Sunday, 12 November 2017

Lessons from Constantine

The Desert Foxes of Algeria managed to secure a face-saving draw against the Super Eagles of Nigeria in their last qualifying match to the 2018 World Cup; a match where the Eagles – away from home and on a very poor playing surface – put up an impressive performance.
With nothing at stake this match, to the Nigerians, was more for the assessment of the team. Individually, the players on parade rose to the occasion and have given Nigerians reason to keep faith in the current Super Eagles project under Coach Gernot Rohr and his crew. However, there are still some vital lessons the team’s handlers would have been learnt from the game.

Ikechukwu Ezenwa left a big question mark on his ability to handle aerial balls. Shehu continues his impressive evolution, but still lacks the ability to deliver that final dangerous ball into the opponent’s box. Ola Aina did enough to confirm he is a veritable option but, as the young player he is, there is massive room for improvement. William Ekong was majestic – and he needed to be – on a night when Leon Balogun who is still recovering from injury struggled with the bad turf.

Wilfred Ndidi was exceptional at breaking up the opponents’ forays but his passing was, in stark contrast, appalling. John Ogu was calm, confident and efficient, capping his return with a trademark goal. Oghenekaro Etebo was pedestrian in the first half, but despite getting more involved in the second when he played deeper, he still did not provide the expected creative spark.

Alex Iwobi was the only player who tried to dictate play and create anything, but with very little success, no thanks to the bad pitch. The 4-3-3 formation does not suit Kelechi Iheanacho, and it showed in his limited contribution, aside taking set-pieces. Tony Nwaekeme held up play well but was without support for most of the game, and so had to drop deeper to get involved.
Ahmed Musa and Henry Onyekuru did not do a lot when they came on, but Onyekuru showed flashes of incisiveness and deserves another look-in.

Gernot Rohr got his wards to put up a dominant performance away from home, but this team will become predictable if he does not deploy creative midfield players to make it more tactically flexible. Overall, the team has shown the right attitude as there is confidence and drive, but there are still gaps that need to be plugged.

Algerian strikers Brahimi and Slimani are not exactly the biggest names in the world of strikers, yet they gave the Eagles’ back four a torrid time. There defenders clearly need to up their game as there was a seeming lack of pace, and they looked panicky at times under pressure, resulting in Algeria’s controversial penalty. Ezenwa still does not have command of his penalty area and is struggling with crosses and other aerial balls. A better team will exploit this.

The lack of creativity (without Mikel) still sticks out like a sore thumb. In a 4-3-3 formation, 3 defensive-minded midfielders do not offer much offensively and so the 3 attacking players will overwork themselves trying to create and score enough goals to win a match. The bad pitch in Constantine notwithstanding, the midfielders were unable to provide any penetration through the middle. The only route to goal was through the flanks and long balls forward in the air. Unfortunately, neither Iwobi nor Iheanacho is a natural winger, so Nwaekeme was left isolated against the entire Algerian backline.

This team still needs skillful and creative players in midfield. I dare to say that this is one deficiency that could ruin all the work done so far, if it continues unaddressed. Otherwise, Coach Rohr needs to devise or adjust his game plans and tactics to suit the players available to him. The next match against Argentina provides another opportunity for appraisal. He will do well to tweak his team and tactics a bit against an opposition that should be much stronger.

Saturday, 2 September 2017

Nigeria 4 – 0 Cameroun: Russia 2018 in sight.

Determination. Belief. Relentlessness. 
These were the hallmarks of a gallant and domineering performance by the Super Eagles during their annihilation of African Champions, Cameroun, during the 2018 World Cup qualifier in Uyo. The Super Eagles' first loss at the Godswill Akpabio International Stadium almost three months ago, apparently served as a wakeup call which stirred Coach Gernot Rohr's team to one of its best performances in recent times.
In the weeks building up to this match, that home defeat and the loss of goalkeeper Carl Ikeme to illness had cast a shadow on the team, creating a feeling of uncertainty and low expectations. However, the Eagles rose commendably to the occasion to stay in pole position to hoist the country's flag in Russia next year.

