Sunday, June 4, 2017

Rohr Faces Challenges in Nigeria's Midfield.....

Nigeria's coach Gernot Rohr is facing a different challenge in Nigeria's midfield compared to the wide back, goalkeeping, and striking positions. Copious reports have been written about his constant search for a deserving starter in those three positions but not the midfield. That isn't a surprise. The challenge for Rohr in the mid field is very different. It is not about a search for a deserving starter. Instead, it is about determining who to select from a pool of sudden riches. Further, it is a decision that is fraught with danger to team chemistry and one that can tilt the balance in the team as it stands.

Nigeria, once known for producing abundance of defenders and forwards in an earlier era, has suddenly produced several quality mid fielders each with the ability to start for the country. Moreover, the team's current leadership is squarely based in the midfield with both captain Mikel Obi and his deputy, Onazi Ogenyi, occupying starting positions at the base. But are they really better than those who are inching close to starting positions?

Those at the gate are Wilfred Ndidi, Etebo Oghenekaro, and Alex Iwobi. Then there are those who have done well at their clubs but have been largely ignored by Rohr.  Leading that group is Anderson Esiti at KAA Gent in Belgium. Consider also, that if Rohr finds a worthy striker with the required consistency, then Kelechi Iheanacho may find himself battling for one of the midfield positions, albeit in an advanced space. To be clear, none of these players can be considered adept in wide midfield positions even though the likes of Iwobi have done so with their clubs. Instead, they all have the quality to play through the middle. But the middle positions for the Nigerian team is limited to two or three.

A few months ago, I wrote about the signs that Mikel Obi's phasing out was already under way.It isn't a statement that the coach has made publicly but the signs are there for those willing to look. How much longer can the coach keep the likes of Ndidi and Etebo on the sidelines?

Let's assume Rohr maximizes his personnel in the middle using a 4-2-3-1, here are questions that come up.

1. If Rohr is to keep Mikel and Onazi at the base of the midfield, how would he explain Ndidi on the bench?
To claim that I know the answer here is to claim that I can predict the World Cup winner in 2026. The easy answer is that Rohr is fretting on how to explain to either Mikel or Onazi that one of them would have to come in from the bench. With Ndidi's profile growing daily, Rohr's hand is being forced to grant him a starting position much sooner than later. With the 2018 World Cup around the corner and Mikel's days in the national team on a downward trajectory, he may be the one likely to hear from Rohr soon about a place on the bench. Tough decision for sure, considering that Mikel's play often dictates the play of the entire team but with the talents in the midfield, Rohr can afford to take this decision early, which means right after the crucial Cameroon games.

2. If Iheanacho plays in the advanced space, where does Etebo play?
Here, the assumption is that Rohr has found the person for the most advanced forward position and Iheanacho is pushed back into the advanced midfield position. Again, this is a tough decision. Based on consistency in the middle, Etebo should get the nod but then Rohr has to think about Iheanacho's goal scoring talent and his top club pedigree. What gives? Rohr may prefer the assuredity of club pedigree and Iheanacho's goal scoring record at this time but a final answer to this question may not be given even if Nigeria is in the midst of World Cup matches in Russia next year. The jury remains out on this one.

3. Is Iwobi effective wide on the left or right? 
Sometimes, copying what foreign clubs do with Nigeria's national team players is not necessarily the best guide. That Arsenal has mostly used Alex Iwobi on the left is a good example. Iwobi seems better with the wider space in the middle than the constriction on the left or right. Moreover, Nigeria does better by having speedy and thinking players wide in the mid field. While Iwobi is a huge thinker, he is by no means a speedster. Best option for Nigeria is using him in the middle at the most advanced position but that puts him in competition with both Iheanacho and Etebo. In that scenario, Iwobi's inconsistency for Nigeria may see him on the bench than in a starting position. That is a concern because Iwobi is a gifted player with ability to find gaps even in the tightest defenses. Such a player should have a spot on the field. Again, this is clearly a difficult decision for Rohr.

Though these decisions are challenging for the coach or so they seem, they are preferred challenges compared to the ongoing difficulties in the defense, goalkeeping, and striker positions. The point here is that the challenges faced by the coach is to continue to build a strong team for the 2018 World Cup and the 2019 Cup for African Nations.