Since qualification I have been able to watch the Super Eagles closely and been at all their matches bar the thrilling win over Argentina in Russia. I have watched the team in many training sessions, interacted with squad members and asked questions.
After Wembley, with the personnel available to Gernot Rohr, I believe the team must start with 3 central defenders. This formation will serve so many purposes chief of which is that it allows the team to have more bodies in midfield. The Super Eagles were badly exposed in the 1st half at Wembley.
The wing backs. I wrote earlier that I believed Elderson Echiejile needed to be at this world cup. I said he offered the team two very important ingredients: experience in a young team AND he is naturally left footed.
I like Bryan Idowu’s enthusiasm and his energy levels but being right-footed it means the team gets bogged down on that flank and team keeps moving infield into traffic. Against Croatia on June 16th it will not be a bad thing if Echiejile starts.
On the flank, the Ramadan Fast will still be on so the team needs to start with Benfica of Portugal’s new recruit Tyronne Ebuehi. He is a perfect and most natural of full backs so the team loses nothing if Shehu Abdullahi is given a place on the bench.
Wilfred Ndidi has too much energy to be asked to play a holding role in ANY formation. He is not tactically disciplined enough to do so. Plus, we will be missing out on his drive further forward. His energy is an asset especially because of the midfielders Croatia and Argentina will parade.
It is mindboggling that we have a footballer of Alex Iwobi’s ability and we have him playing as deep as he was against Czech Republic. That boy should be playing in the number 10 role from the start. He has the quick feet, he has the drive and he has the eyes for the quick pass.
And there is John Mikel Obi, the team’s captain and most experienced squad member. On many shows I have been on I have said that the biggest problem this team has going forward is Mikel’s penchant for holding on to the ball for far too long.
It frustrates his team mates on the pitch, it drives persons like me mad and gives the opposition time to settle back into position on the few times the Eagles break. Add to this his lack of dynamism to get into the box when the ball is wide thereby isolating the lone striker and you see why this is a problem all round.
Unlike many people I do not think the problem we have is with the strikers. The team does not progress the ball forward, fast enough and in good enough numbers to create chances. The other thing that needs to be worked on is Simy Nwankwo.
Rohr was very clear in his reasoning for picking the Crotone striker “we have no one like him so he goes to the World Cup”. By that I am sure he meant the striker’s height. Well, what is the point of his height if crosses are not coming into the box at head height?
Each time he came on, there was no noticeable change in tactics to make use of his height. There were no long balls from back to front to him with midfielders charging beyond him to meet his flick on. There were no first time crosses into the box from the wide men looking for his head.
Let me go back to the 3 central defenders. Against England, John Ogu and Kenneth Omeruo came on to join William Trost-Ekong. Against the Czechs, Leon Balogun returned in place of Omeruo.
To play this system well the spare man at the back has to be excellent on the ball. He must be so comfortable enough to be able to move into midfield with the ball and act as the specialist DM and a playmaker.
Of the three against the Czechs, Ogu is best placed to do this comfortably. He is a specialist holding midfielder at club level, he is a much better passer and carrier of the ball than Balogun and Troost-Ekong. In possession, he can step into midfield which will release Ndidi to move slightly further forward.
There are probably 3 reasons why Rohr is reluctant to have Ogu in that spare man/libero role. 1, he is not a natural centre back and is not quick on the recovery; 2, Rohr loves those side CBs to change possession with long diagonal balls to the wing backs; 3 and by far the most important and could have a big impact on how Nigeria plays, Mikel will have to be dropped to the bench. Rohr does not look the sort to make such brave decisions.
Over the years and decades, teams start out thinking they were going to play a certain way at a major championship but things happen along the way and they change how they will play – with outstanding positive results.
To be able to do this though there needs to be bravery on the part of the head coach. The bravery to admit that Plan A is not working so let us use Plan B. Usually when tactics are changed some players end up losing their starting positions.
Already it looks like Ogenyi Onazi has lost his starting place.
In an ideal situation Mikel will submit himself to his team/country and play that role in which he won every club honour for Chelsea. If he does that then the quality of passing from the 3 CBs will not be too important, Ndidi will be the box to box while Iwobi plays the no 10 role.
My team to start Vs Croatia: Uzoho; Balogun, Troost-Ekong, Omeruo; Ebuehi, Echiejile, Mikel, Ndidi, Iwobi; Iheanacho/Moses; Ighalo. Caveat: This is dependent on Mikel agreeing to play the holding role. If Mikel starts and continues to play in that no 10 role then, I’m afraid, all bets are off.
I have chosen Omeruo instead of Ogu because he is quicker and is a natural defender, plus, with Echiejile as the LWB team will need a natural behind him on the inside.