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.