Thursday, 12 June 2014

Super Eagles 2014 World Cup campaign: All about the players

The Super Eagles have landed in Brazil for the World Cup and its followership wait for the commencement of hostilities with a very gloomy air of uncertainty as to what will become of the team in the land of the Samba boys. The team’s dreary performance in the 1 – 2 loss to USA in its last official warm-up match after drawing the two preceding games with Greece and Scotland has cast serious doubts as to the team’s ability to scale past the first round.

Neither the loss nor the thoroughly unimpressive performance surprised me going by the team’s antecedents under Coach Stephen Keshi’s tutelage. Much as the players have a part in the outcome of the game, I will not dwell on their individual culpability at this point because Coach Keshi ought to be perfecting match-winning strategies with such games.

Coach Keshi remains a legend for winning the African Nations Cup, and as a Nigerian, I am proud that he is widely touted as the best coach in Africa (though I often wonder why). But for how long will we continue to bask blindly in the proud euphoria of that lucky victory and wake up to the contemporary reality of mediocre performances culminating in a winless streak against non-Africa opposition due to Keshi’s indiscretion in the selection of players and lack of tactical nous? This inability to beat quality teams outside Africa (aside minnows Venezuela and Tahiti) whether in competitive or warm-up matches has continued in the run-in to the world cup (oh, now I see why he is the best WITHIN AFRICA).

Coach Keshi has, to this day, claimed to be building a team of dedicated and disciplined players, witch-hunting and vindictively refusing to invite some of the country’s better players, because according to him, “they do not fit into” his plans. Plans which remain undefined, and could very well be business-oriented – as widely speculated (going by the inclusion of FOUR players managed by his friend, Agent Tony Harris).
No doubt, dedication and discipline are good recipes for success, but I have failed to see where the “discipline” and “dedication” of mediocre players alone have translated to success on the global stage. I am yet to see how these two attributes have improved the fortunes of his team’s shaky defense, lacklustre midfield and blunt attack.

I am not a coach but I have observed and consistently made reference to the lack of midfield creativity as one of the Super Eagle’s Achilles heels. It therefore beats my imagination how the entire coaching crew could be totally oblivious of this that they actually went ahead to pick four defensive midfielders (Gabriel, Onazi, Azeez and Mikel) and deployed a striker (Uchebo) to improvise as an attacking midfielder!

The defense is even poorer. It is centred on a budding central defensive partnership (a currently unfit Kenneth Omeruo and Godfrey Oboabona) which has been impressive, though still learning the ropes. It is devoid of a natural, quality right-back. Suddenly we have forgotten Efe Ambrose’s defensive vulnerability because he played better than the aging Yobo, the sloppy Egwuekwe and the far inexperienced and Odunlami in recent friendly matches. The first choice left-back Elderson Echiejile is injured and the coaches have refused to effectively replace him with a natural left-back, rather a winger was recalled in his stead, in a bid to redeem the poor selections previously made.

It is increasingly becoming clear that the attack is henched on whatever the wide players can conjure up. It is believed that Moses, Odemwingie, Uzoenyi and Musa can provide that. Unfortunately, so far, it has remained just that – a belief. Common sense should tell anybody that perhaps a change in formation can bring out the best in these players. But like I said, I am not a coach…

Beyond the issues of poor player usage and selection, now encumbered by injuries, there are other issues of concern, mostly tactical. Excerpts from FIFA’s 2010 World Cup technical report has it that, “Teams needed outstanding individual players to make their mark…” How true as evidenced by Vincent Enyeama’s constant heroics which has bailed the team out in many games. Now aside Enyeama (and to a lesser extent, Emenike and Moses), can we boast of any other truly world-class outfield player in the ailing departments of the team?
The report also has it that, “Best teams were adaptable in their approach”. Even the fiercest supporter will attest to the fact that Coach Keshi’s Super Eagles has been an epitome of chronic tactical ineptitude and inflexibility. Whether winning or losing, the team only shuffles personnel but no visible tactical change. The Technical report after the 2013 Confederations Cup also re-emphasizes this: “Teams temporarily abandoning shape were rewarded more than those who remained rigid.”

The same 2013 Confederations Cup Technical report has it that, “Successful teams ensured progression of the ball rather than just possession”. The unprogressive utilization of all the possession it had in the friendly loss to USA shows that perhaps the team is not exactly on the path to success.

By the foregoing, the current Super Eagles team looks to be lacking some of the very basic strategic and tactical ingredients (it ought to be building on) for success at the World stage. This begs the following questions:
Is this all we have to show for the more than two years of “rebuilding”? Can we honestly say this team is capable of positive surprises? Is there any realistic chance of, at least, a quarter-final berth?

It would not only be patriotic but overly delusional to think the Super Eagles team will win the World Cup, but going by the ever-unpredictable nature of football I believe that a respectable performance is not entirely beyond the Super Eagles – its glaring deficiencies notwithstanding. The recent poor performances could actually turn out to be the needed tonic to spark the team to life in Brazil (I hope), though you cannot give what you do not have.

In the final analysis, after having qualified for and won the AFCON, played in the Confederations Cup, as well as qualifying for and coaching at the World Cup, Coach Keshi really has nothing to lose! He is out of contract after the World Cup and so if the team reaches the quarter-finals, he takes the glory; if it doesn’t, he won’t be the first coach to crash out of the group stages or the second round.
So I suppose a good world Cup outing holds more at stake for the players. It is therefore in the players’ best interest to dig deep and do the nation proud – more so, for the sake of their international and club careers.

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