Once Upon A Time, as Nigeria’s football story goes, there was always a playmaker for the Super Eagles. A playmaker is one who controls the offensive flow of the team and usually ends up providing assists for the team’s goals.
By offensive flow one refers to the character, tactical decisions, tempo, among other patterns created by the team when going forward. In the past, this player was identified as the No. 10 or one plays in the most advanced midfield position at the centre of the field. In more modern times, this player can theoretically play from any spot on the field.
However, with Nigeria’s players regularly playing outside the country and rarely given the playmaker role in their respective foreign clubs, their subsequent absence on Nigeria’s national team has been deeply felt.
The recently announced list of invited players for the Seychelles and Egypt games in the coming weeks demonstrates the long drawn out rarity of this type of player on Nigeria’s squad. It is now forgotten that there were streams of footballers that included Haruna Ilerika, Henry Nwosu, and Jay Jay Okocha that bossed Nigeria’s midfield and dictated the offensive game for years.
They acted like band conductors, they bossed offensive play, spraying passes through narrow angles, swerving past defenders and creating opportunities when it seemed unlikely. Suddenly, except for cameos from Mikel Obi and lately Alex Iwobi, that Nigerian memory has been condemned to a historical archive.
The European Graveyard
Yet, on Nigeria’s play grounds all over the vast country, such players have not become extinct. They exist. We know this by watching Nigerian youth teams. The latest in that line was Kelechi Nwakali. These are players who change the course of a game. What is missing now is developing them from youth to the most senior level of Nigerian football. Nwakali has now been confined to reserve football in Portugal.
He isn’t the first in recent years to disappear from the huge stage or never reach there. He may not be the last. The journey to Europe often swallows them up, crush them, change their style, and they end up a totally different type of player. Not good enough to play make. For all the tales of Europe’s gold and silver, it is Europe that douses that offensive potential. The likes of Mikel Obi are converted to a focus on defensive duties in Europe. The result is that it impacts the Nigerian national team.
To be certain, Mikel Obi has been able to juggle roles. His role in his club football in Europe have been dedicated to defensive duties and ball recovery. Yet for Nigeria he has, at times, been used to control offensive play especially under previous Nigerian managers.
However, without a true all year commitment to offensive playmaking role for both club and country, the potential output as an offensive play maker cannot be optimal. After all, it is regular practice that makes performance perfect, so to speak.
And Nigeria’s Scourge
Thus, Mikel has been less than optimal for Nigeria even when trust into the role of playmaker for Nigeria. The same is now happening with the use of Alex Iwobi at his club Arsenal and then his use as play maker for Nigeria. The output can be tracked in their production of game day assists for the national team.
Those two, for instance, have produced less assists for Nigeria when compared to Ahmed Musa who it is hard to describe as a play maker. Musa neither controls the flow of Nigeria’s offensive play nor does he consistently provide superior vision. Yet, he leads in that statistical category because of Nigeria’s inability to produce a player who can be truly or even consistently relied on as a play maker.
Nigeria’s Manager Gernot Rohr has argued that his team does not need a traditional play maker. That is all well and good but he cannot argue against Nigeria needing a consistent one from wherever position that play maker resides on the field.
What we have seen over the years are play making vacillating from Mikel Obi to Victor Moses and now to Alex Iwobi. None of those three players have produced consistency playing that role. We saw Victor Moses effective in that role at the AFCON 2013 and the run up to the 2018 World Cup. Mikel Obi shared that role from deep at AFCON 2013 and has from time to time played in that role successfully but has declined in more recent games.
Alex Iwobi is supposedly the next man up but he is not a consistent producer in that position to provide a long them hope especially when he rarely figures in that role at Arsenal. Some have even argued that Ighalo’s ability to hold the ball and distribute in the hole behind the opponent’s midfield and defence is a play making role. However, while Ighalo excels in holding up the ball, he is not quite efficient in distributing it to a player in a good position to finish.
Why does Nigeria Need One?
In tough games, without a consistent play maker and a guy who can break down the opposing team by controlling the middle and generating dangerous offensive play, Nigeria is bound to get stuck. To break down a very well-organised defensive team playing with very few holes and spaces between bodies requires supreme inventiveness. That very requirement cannot be produced by an average playmaker.
It requires supreme talent that has the vision to thread passes with not just precision but the right weight through the available narrow spaces. It is that quality that separates the supreme from the average. At this point, Nigeria lacks that supreme play maker.
Can one develop from Nigeria’s crop of offensive players? It is unlikely. A supreme talent does not emerge overnight. If this was a trait of one of the current players it would already be apparent. The closest was watching Mikel Obi back in 2005 but that has since been lost with his time spent playing deeper than his trajectory predicted more than a decade ago.
Even then playing deeper, he could yet have been Nigeria’s Pirlo but at Chelsea that task was never trust on him. To write of Mikel now in terms of potential is no longer realistic with just a few more years of hurray left to his career. Behind him, nothing exists. The rest of the players do not demonstrate the same level of talent in the middle and in controlling the offence.
The Future without Mikel/Moses
The hope is beyond Mikel, it is the future. If Gernot is to leave Nigeria with anything to remember after his tenure, it isn’t going to be a trophy. He may never win one. But he could create a new hero, a new Okocha. The arrival of a real offensive supremo in the middle, one who can control the flow of Nigeria’s offensive play could cement Rohr’s place among the pantheon of coaches that is now reserved for the likes of Clemens Westerhof, Shuaibu Amodu, and Stephen Keshi.
But Rohr’s conservatism may remain his and Nigeria’s albatross and it foreclosures conduct of a wide and deep search for this all important player who can become Nigeria’s future.