The Super Eagles of Nigeria go into March’s “double-header” against Benin and Lesotho in search of a point that will, for all intents and purposes, wrap up qualification for the Nations Cup.
It is a favourable state of affairs – to have your destiny in your hands – but the road Gernot Rohr’s side has taken to arrive here has left something of a bitter taste in the mouth.
The disastrous November international window saw Nigeria unable to beat Sierra Leone in two attempts, despite taking a four-goal lead inside the opening 30 minutes of the home leg in Benin. These sorts of results can be deemed a wake-up call and may be described as a teachable moment for what is still, essentially, a young team. But, it narrowed the margin for error, although not by much. A point is eminently achievable over the next two matches, but some important decisions need to be made. These “calls” will significantly help or hinder the cause if they go wrong or right.
How To Format The Attack
Until recently, it seemed set in stone that the Super Eagles’ attacking lynchpin was Victor Osimhen. However, since his injury in the home leg against Sierra Leone last year, his trajectory has plateaued somewhat. He has been unable to get into a decent rhythm at Napoli, and there were even calls for him to be left off the national team list to focus on finding his feet in Italy.
But, it is a different case for Kelechi Iheanacho and Paul Onuachu, both of whom have been prolific for their clubs. However, while their merit is undeniable, they both bring very different strengths to the table than Osimhen, and so Rohr has a tough choice to make: continuity v form. Does he stick with Osimhen based on tactical familiarity, or reward the other two in a bid to broaden his attacking options going forward?.
A further wrinkle comes in with the idea of fielding two of the three, rather than one. But who then misses out? Tough choice…
Recommendation: start Osimhen in a front two, with Iheanacho just off him.
Who Starts At Right Back?
If you think the Super Eagles is spoiled for options in attack, wait till you get a load of the traffic jam at right-back.
Both Ola Aina and Tyronne Ebuehi, being in fine form at club level, are at the front of the queue, but then you get to the more unorthodox picks.
Rohr trusts Chidozie Awaziem, to play at right-back in the service of a greater defensive security, and even Shehu Abdullahi has tried the role.
It really comes down to how Rohr interprets the game. He is more unlikely to field two flying full-backs simultaneously. There is a strong probability (especially if, as expected, Zaidu Sanusi starts at left-back) that we will see a more conservative pick on the other flank.
That doesn’t write off Aina or Ebuehi, however. The Fulham man in particular, has been playing a more disciplined role in the Premier League; something of a hybrid between a full-back and an outside centre-back in a back three. This has sharpened his concentration and curbed some of his wilder instincts. Ebuehi is a complete, well-rounded full-back, and so can be trusted to interpret a more measured role as well.
Recommendation: start Tyronne Ebuehi at right-back.
For the first time, Rohr has the trio of Joe Aribo, Wilfred Ndidi, and Oghenekaro Etebo available to him for selection. Injuries have, since 2019, conspired to deprive him of one or more of the three at various times, and so he will relish the bounty.
Of course, it raises the question of how exactly to deploy them?
Ndidi is pretty much a certain option, but who pairs with him, and how might that determine the shape and flow of the team?
His partnership with Etebo, while a solid one, has often struggled to progress the ball when faced with compact, disciplined opponents (see: 2019’s Africa Cup of Nations semi-final v Algeria). Aribo, with whom he played with against Brazil, is the more expansive option but he can lack defensive awareness due to his attacking instincts.
Also, how does he set it up? Ndidi as the sole holding midfielder, with two shuttlers on either side? A double-pivot? Will we see a re-tread of the flat midfield from the home game against Sierra Leone?
Recommendation: play all three (preferably in a midfield diamond).