As predicted, the return of the experienced trio of Captain John Mikel Obi, Leon Balogun and Victor Moses provided the required spark which, along with the resultant tinkering of the team, propelled the team to full flight. In a disciplined execution of a near-perfect game plan, Balogun led the back like a Trojan, ably supported by William Ekong. Abdullahi Shehu surprisingly coped well with the strength and pace of the Camerounians, though Echiejile's imminent wane remains conspicuous, and  worrisome too.
Onazi had a better game than he did against the South Africans, probably due to Mikel's presence - which brought stability to the team. Moses Simon justified his starting place and, along with Victor Moses, gave the Camerounians a torrid time. Odion Ighalo seems to have rediscovered his form and, knowing he had to prove himself, put out an impressive performance before he was taken off seemingly injured.
Ikechukwu Ezenwa gave a very good account of himself and may very well have sealed a permanent place in the team. Coach Rohr got his selection - at least most of it - and team tactics spot on. The counter-attacking plot worked perfectly against a camerounian side who, confident of an away victory, came out to play.

Congratulations to the team and management for the mental strength to come back from the morale-deflating defeat to South Africa. This victory will surely be as much of a morale booster as it will highlight the capability of the current squad when the players give their best. It is pertinent to note however, that it is still very much a team in transition and so it is not yet time for complacency. There remains an urgent need for a competent option at left back as well as a creative midfielder to stand in for captain Mikel.
There is also the need for tactical flexibility. Coach Rohr's seems to be rooted to a 4-3-3 formation which may not always work against every team. The team needs to be tactically flexible so as to accommodate the inevitable non-availability of certain players at certain times.

The Super Eagles has a potentially difficult reverse fixture away in two days, and two other matches away to Algeria and home to Zambia thereafter. The Eagles also has its fate in its hands, with one more win guaranteeing a ticket to Russia 2018.


Sunday, 11 June 2017

Nigeria 0 - 2 South Africa: How the Eagles fared

Super Eagles starting line-up against the Bafana Bafana in Uyo

Daniel Akpeyi was not at fault for any of the goals but still doesn't look confident and could not organize his shaky defence. Being in the same age range as Ikeme, he does not have much to offer going forward and so should make way for a younger goalkeeper to gain experience.

Shehu Abdullahi kept getting beaten, requiring Ekong and Onazi to clean up for him.  He was culpable for the chance the South Africans hit the post in the first half and offered nothing going forward. Not that right-back the Super Eagles needs.

Uwa Echiejile was consistently caught out of position, culminating in the South African's first goal, neither did he offer anything going forward. Needs to be replaced urgently.

William Troost-Ekong did a yeoman's job of leading the back-line and was exposed in trying to cover for the defensive deficiencies of the wing backs and those in front of him.

Chidozie Awaziem looked unsettled under pressure and was often exposed by Echiejile. He lost Rantie for the first goal and also escaped a red card late on, Still a bit immature but there is no doubt about his talent.

Ogenyi Onazi laboured for pace, and was lucky to escape being booked. His passing was pathetic too. Any hope of seeing the Onazi of old? He really shouldn't be starting games on this form.

Wilfred Ndidi kept getting into good positions but did not make good use of the chances that came his way. He was really disappointing but he is young and obviously still growing in the game.

Oghenekaro Etebo put in a decent shift with his work-rate, but missed many chances including a potential leveller. He should resort to his box-to-box role, and not a creative one.

Moses Simon was the only bright spot for a greater part of the game, but was not given sufficient support by his teammates as they were not on the same frequency.

Alex Iwobi was subdued; playing wide of an attacking trio does not seem to be his forte. 

Kelechi Iheanacho has managed to get the goals for the team consistently, but leading the line against the South Africans was asking too much of a young player who is naturally a support striker.

Ahmed Musa was fired up after being benched for Simon and helped bring the attack to life when he was introduced.

Olarewaju Kayode seemed to fare a bit better with the tight spaces in the South African defence. He looks to have come of age and is staking a good claim for a permanent place in the team.

