or some other reason — but the team has hardly been weaker for it.
Kotoko’s defensive record is, indeed, the league’s best; for perspective, the other teams in the table’s top quarter have conceded at least twice as many goals.
How well that superiority holds up against Kotoko’s next few opponents — including Karela (1st), Ashantigold (4th), and Hearts (5th), scorers of 50 goals between them — would indicate the extent to which Ferguson’s clichéd claim could prove true in Kotoko’s case.
As things stand, and until the goals flow more thickly in attack, they’d gladly count their blessings at the other end of the pitch.