Sunday, March 26, 2017

Were Nigeria's Problems Solved v Senegal?

Of course, it is a bit disingenuous to think that the problems with Nigeria's Super Eagles would be solved in one international friendly against Senegal in London last Thursday. However, it isn't unrealistic to expect signs that those problems are on the way to being solved. Here, we talk about defensive problems, solidifying the midfield in absence of Mikel Obi, and then attacking issues. Some of those problems have been particularly irking as they have lingered for a significant period.

Coach Gernot Rohr stated at the end of the Senegal game "I am satisfied with our whole attitude and the fact that after going down by a goal, we were mentally strong enough to come back and eventually ended the match on a high note." He went on to list the players that were absent and to talk about playing the game with players who are not getting enough playing time at their clubs. Rohr's assessment, noted above, spoke volumes. No where did he speak about the team improving nor did he state that he has found solutions to the problems the team had. 

What may have become clear to Rohr are things that were easily observable from that game.  That is what I focus on in this piece. First, the team showed character coming back against a higher-ranked Senegal to earn a draw that will surely help Nigeria's ranking in the near future. Beyond that, certain things that were not so positive became clear on Thursday night.

Goalkeeping: Rohr must work harder to find a goalkeeper besides the often injured Ikeme. Ikeme was not on the field on Thursday because of yet another injury. In two critical games, he has been absent underlining the importance of finding an alternative. His replacement Akpeyi, given that he arrived the previous night, was shaky but the truth is that he has never demonstrated confidence in handling back passes and distributing the ball from his position. Thursday was not different. This is becoming a sore point for the national team, particularly when one realizes that in not too distant past the team had three goalkeepers worthy of starting.

Defense: As an Igbo saying goes I bia nkili nwa nshii nwa inshii  eh kili weh gi (If you go to watch a pygmy, a pygmy is also watching you). As Nigeria prepares for the World Cup encounter against Cameroon, Cameroon will also be watching Nigeria. Surely, after watching Thursday's performance, Cameroon must be smiling and looking forward to playing against Nigeria's defense. The defense was poor under pressure. Unable to play the ball out of the defense to generate organized attack but instead they depended on hoofing the ball as far as possible. The central defenders, particularly Balogun, had a nightmare. It was dreadful. In the first half alone, he completely cleared the air allowing a lurking attacker to head against the post early in the game. Then he lost the ball after a tight pass from a jittery Akpeyi, he was next beaten on a simple header and then was dispossessed on a poor attempt to dribble. In the second half, he kept it simple by hoofing the ball as far as possible. Though Balogun was the worst of them, the fact is that the others hardly distinguished themselves. Omeruo appeared a possible consideration for right back in the future but his late tackles led to two free kicks and on the left Echiejile was beaten for speed in a one on one encounter that earned him a caution. It was just a bad night for the defense.

Midfield: Wilfred Ndidi certainly is knocking on the door to become a starter. He was confident even though he misplaced a few passes in the opening half when Onazi was clearly the team's best midfielder. The entrance of Etebo gave the team better flow as he hardly misplaced a pass and confidently controlled the midfield. He surely has to be a starter when South Africa and Cameroon come calling. Iwobi had a horrendous game even though it was not for lack of effort as he helped pressure the ball but his passes were just not on target. Ogu did his best impersonation of Mikel Obi with short passes but nothing really creative as Mikel periodically provides. Over all, the midfield is work in progress. It was mostly disjointed in the opening half and gradually better in the second.

Forward: Though Iheanacho missed two clear opportunities in the opening half, he was clearly involved. The substitute Kayode did not do much but his few contacts with the ball provided danger and it was his quick dispossession of a Senegalese player and a gorgeous pass to Iheanacho that provided the opportunity that tied the game. However, the player who forced a serious consideration is clearly Isaac Success who's runs, power, and technical ability on the ball were a constant worry for Senegal's defense. Ahmed Musa was notable both when Nigeria had the ball but especially when Nigeria did not. Unfortunately, he made two crosses that left you wondering "What da heck?"

Set Pieces: We had seen this team do well with set pieces, particularly in the away game against Zambia. On Thursday, it seemed odd that Iheanacho had become the king of set pieces particularly away from the box. One understands that Mikel Obi was absent but those duties should go to someone else because Iheanacho's guile inside the box is preciously significant and having him take those kicks from afar eliminates him from inside-the-box opportunities.

Overall, team play was scrappy but the team clearly has a fight about it. That fight is very important because earning points is a very important goal, if not the most important. However, much more work needs to be done as the team moves forward in terms of creating a team that not only wins on grit but also on graceful play.