Nigeria v Equatorial Guinea: A Reflection
The dust has started to settle on the Super Eagles’ passable 1:1 draw against an obdurate Equatorial Guinea in their opening Afcon game. For me, I was thoroughly satisfied with what I saw. Peseiro’s boys displayed a clearly discernible pattern of play. They played with purpose, ambition and direction. They carved out neat and clear goal scoring opportunities which could have resulted in a win had they been more clinical.
The trends I observed from the game are highlighted below:
1, Ajayi as an attacking decoy: a tactical approach from Peseiro saw Semi Ajayi supporting the strikers in opposition box 18 to serve as a decoy and provide aerial threat. Several times, he was an outlet for crosses from Lookman. In fact, Ajayi’s presence inside G. Bissau’s 18 yard box drew a defender away from Lookman, allowing the Atalanta man to deliver a sublime looping cross for Osihmen’s goal. This strategy by Peseiro worked a treat because it confounded the opposition’s defence and almost gave rise to at least 2 more goals.
2, Formation: Peseiro showed flexibility by dropping his favoured 4-2-4 formation for a more practical 4-3-3. Onyeka served as the defensive midfielder in front of the back four with Iwobi and Yusuf serving as attacking midfielders. This arrangement shape-shifted to 4-1-3-2 when Iwobi joined Osihmen in attack to press and pin back the opposition, and 5-3-2 when Moses Simon joined the defence as Nigeria tried to restrain the opposition. For me, this arrangement provided balance and it enable the Super Eagles to play a fluid brand of football, impose their will on the opposition, to dictate play and to create several goal scoring opportunities. Unfortunately, Frank Onyeka was not able to read the game well enough in the defensive midfield position. Also, when the Super Eagles were defending, Equatorial Guinea still found room to manoeuvre in Nigeria’s midfield to create pockets of space and then cause harm. More work needs to be done in choking teams out and closing the sort of loopholes that gifted Equatorial Guinea their goal.
3, Passing Tapestry: The Super Eagles were a joy to watch on occasions yesterday. The way players combined to weave a web of intricate passes leading to credible scoring opportunities was truly commendable. Ekong’s long ball from defence found Ajayi’s decoy knockdown to Lookman who whipped in a glorious cross for Osihmen to head home with aplomb for Nigeria’s goal. Earlier, Ekong located Osihmen who laid it off to Aina who then slipped Iwobi who then unleashed a shot from outside the 18 yard box. Another clever build up lead to Yusuf crossing the ball across on grass for Zaidu who missed an open net. Again, Ajayi, Lookman, Yusuf and Iwobi had concocted a passing routine that ended with Simon on the right crashing the bar with a low shot that almost sneaked into the net. Iwobi and Aina combined to feed Osihmen whose header sailed harmlessly wide. An excellent breakout counter-attacking move from an Equatorial Guinea corner kick saw Ekong feed Iwobi who then slid in Zaidu Sanusi inside opposition 18 yard box but his shot or pass was fruitless. I can go on and on but the gist is that the Super Eagles combined VERY WELL to play vibrant football and pry open the opposition. Shame that Sanusi, Osihmen (who fluffed a 1 on 1 chance having been put through by Iwobi), Simon, Yusuf and Chukwueze couldn’t produce that moment of magic in front of goal. But nonetheless I commend their efforts.
4, No more overreliance on crosses: The single biggest chance that was missed by Osihmen came from a through ball from Iwobi in midfield before the Napoli man dragged his ball wide. The Super Eagles tried to carve out scoring possibilities from several routes yesterday which showed variation and imagination in their play. As alluded to in my previous point, several chances were created after a number of players combined well to stretch the opposition and find openings. Rather unfortunately, the Super Eagles failed to collect on their own passing investments with poor dividends in front of goal!
For me, I felt invested in the brand of football I saw yesterday. I was however always worried whenever we were under attack as we lacked the physicality and conviction to retrieve possession in a compelling manner. It was also very disappointing to see UEFA Champions League experience players being so naïve in front of goal. I think the strategy of Semi Ajayi joining the attack will continue to serve us well in games. to come. I am not convinced that Frank Onyeka is the right man for a defensive midfield position – he is too nice, we need a no-nonsense person there. Praise has to go to Yusuf for a compelling debut reminiscent of Etebo’s bruising style. All of the players overall did a fine job. I am not convinced by Nwabili but Peseiro succeeded in placating so many disgruntled Nigeria fans by just having anybody else apart from Uzoho in goal (on a psychological level, I think this is a masterstrike by the coach which made many of his die hard critics to hate him a bit less than they did). But for me a remorseless Uzoho sympathiser, I think Nwabili will be found out for his inadequacies. That said, unfortunately for Uzoho, the 4-4-2 formation that exposed and caused problems for him and Okoye has now been replaced for a more robust formation which means bad-belle people like me waiting for Nwabili to fail might have to wait a lifetime.
In all, kudos to the coach and the players. Another draw against Ivory Coast beckons. However if they should polish their finishing, then victory against the hosts isn’t out of the cards.