Victor Osimhen showed zeal and enterprise and that he could be in the running for the top striker role

Coach Gernot Rohr got many of his decisions wrong. Started almost the same line up as against Corsica, that turned out not strong enough against a better drilled South African side. He didn't show the required desperation and desire to win as he failed to change an ineffective 4-3-3 formation even when in deficit. Needs to learn to select the best players and use them in their best role.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Cracks in Rohr's Super Eagles

Nigeria will go into this weekend's 2019 African Nation's Cup qualifier against South Africa's Bafana Bafana with a lot of optimism. Coach Gernot Rohr has so far done a commendable job of rebuilding the team. He has deployed a youthful template to breed a team which, going by results and performances at this budding stage, looks certain to be a force to be reckoned with in the future.
However, as with every incipient project, there are still some loose ends that need to be tightened. Despite a rich avalanche of talents at the Coach's disposal, the team is still limited in certain vital areas.

After the sudden resignation of arguably Nigeria's best ever goalkeeper, Vincent Enyeama, Carl Ikeme stepped in as a worthy stitch in time. Unfortunately, Ikeme is often plagued by injuries, at which times former youth internationals Daniel Akpeyi and Ikechukwu Ezenwa have deputized. The duo have however, not entirely proven that they can hold their own at the highest level.
The younger Dele Alampasu and Emmanuel Daniel look to be good prospects going into the future, but Alampasu might still be a little immature as yet, while Daniel doesn't seem to tickle the coach's fancy. Consequently, the goalkeeping position somewhat reeks of uncertainty at the moment.

There is still a large crack at right back. None of Kenneth Omeruo, Shehu Abdullahi, Musa Mohammed, and lately Tyrone Ebuehi and Ola Aina has so far been able to satisfactorily replicate the enterprise of Reuben Agboola, Jero Shakpoke, Joseph Yobo and Chidi Odiah to stake a decent claim to this position. Should Coach Rohr recall Godfrey Oboabona to give the younger ones more time to bed in?

There is a similar lacuna at the left back position. Worsened by the paucity of alternatives, this position is probably where the most work needs to be done. Kingsley Madu, currently uninvited, has so far failed to translate youthful promise to a much-desired reality while Ola Aina is a versatile but untested option. The buck still starts and stops with the waning Uwa Echiejile who has been on a steady regression after the AFCON 2013 victory; a bad omen with the World Cup looming in just a year's time...
Left-back Uwa Echiejile is no longer the player he was
The Super Eagles is currently spoilt for choice in the once problematic midfield, especially defensively. However, the creative end of the team's engine room still leaves a lot to be desired with Captain Mikel Obi's current injury in the short term, and his impending exit, after another year or so. Oghenekaro Etebo, Alex Iwobi and homeboy Alhassan Ibrahim all have their strengths, but none can be said to have the natural creative and calm dictating influence Mikel brings to the midfield.
Considering this deficit, it is surprising that Abdul Ajagun, Kingsley Sokari and Usman Mohammed continue to be frozen out of the team.

Every successful team in world football has a designated goal-getter or two. This presents another crack in the Super Eagles - the lack of a consistent marksman and poacher. Young Kelechi Iheanacho (with 7 goals in 10 matches) continues to shoulder the team's goal-scoring responsibilities but this over-dependence on him is a fatal gamble.
Isaac Success has the potentials to be that man, but he will need to be more committed and consistent. Henry Onyekuru brings an added dimension to the attack, but he is not an out-and-out striker. Kayode Olarewaju is now in the senior set-up after impressing in the lower cadres over the last few years; but does not seem to have the all-round character, ability and consistency to lead the Eagles attack. Stephen Odey is coming into the mix on the back of a rich vein of domestic goal-scoring form; he remains a good future prospect.

The old guard, Brown Ideye and Odion Ighalo, may boast invaluable experience but are realistically, past their best - and World Cup is still a year away. More so, even in their prime, they have not been as lethal as say, Julius Aghahowa, Obafemi Martins, Emmanuel Emenike or even the young Kelechi.
Yet there is a certain Fanendo Adi who, going by his performances in the last two and half seasons in America's MLS, is the closest thing to the vintage finisher/poacher the team direly needs. Adi recently became the joint leading goalscorer in Portland Timbers' history, equaling the 45 goals milestone of John Bain in 94 appearances (54 games short of John Bain's 148 games).
Fanendo Adi recently became the joint leading goalscorer in Portland Timbers' history

Where does this leave Coach Rohr? An urgent task of filling these cracks with the right players - and some have been mentioned here - to blend with the team on ground so far. With World Cup qualifying matches coming up in two months hence, Rohr has precious little time to get this done.