Nigeria’s qualification through to the round of 16 at the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations has come as swiftly as expected with the Super Eagles picking up maximum points from their two group games against Burundi and Guinea.
The Eagles snatched a late goal against The Chayfs through substitute Odion Ighalo; four minutes after he was introduced to give Head Coach Gernot Rohr an opening win in the competition.
Next game, Rohr’s men left it late again, with Center Half Kenneth Omeruo heading home from a corner kick in the 73rd minute – four minutes earlier than the goal against Burundi.
Interestingly, the three times African champion have kept consecutive clean sheets – only three teams have done so after two rounds of matches in the competition.
However, what does this form – impressive or below par – bode for Nigeria moving forward?
It’s noteworthy to start here by stating that Gernot Rohr’s team is grossly and inexplicably imbalanced.
The German had a full year to scout and assemble a team capable of competing for the AFCON title, but the group is overloaded with forwards, a handful of midfielders and an unreliable number of defenders.
About the last one, His list of defenders equally comprises a few lightweights and players carrying varying degree of injuries with no exact return dates.
BAD NEWS: Gernot Rohr has told me that Shehu Abdullah and Jamilu Collins are still not fully ready and are “probably not fit” for Wednesday’s contest against Guinea #NGAGUI #Team9jaStrong #SuperEaglesInsider #SuperEagles #Afcon2019
— Colin NOT Collins (@ColinUdoh) June 24, 2019
Over two games the Head Coach has had to tinker with his starting XI and the shape of the team; producing something new each time.
In the opening game against Burundi, Rohr went with a 4-2-1-2-1 formation with Ola Aina as a makeshift left back, Mikel Obi as number 10 and Paul Onuachu starting ahead of Ighalo who was returning from an hamstring injury.
Just before the break, Shehu Abdullahi suffered a suspected hamstring injury – he had played just 13 competitive games the whole season with Bursaspor last season.
That was just another sign Rohr’s final selection was based more on sentiments than he would like to admit.
In the second game the Coach went with a 4-2-3-1: dropped Mikel, Samuel Chukwueze and Paul Onuachu for tactical reasons, while Abdullahi and William Troost-Ekong were not available for selection due to injuries.
Needless to say the deployment of Mikel as a number 10 is an unpopular choice; at the World Cup it proved a tactical error as it turned out against Croatia.
It became a hot take and even the player’s former Coach, Jose Mourinho, waded in; advising the German on the midfielder’s best position – as a Regista.
In Egypt,once again Rohr returned to the past and again he was wrong as Mikel slowed down attacking plays, couldn’t create chances for Onuachu up front and was eventually substituted 13 minutes into the second half.
Rohr had had enough but it wasn’t entirely the fault of the 32 year-old 2013 AFCON winner.
The front three on the day had a combined 35 goals in all competitions from the just concluded season at Arsenal, Villarreal and FC Midtjylland respectively- but between them had only scored 4 goals since 2018 for the national team.
It was a bit of a downgrade in the second game albeit Odion Ighalo was the lone scorer in the opening game and top scorer in the qualifying matches.
Between him, Ahmed Musa and Moses Simon the trio had only scored 15 goals in all competitions for their respective clubs sides last season.
The last time Musa scored a goal in the national colors was in October of 2018, Moses scored his first in over two years in March.
This was a disjointed set-up and the lack of communication on the pitch made it extremely tough for the team to play effectively in transition.
Little wonder they have only managed two goals in as many games against teams they shouldn’t have a problem dominating – with due respect to Burundi and Guinea.
For instance against Burundi, despite dominating possession (64%-36%) Nigeria managed just three shots on target; three less than their opponents.
But there was still no improvement in the next game where the Eagles yielded possession to Guinea and registered one more shot on target (4-3) than the Syli Nationale.
Nonetheless, while the team has struggled to score goals, they have kept it tight at the back though Rohr has had cause to shuffle his starters in both games due to injuries.
It could be due to the Opposition’s quality or lack thereof in the attacking third, but on both occasions, Nigerian defensive players Wilfred Ndidi and Kenneth Omeruo have both emerged man of the match against Burundi and Guinea respectively.
Should it be the best this team can muster in performance, Nigeria’s campaign will end as swiftly as it commenced, otherwise the players need to dig deeper.
Rohr created this bubble and it could burst any time soon, and as soon as round of 16 or the quarter-final.
While the former may be familiar territory for the German, who got co-host Gabon to the second round in 2012, the quarter-final is uncharted.
He has tinkered far too long with the team despite being at the helms for nearly three years with unfettered control.
Rather this uncertainty, the 65 year-old should have done more for Nigerian football fans, with a team that truly is a contender not an underdog in Egypt.