Harambee Stars: Why Firat must stick with Omurwa-Okumu partnership in central defence

FOOTBALL Harambee Stars: Why Firat must stick with Omurwa-Okumu partnership in central defence

Mark Kinyanjui 07:55 - 09.09.2023

The centre-back pairing of Joseph Okumu and Johnstone Omurwa produced many positives in Thursday's win against Qatar and the Stars coach must avoid the temptation of tinkering with it

In March 2019, Kenya U23 national football side Emerging Stars’ hopes of qualifying for the Africa U23 Cup of Nations to be held later that year were crushed by Sudan as they lost 2-0 to the then Zdravko Logarušić coached outfit.

It was a group that kind of underachieved, considering the names that were part of that squad being coached by Francis Kimanzi.

Some of the defenders that formed part of that group included Joseph 'Crouch' Okumu, who now plies his trade for Ligue 1 outfit Stade de Reims and Johnstone Omurwa, the former Mathare United and Wazito defender who now plays for Liga Portugal side Estoril Amaradora.

Other names that were part of that team were Amos Nondi (who scored the winning goal against Qatar), Steven Yidah, Ovella Ochieng, John Avire, Mike Kibwage and Alwyn Tera.

After the loss, Kimanzi pledged the federation to try everything possible to keep the team together, as he had identified some ‘real talents’ who would help the senior side, Harambee Stars in future.

“If we can keep them together, they will get better. They need more international exposure with some test matches and tournaments because we have got some really special talents in there,” Kimanzi said at the time.

Step forward September 2023 as Harambee Stars made history by beating Qatar in a first ever meeting between the two clubs, with Nondi’s last minute goal sending the Al Janoub Stadium into delirium.

It was the first time since 2019 that Okumu and Omurwa partnered at centre-back for the senior team, and it proved to be a match-made in heaven.

The two towering centre backs were impressive on and on the ball. Their performance gave Kenyans so much optimism and light at the end of the tunnel after the doom and gloom of what has been a difficult last two years for Kenyan football.

Okumu got on the scoresheet, while Omurwa played a significant part in the build-up to that winning goal.

The former Gent vice captain was imperious in the air, winning all three of his areal duels. He made two tackles and interceptions and one out of two attempted ground duels. He also made four clearances.

His partner in crime Omurwa won two of his four attempted ground duels. He also made two tackles and interceptions, but unlike Okumu, was dribbled past once.

In possession, both were particularly superb with their long ball execution. Omurwa attempted 10 long balls, eight of which were successful, while Okumu was successful with 11 of his 15 attempted long balls.

Omurwa’s contribution to that winning goal with his long-range passing is something that Paul Scholes would be proud of had the legendary Manchester United midfielder had the luxury of watching it.

In the screenshot below, Pedro Miguel has the ball but is quickly closed down by left back Eric ‘Marcelo’ Ouma and winger Ayub Timbe.

The ball lands onto the feet of Omurwa

Who then checks up to see if there are options ahead with a quick glance

Before then executing the long ball to Michael Olunga who holds it up and carries it forward.

Olunga then sets up Nondi for the winner.

Off the ball, they showed their pace and power, underpinning their ability to recover from a defensive hiccup quickly, as Okumu showed early in the match shortly before he scored his first ever goal for the country.

It was a moment that also displayed their ability to cover each other’s flaws and mistakes. In the screenshot below, Hassan Al Haydos sets up Yousuf Abdurisag with a well-executed through ball that Omurwa fails to intercept in time.

However, his partner in crime Okumu quickly dashes in behind to catch up with Abdurisag just in time to make the angle at which he shoots the ball more difficult, making him shoot it wide.

For Kenya to be a force to be reckoned with when the World Cup qualifiers kick off this November, they need both centre backs to continue playing together in as many international games as possible, just like with Italy’s famous Euro 2020 winning partnership of Georgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci.

If Firat can find a way to keep them developing their chemistry, their partnership promises to be fruitful. Like Francis Kimanzi said, those emerging stars need to be kept together.