Against all pre-tournament predictions and expectations, the Flying Eagles of Nigeria crashed out of the FIFA Under-20 World Cup at the second round. Although this team probably deserved to go further than this considering the talents therein, it did not do enough to progress going by its performance against its Second Round opponents, Germany. Against the Europeans, the Eagles’ instability and lack of synergy (overlooked by the preceding victories over Korea and Hungary) was sorely exposed. The flying Eagles simply failed to punch back and so were totally outclassed.
The Germans were not only more physically imposing; they were as skilful and technically gifted as the Brazilians, yet even more disciplined. (Some of) the Nigerian players’ technical deficiency and inexperience, coupled with the ineffectiveness of the coach’s tactics (if any) and his choice of match personnel (between the bunch who won the African Championship and the foreign legion) were the major factors culpable for the team’s failure. For long stretches of the game it was as though the Nigerians were actually scared of their opponents.
Coach Manu deployed a 4-5-1 formation that left Taiwo Awoniyi isolated and outnumbered by more experienced defenders (I felt Isaac Success should have started upfront because he is stronger, more skilful and more experienced). Godwin Saviour was the only player with any courage and desire to take-on the Germans. Bernard Bulbwa (whom I consider a VERY ORDINARY player) failed his part of the plot completely as all his work-rate yielded nothing of note offensively. Kingsley Sokari was often dispossessed by the better organized German midfielders while many of his passes were intercepted owing to the team’s lack of cohesion. Ifeanyi Ifeanyi was more visible (as a fifth man) in the backline to where he retreated, after he was constantly dazed by the Germans’ fleet-footedness, unlike Akinjide Idowu who better positioned himself to disrupt some of the German build up in the middle.
The defence was a bit more compact and the Germans found it difficult to penetrate, though the full backs remained as vulnerable as they have been all week. Joshua Enaholo contributed greatly to keep the score line respectable.
So, was the team totally helpless against the Germans? Was this the best effort it could muster? I doubt. The Malians proved this by knocking out the Germans in the very next game. For all his good work with the team so far, Coach Manu disappointed in his handling of the German game. For a game in the knock-out stage, after the Germans had taken the lead and dominated in the first half, Coach Manu’s priority in the second half should have been to take the game to the Germans by instigating some attacking intent which would give the Germans defensive concerns (and curtail their forays up field), so as to get a goal. And he had the perfect weapon in Moses Simon who has the speed and guile to trouble defenders. Kelechi Iheanacho may not have lived up the high expectations in the first game, but his vision and incision are undeniable.
Playing Simon and Iheanacho (whose mere presence would cause the Germans some psychological discomfort) in tandem with Yahaya who has the guile to tenacity to carve out and exploit openings in opposing defences, would definitely have given the team more creativity and pep in attack – far more than anything Bulbwa, for instance, was able to produce in 90 minutes.
Except his usual animated gestures in the technical area, Coach Manu did NOTHING as the team kept playing the same fruitless pattern for over 25 minutes of the second half. He waited till it was almost too late before he took off his most potent creative threat (Saviour) and replaced him with another point-man (Isaac Success), to do the creative work from the left! He later took off his only other creative outlet (Sokari) and brought on a defensive midfielder (Chidiebere Nwakali) as though his team had the goal advantage, when it could not manage a decent shot on target.
I will always credit Coach Garba Manu for building a young team – though not without blemish – which looked good enough to go all the way in the competition. But ultimately, for not effectively utilizing the array of talents at his disposal, he proved incapable of the task at this level. Retrospectively, and while not undermining the merits of continuity and team spirit, this team would most probably have benefitted from the inclusion of several more experienced players within the age bracket as against relying on some of the players simply the grounds of “continuity”. Considering Wilfred Ndidi’s impact in the defence, I am certain this department would have done a whole lot better with the inclusion of Godswill Ekpolo, Dominic Iorfa, Moses Odubajo and perhaps Kingsley Madu.
But more tellingly, Coach Manu inexplicably got every decision wrong as highlighted here, against the German side at a stage where there are usually no second chances. The only positives we can take from New Zealand are that most of the players are quite young and will have gained some experience which will be beneficial for a long productive career ahead, and that perhaps Coach Manu is tailor-made for the Under-17 level.