Nigeria vs. Saudi Arabia: A Brief Reflection
It was neither the performance nor result that Super Eagles fans wanted yesterday as our darling team struggled to impress with their 2:2 draw against Saudi Arabia.
Coach Jose Peseiro, who only had his contract with the NFF renewed recently, is still yet to endear himself to a large body of Nigeria fans with the sort of wishy-washy display we witnessed yesterday. I was among those who clamoured for his contract renewal – if truth be told – but his brand of football with Nigeria is yet to produce the excitement and conviction he himself would love to convey more so as his mantra is to win the Afcon trophy for Nigeria (something that seems more like a pipe dream at this time if their performance against Saudi is anything to go by).
Saudi Arabia would take the lead in yesterday’s match following a fancifully flighted freekick from the right which goalkeeper Uzoho slapped into his own net embarrassingly. A neat 1-2 manoeuvre between Simon and Ndidi eventually produced an own goal after Alamri was adjudged to have beaten Boniface to make contact with Moses’ cross. Iheanacho would power Nigeria to the lead with a swish and swanky long range strike before Kanno made it 2:2 after a poorly defended freekick (from Nigeria’s perspective) in 100 minutes.
2:2 it ended much to the frustration of us Super Eagles fans.
Below are my brief takeaways from the encounter.
1, Uzoho has improved in areas: the Cyprus based goalkeeper, who is now a pantomime villain in the eyes of very many Nigeria fans, showed massive improvements as a Keeper-Sweeper yesterday. He showed composure on the ball, particularly when pressed, to shell out neat and delicate passes to help the team play out from the back. He also excelled in running out of his area to intercept close range efforts. But I as well as millions of fans watched in horror as he palmed a perfectly saveable long range freekick into his own net (showing shades of his recent gaffes against Ghana and Algeria). He has so much problems anticipating and executing the right techniques to effectively deal with long range strikes – a shortcoming he shares in common with his kindred spirit Maduka Okoye. If both of them can hit that flaw on its head, then we have hope; they are actually quite decent in other goalkeeping responsibilities; healthy game time in club football will be helpful to both.
2, Lack of intricacy: yes the Super Eagles created multiple half chances and some glaring goals scoring opportunity, they are not to me intricate or cunning enough in their play. Peseiro’s boys are reactive (not as proactive as I would like in imposing their will on others); they tend to play to the tune of the opposition. I guess their emphasis on quick transition from defence to attack doesn’t leave room for much imaginative game play. This for me will continue to rub their game of excitement and introduce a level of predictability. There is not so much creativity you can inject in your play with just 2 midfielders (one more defensive in nature in either Ndidi or Onyeka – where is Etebo?).
3, High Pressing Works: the Super Eagles are yet to reap the rewards of their high pressing game. With Nigerian 4 strikers bearing down at the Saudi defence when trying to play out from the back, the defensive apparatus cracked on multiple occasions but Nigeria failed to cash in on their pressing investments. Victor Boniface had a shot saved on one such occasion when he and his colleagues could have been better prepared and intelligently placed to profit from such scenarios. This repeated itself severally in the match – something Peseiro has to develop better routines to capitalise from.
4, Wing Play with Full-back Support: something that worked well (in so far as causing problems to the Saudis) was effective deliveries from the wings most especially from the fullbacks. Okay, Ebuehi was ineffective with his deliveries but the set-up, tactical formation and instructions (all from Peseiro) allowed Ebuehi to get into dangerous and delicious positions. It’s a shame he (Ebuehi) let himself down with subpar outputs. Just see how glorious Onyemaechi’s deliveries were on the left flank! Also, I bonded with the idea of delivering old fashioned crossed from the flanks across a wide space for a Ruud van Nistelrooy (or even a Paul Onuachu) to pounce on. There was another heavenly cross from I think Victor Boniface – though we didn’t score from these, they remain my most fabulous moments from the match. These reminded of ancient crosses from George Finidi and David Beckham that can still be effective in modern day football if cleverly adapted. With better timing, anticipation, positioning and a killer instinct, our strikers can profit from such deft deliveries in subsequent games.
5, Low 1 on 1 Success Rate: is it just me or have our players totally lost the art of dribbling. I remember not that long ago when we used to complain that our players hold on to the ball too long in dribble-attempts. Heck even unlikely dribblers like Odion Ighalo still danced past defenders at times. Yesterday, I watched in shock as Ebuehi, Osihmen, Lookman, Chukwueze and Umar were hopelessly displaced in 1 on 1 scenarios. As it will happen, it was Moses Simon (a player rumoured to have lost his dribbling skills) who produced a goal following a successful 1 on 1 take on situation. To have any realistic chance of reaching the semi-finals of the Afcon, I think we need players like Aina Ola, Osayi-Samuel and Iheanacho who can still breeze past at least one or two players (with pace and trickery) if needs be with positive outcomes.
6, Effective Substitutions: 2 things here – one, it was refreshing to see Peseiro tweaking his team and formation when things were not going exactly well and two, it was reassuring to see that we still have game changers on the bench. The subs were instrumental in both goals scored and Nigeria started resembling a well oiled machine in game-play following those introductions. We started playing with more intention, conviction, agency and verve; the areas where substitutions were made showed marked improvements and the game could so easily have ended 2:1 largely due to the substitutions made and the timing of those substitutions – Peseiro wins a brownie point from me in this area.
Summary: all in all it wasn’t an uplifting performance from the Super Eagles from me. We still have glaring issues in the goalkeeping department; the brand of football is neither always effective nor attractive to watch; some players continue to produce mediocre results; the chemistry right across the team is lacking; the strikers aren’t always best placed to advantage of openings and – lastly – the flat 4-4-2 formation with an emphasis on quick transition is yet to fully win over a large body of fans (me included).
Peseiro’s Super Eagles a tournament winning outfit? I don’t think so!
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