Hands up if you grew up wanting to be a full-back. Us neither.
A goal-hungry forward? Definitely! A chalk-on-your-boots winger, tying opposition defenders in knots? It sounds like fun. Even a center-back who sweats blood and spinal fluid for the cause? Well, it’s part of the Ugandan football warrior’s DNA. But full-back? That’s for the Sunday League clogger who turns up every week despite being severely deficient in basic co-ordination, let alone footballing ability.
At a professional level too, there has always been an element of the unfashionable to full-backs – particularly the doughty, diligent type who wouldn’t venture past the halfway line even if repeatedly urged by a cattle prod.
Over the last three years however, a revolution has been afoot. Since the beginning of the 2017/18 season, no Uganda Premier League player has registered more assists than Mustafa Kizza. In fact, one of the few players to be anywhere near him – Shafiq Kajimu aside – is his former partner-in-crime at KCCA, Allan Okello. But, what Kizza is doing is different.
He is a shaper of games and arguably the Kasasiro boys’ most creative player, as his 5 goals and 12 assists, this season is aptly demonstrated. This is the story of how KCCA – gegenpressing their way to, in all likelihood, the most pressing team in UPL – and Mustafa Kizza made the full-back cool.
“This isn’t new, you know,” Tendo Musoke tells Touchline Sports. The celebrated sports journalist then traces back the lineage of attacking full-backs: Wilber Musika, The former FUFA male player of the year and TP Mazembe Left-back Joseph Ochaya in 2016 and, back to Abu Tabula and Richard Mugalu.
“What Kizza has done is take it to a new level,” Tendo says.
“It’s his mobility; his passing ability; his pace. His service from wide areas is fabulous. He gets his head up to have a look, and if on the odd occasion he doesn’t have time to do that, he’ll deliver right into the corridor of uncertainty.”
In an era where footballers are adapting to the specific demands dictated by each position, the resurgence of the defensive midfielder – to the near-extinction of the all-action box-to-box midfielder – has established a backbone affording both full-backs greater license to attack with impunity.
“Back in the day, you defended against the winger because both teams matched up with the 4-4-2,” former SC Villa and Victoria University left-back Nestroy Kizito says.
This season, Kizza, has recorded himself an incredible 12 assists in a season for a full-back. “In the late-2000s,” Kizito added, “I had the energy and intention to overlap and get up and down the pitch, but that was your only attacking option.”
In Mike Mutebi’s 4-3-3 system, Mike Mutyaba and Erisa Sskisambu play as inverted wingers and occupy half-spaces in between central areas and the flanks, allowing Kizza the freedom to go forward. The manager’s 4-3-3 in defense essentially becomes a 3-2-5 in the attack, as defensive midfielder Gift Ali drops into a back three and the full-backs provide outlets in a highly fluid, mobile front five.
“It’s a big help if you have a winger who wants to come inside, because you can then provide width on the outside of them,” Kizza told Touchline Sports. “I was a goalkeeper at first, till I was transferred to left full-back and I want to express myself by joining in the attack. My teammates definitely give me the chance to do that.”
The young defender has certainly taken advantage, contributing no fewer than 30 Uganda Premier League assists between the beginning of the 2017-18 season and the end of 2019-2020 season.
“I practice every day, staying behind after training – and not just for a few minutes,” explains Kizza. “I am always working hard to perfect my abilities.”
The variation in his delivery is staggering, ranging from the arcing cross from deep to delicate back-post dinks, which have already created several goals in his campaign.
He has developed this whipped delivery which is really difficult to defend when KCCA’s center-backs have the ball, both full-backs have their feet on the touchline, so it’s very hard for three opposition forwards against four defenders who are all very comfortable on the ball, timing is everything.
“He crosses the ball earlier,” Ismail Dhakaba Kigongo, the award-winning journalist tells The Touchline Sports. “Added set pieces to his collection, Only Abu Tabula previously tried set pieces in the past. He chooses the perfect moment. Not just any footballer has that innate sense.”
“If you’ve got a team that’s constantly on the attack, like KCCA, then it looks like Kizza is, too – but he is much cleverer than that. He takes risks and loses the ball quite a lot, whether with crosses into the box or long diagonal balls, but that doesn’t matter because the disorganization it creates causes havoc.”
Kigongo’s point about risk and reward is supported by statistics. This season, no outfield player has conceded possession more than Kizza, and nor has anyone put in as many unsuccessful crosses, while only Viper’s Aziz Kayondo has attempted a greater number of unsuccessful long passes. That last statistic proves particularly instructive. The vast majority of Kizza’s uncompleted long passes are diagonals from full-back to full-back, which immediately changes the point of attack.
His best performance came against Masavu in 2017 as KCCA flawlessly won 6-0: three assists, but he fancies his two assists against Al Ahly in the CAF Champions League game away at the Borg El Arab Stadium, Alexandria
“I actually see elements of Joseph Ochaya in his game,” Tendo Musoke added. “He has a good ball control but not better than Richard Mugalu, Wilber Musika, Nestroy Kizito or Abu Tabula before him”
“Where he is exceptional is the way he reads the game going forward, making him able to drop into pockets where he hurts opponents by scoring, of course, set pieces” reveals Tendo.
“His crosses are very good but the delivery tactic is easy to counter because he tends to operate in the same zone”
Fitness work, meanwhile, is specific to the demands of Kizza’s personal interpretation of a full-back. High-intensity sprint training has now become the norm.
Kizza, part of the KCCA since he was at an immature age, had played in the club’s academy before he was loaned to FUFA Big League side Maroons FC. His quick development and a drive to improve separated him from his peers, Mike Mutebi knew that the teenager had to work on his development.
Even KCCA FC backroom staff are staggered at the progress he made in defending half-spaces on the front foot – the areas of the pitch between the widest and most central channels that opposition creators like to exploit.
“Modern-day full-backs are demanded to perform as playmakers,” Sanyuka TV’s analyst Pius Serugo says of the position’s modern demands.
“The full-back position has moved from a role that required only going forward on fast breaks to a role that needs them to be fully more involved in the team’s deeper roles. Nowadays wide players drift in more, and the full-backs cover the wings.”
The effect Kizza is having on this most underrated of positions is only just beginning to be felt.
Soon, though, everyone will grow up wanting to be Mustafa Kizza. All you have to do is revolutionize your position and become utterly synonymous with it. Good luck with that.
At 20 years, Kizza has already established himself as the best left-back in the country with several accolades in his cabinet. At KCCA FC, the full-back has so far achieved 2 league titles, three Super Cups, one Pilsner Super 8 Cup, 2 Uganda Cups, and one CECAFA Kagame Club Cup title.