Lesotho victory proves Rohr’s top-heavy selection can work
The Super Eagles sealed qualification for 2021 (or is it 2022? Who’s clear on naming conventions in these unusual times?) Africa Cup of Nations before a ball had even been kicked in the March international window.
In spite of having their kernels pre-cracked by benevolent spirits however, Gernot Rohr’s side still managed to reel off two wins and bring some of the goodwill back to the national team in the process.
The 1-0 victory on the road against Benin may have come at the death, but it was just about deserved, while the defeat of Lesotho was as comprehensive as could have been expected. In both those matches, Rohr continued the tactical theme of fielding a very top-heavy selection, with four out-and-out attackers in advanced attacking positions.
Against Benin, Henry Onyekuru joined Samuel Chukwueze, Victor Osimhen and Kelechi Iheanacho in a quartet of menace that nevertheless defied the received wisdom: typically, you want a measure of technical security and ball retention in your front four. Akex Iwobi started against Lesotho in place of Onyekuru and provided some of that, but still the general approach was the same.
While the advantage of having four out-and-out attackers on the pitch at the same time is obvious, it can place a huge physical strain on the midfield pair once possession is lost.
The Super Eagles however forestalled this in the Lesotho game with their use of intelligent counter-pressing.
Counter-pressing as a preventive measure to help the Eagles defence
The concept, which describes the use of immediate pressure upon loss of possession in a bid to prevent the opposition from exploiting space on the counter, had risen in popularity over the last decade thanks in large part to Jurgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund and Liverpool sides.
While it has come to be widely adopted in modern football, it is the direct opposite to what Rohr has typically done without possession. Usually, the Super Eagles have tended to drop into a solid shape, with two banks of four forming a barrier and the team set up to press when the ball crosses the halfway line.
This time, the approach was a lot bolder, perhaps by necessity. Unlike the likes of Samuel Kalu and Moses Simon, both of whom were unavailable for this round of games, neither Onyekuru nor Chukwueze are particularly willing in terms of shuttling up and down the line to track their full-backs, and so having them do their work higher up was to their benefit.
However, while this suggests it was a temporary measure, there is reason to believe it is sustainable. In Wilfred Ndidi and Oghenekaro Etebo, Rohr already has two energetic pressing central midfielders arguably best suited to just this approach without possession; if anything, it is in terms of holding their position and minding space that they are weakest.
Osimhen excels at pressing and chasing lost causes, and can lead from the front in this regard; Iwobi and Iheanacho also have the work rate required.
How Rohr could deploy the tactic
One might actually question why this approach has not been used previously, and quite when the worm turned for Rohr. However, if he intends to continue on this path, it is an approach that has a number of knock-on effects, even in terms of the attacking play
- It shortens the distance between defence and attack, allowing Zaidu Sanusi to be even more of a force going forward from left-back
- It relieves the creative burden on any one player
- It allows the attackers to spend more time in the final third, and allows the commitment of greater numbers to the attack
- By allowing the team win the ball back and start attacks higher up, it hides the in-possession flaws of the Ndidi and Etebo defensive midfield
The idea of evolution in terms of the Super Eagles’ approach without the ball does make a nice change from the sameness of the last couple of international windows. Crucially for Rohr, it reinforces a sense of something actually building, and that can only be a good thing.