By Babatunde Koiki:
Right let’s get this over with. I honestly did not think the Super Eagles would beat Iceland. But I did not think they’d lose either. The simple reason was, if Gernot Rohr persisted with the personnel, formation and tactics that he employed against Croatia, we wouldn’t win.
I have always felt that employing Mikel Obi as an attacking midfielder is good enough to get by on the African continent and age-grade tournaments like the Olympics. But against a higher level and quality of opposition at the world stage, we would be found out.
On Friday against Iceland, Mikel Obi reverted to his customary role which was a combination of defensive midfielder, central midfielder, regista and deep-lying playmaker. In doing so, HE ABSOLUTELY BOSSED THE GAME. Jose Mourinho recently voiced what we all know, that as an attacking midfielder, Mikel simply does not offer enough dynamism, creativity, guile and effervescence the role requires. The loquacious Portuguese tactician put it as bluntly as possible when he said the Super Eagles had sacrificed a brilliant defensive midfielder only to gain a substandard attacking midfielder. That role should be ceded to Oghenekaro Etebo. Until we find a more capable replacement.
For watchers of the NPFL, you will recall how Etebo UTTERLY DESTROYED defences during his time at Warri Wolves playing this role. Twenty-three goals in 64 games as an attacking midfielder is great on any CV. His explosive nature and sheer power allows him to carry the ball at speed and break through defensive lines at will. Something like Yaya Toure at Manchester City in 2012/13 and 2013/14 and Edgar Davids in his prime.
Etebo is Nigeria’s ultimate box-to-box midfielder. Kindly recall his two-goal performance against Algeria in the 2015 CAF U-23 Africa Cup of Nations final and his four-goal performance against Japan in the Rio 2016 Olympics for reference. His performances running from deep in those two games were extraordinary. It was like watching a charging Cape buffalo, a North American bison or a gaur, the enormous Indian cousin of the aforementioned duo. Against Croatia he also had nine successful take-ons, more than any other player in the team or in the whole of the Russia 2018 World Cup in a single match, an inspiring piece of information as the Eagles were shorn of the most potent one-on-one specialist in the absence of the injured Moses Simon.
Trusting Etebo to drive the team in the final third and Mikel to control things from the middle was the change Rohr needed. Switching Victor Moses to his customary wing-back was also a wise tactical move. Yet, in his post-match comments, Rohr indicated that he had to plead with both players to revert to their club roles for the national team. I found this offensive. The good and glory of the nation MUST be paramount for national team players. You don’t have to be “begged” to do anything. It is an honour and a privilege to represent this country. A country that flies you in private jets, pays you $20,000 winning bonus, puts you in five-star hotels and provides you with first-class training facilities.
In the 90s, a certain Liberian professional footballer Zizi Roberts (or was it Joe Nagbe?) was a striker with his Greek club. But he played IN CENTRAL DEFENCE during those titanic encounters with the Super Eagles at both countries battled to qualify for the World Cup. Never read anywhere about him being unhappy about not playing his favourite role.
The introduction of Kenneth Omeruo as the left-sided centre-back ahead of midfielder John Ogu was another masterstroke. For all his ability and impressive physical attributes, Ogu is NOT a defender. You must have a certain mindset to dedicate your professional career to stopping people from finding the back of your net. Omeruo, on the other hand, has been hunting opposition wingers, forwards and strikers his entire professional life. He has also played at full’back which gives him the understanding of how to defend that no man’s land, that grey area between a full-back and a central defender that forwards love to exploit.
Then there was the introduction of Ahmed Musa. Like it or not, Musa is the leading scorer in the team with 15 goals now. For emphasis, Ighalo has only four goals. His blistering pace is always a problem. If he is in the mood, he can be unstoppable. CSKA Moscow found this out many years ago and so converted him from a winger to a forward. He is not required to beat full-backs or swing in crosses. The play is set up to put him in space in a foot race with a defender. His first touch is usually good so inevitably it is CLICK…BANG!….goal. He has pace, movement, a good first touch and good finishing. You would have thought that national team coaches would have taken the CSKA Moscow template or learnt from his performance against Argentina in Brazil 2014. Rohr remembered in time on Friday and he brought those qualities to bear.
Tyrone Ebuehi also showed his quality. Wilfred Ndidi was his usual unobtrusive but decisive self. Leon Balogun and William Troost-Ekong were solid. And Francis Uzoho continues to show why Rohr believes in him. But it must be mentioned that this team continues to gain a reputation as slow starters. Football is a 90-minute game, NOT 45. If you get badly hit in the first half, there are no guarantees you can do enough in the second half to survive. This team MUST seize the initiative and quickly tell the opposition what time it is. They can NOT afford to wait till the second half before they begin to show up against a wounded, desperate and very dangerous Argentina. They must show why and how they deserve to make it to the second round or we will be in trouble.
Having said all this, it is curious that 3-5-2 is now regarded as footballing gospel in Nigeria. The last man who tried to implement it in our national team was Phillipe Troussier. The players and fans conspired against him, calling it “alien football”, “a slap on our footballing intelligence” and an affront to our football culture. He was criminally fired after qualifying us for the France ’98 World Cup and replaced with Bora Milutinovic. The rest is history. It is funny now that Rohr is “bringing sexy back” yet no one is grumbling. Perhaps our footballing intelligence as a nation has evolved and we don’t feel affronted anymore.
Anyway, I spoke to Herr Rohr over a year ago on a radio programme, SportsZone, and asked him if he ever considered using a back three in the national team going by the enormous pool of players at his disposal which offered incredible tactical flexibility. He said it was something he had long wanted to try but it was not something you could try during the high stakes qualifiers. The players were only available for three or four days training before competitive matches. It was something he would look into in the future when he has more time. This is THE LONGEST time Rohr has spent with this team. Fact. The camping in Uyo, Austria and Essentuki has given him plenty of time to explore new ideas. That tells me that this team is still evolving. Some players will leave, others will be added. In my humble opinion, this team will finally reach full maturity by the 2021 AFCON and 2022 FIFA World Cup. If they continue on this trajectory, they will be a truly formidable unit. But it is off field issues that will decide this. Elections into the Nigeria Football Federation are scheduled for September. All manner of knives are being sharpened and guns being oiled for the looming battle. Metaphorically speaking of course. If this board is defeated, there are no guarantees as to the direction a new board will take. Everything is up in the air at the moment and even Gernot Rohr is not safe.
But we must walk on with the hope in our hearts that Nigerian football MUST ultimately prevail. Let us hope the gladiators remember that. For now, let us support the Super Eagles and hope that they can show A NINETY MINUTE FIGHT against Argentina. That is the clear and present danger. That is all that matters for now.