Nigeria's new manager, Gernot Rohr, now has 23 players to form his first squad as Nigeria readies for a competitive international against Tanzania in Uyo. Though the game is formally designated competitive, it will be used as a friendly but without the ability to use as many as 17 players as usually allowed in international friendlies. That regulatory limitation to substitutions certainly hampers Rohr's plans to get the team ready for the World Cup qualifier against Zambia in October and perhaps it also explains the choice of players that he has in the 23-person list.
Of course, the list was likely drawn by his Nigerian assistant, Salisu Yusuf, who has better knowledge of the players but there is little doubt that Rohr set parameters to the invitation list. That squad list as well as a few other decisions give us an idea who Rohr is and how he, perhaps, plans his Nigerian tenure. There is speculation that he plans to recruit personal assistants that include an advisor, fitness trainer and video analyzer. These are likely to serve as his closest confidants never mind that the Federation has appointed three Nigerian assistants for Rohr. Then, Rohr has reportedly contacted two of the country's top players who retired in surprising circumstances but the contacts did not change the players' decisions to retire. Finally, Rohr's decision to observe the Nigerian local all stars during their playing tour of Spain adds to important clues.
Rohr's Opening Phase of Nigerian Tenure
Rohr's current decision produces nothing unique so far. They have all pointed to an unspectacular start of the first phase of international coaching career. His moves have been quite cautious. Some may even classify his moves as extremely safe and conservative. His team list includes only three players without senior international experience. Yet there were opportunities to call up more of those. That move is seemingly intended to not shake the boat. Yet, his hiring is designed to shake the boat, to move the team past current failures and to major successes. So why did he chose to be cautious?
There are several plausible reasons. He, perhaps, believes that the team's recent underachievement is not due to the personnel but to areas that he can positively impact like tactics and personnel management. However, his challenge then will be whether he has time to impact those areas in the midst of FIFA rules limiting training engagement to a few days during international breaks.
Guessing at Rohr: Tactical Re-Thinking
What could Rohr's tactical impact be? A look at the invited personnel points to a heavy focus on the defensive side of the ball where he has listed eight players. To be clear, he has eight players also listed at forward positions but based on Rohr's previous formation preferences, several of the forwards will be used as wide midfielders during the ball recovery phase of play. This is self-evident as the only four players listed as midfielders play centrally.
It seems that Rohr will focus significantly at the solidity of his defense but also find players who can transition quickly to attack, particularly from wide positions. Thus, the Nigerian idea of an attacking midfielder that comes from the middle may not quite exist here in spite of Nosa Igiebor's name on the list of invitees. That attacking midfielder may well come from wide areas.
Personnel Management Changes
Rohr's reputation, particularly, during his coaching tenure in Africa has been built on team unity and strong positive camp climate. That will be tested in Nigeria. However, his move to recall (albeit unsuccessfully) of former captain Vincent Enyeama and his decision to stick with most of the current internationals confirm this view. One would expect Rohr not to dabble into the issue of appointing a new captain or to begin with the benching of an influential international. At least, that will not happen in the first phase of his tenure as was the case with Sunday Oliseh's spat with Enyeama and changing of captainship or Berti Vogts' abrupt and early decision to bench Enyeama. Those decisions had dire consequences for team unity and spirit, particularly during an early phase when a new coach had yet to secure full acceptance from his playing personnel. Thus, Rohr is more likely to signal a change back to orderly affairs within the national camp. The effectiveness of that change will be evaluated in the weeks to come.
Now, Why the New Faces?
We pointed to the fact that three of Rohr's invitees have not represented Nigeria at the senior level. Two of those three, Chidozie Awaziem and Emmanuel Daniel, have been previously invited to the Nigerian senior camp but are yet to appear in a game. Awaziem was invited to participate in Nigeria's recent two game internationals in Europe but failed to play. Daniel was called up in preparation for the Nations Cup qualifiers against Egypt. They are now both recalled. The other invitee, Victor Osimhen, is receiving his first invitation. In essence, the list was largely a safe move by the coaching crew to focus on inviting players already familiar to Nigerians.
It does not seem the team will see any revolutionary change. At least, it is unlikely to happen soon. The invitation of Osimhen is more likely to help the coaches evaluate him as one of the prongs for the re-building of the team further down the line. He may represent the first and gradual call ups in that direction.
In essence, what we learn from Rohr's first squad is that the steps are going to be cautious. Importantly, we learn the possibility that Rohr's views are hinged on assumptions that the playing personnel is adequate and that changes will come in terms of tactics and man management. The obvious concern is whether Rohr has the time to make his impact in the areas that he has likely diagnosed.