By Ed Dove
The next six months represent a period of great questioning for Stephen Keshi. The dates are now set in stone, the opponents are known, and barring a loss of confidence on behalf of the Nigerian Federation, the Big Boss will be leading his troops out to face Argentina, Bosnia and Iran next summer.
Following a successful 25 months in the national team hot seat, Keshi naturally has a strong idea of his formation, his tactics and his team. However, despite the joyous evenings we’ve shared, there remain some unanswered questions and some areas of the first team that demand attention and improvement.
This article examines a few tactical approaches that Keshi could employ in Brazil and also assesses some different offensive combinations for the Super Eagles.
There are, however, seven players whose places and roles within the national side which are unlikely to change. These figures are not the focus of this piece.
At this stage it would be foolish for Keshi, particularly considering the success he’s achieved, the paucity of options and the club routines of his players, to move away from playing four at the back. The unit of Vincent Enyeama, Elderson Echiejile, Godfrey Oboabona, Kenneth Omeruo and Efe Ambrose should, fitness permitting, start Nigeria’s first game on June 16 against Iran. Perhaps one or two names will be assessed in these positions in the intervening months, but it is unlikely that there will be a radical overhaul.
Similarly, Ogenyi Onazi and John Obi Mikel should not be altered ahead of the international centrepiece together. Having the pair in the heart of the park is one of Nigeria’s primary strengths and as we saw at the Confederations Cup, when Onazi was absent, without this duo working in tandem, the team’s rhythm is affected.
The formulation of the other four positions and the organisation of our multitude of attacking talents within the first XI is much harder to predict, yet with the talent available, several could work effectively.
4-3-3: Remembering the AFCON Final
Against Burkina Faso in the final of the 2013 Cup of Nations, Stephen Keshi employed a formation most-closely resembling a 4-3-3. Onazi played at the base of the midfield three, Mikel slightly ahead to his left and Sunday Mba through the middle, supporting the forwards. Ideye Brown put his energy and dynamism to good use on the right, Ike Uche operated as the team’s spearhead and Victor Moses cut inside from the left.
This may well be Keshi’s favoured approach next summer. It is a tried and tested method and Moses’ drifting inwards affords Elderson the space to attack down the left flank, offering another angle of offence.
The problems with this formation, however, relate to personnel rather than tactics. Mba has slipped to the peripheries of the side in recent months; he hasn’t started since the Mandela Challenge match against South Africa and hasn’t scored since the Afcon final.
Nosa Igiebor, the attacking midfielder that Keshi has tried to reintegrate into the side, hasn’t quite found his stride for Nigeria, starting only once since the AFCON group stage, and has been affected by injury.
Nnamdi Oduamadi has also been trialled as part of a midfield three, but looks far more comfortable higher up the pitch.
It feels like a pertinent moment to mention Lukman Haruna. In the Dynamo Kyiv man, the Super Eagles possess a player with the dynamism and the creativity to link the midfield and the forwards. He is by no means a playmaker, but loves to plough forward and could be a perfect foil to the Onazi/Mikel pairing.
Similarly, one of the three offensive positions needs to be filled as no one has staked a convincing claim to join Moses and Emenike in the forward three. Ideye Brown has held the baton for much of the year, but has steadily drifted from his starting berth due to a lack of cutting edge.
Perhaps the most likely solution would be to play Ahmed Musa and Victor Moses on either flank, perhaps interchanging their positioning, with Emenike as a central striker between the two. Victor Obinna, and perhaps Sone Aluko, on the bench would be ready-made replacements for either wide position.
4-2-3-1: More from Musa
However, without a recall for Haruna—a possibility at best at this point in time—4-3-3 remains a flawed formation, simply because none of Oduamadi, Igiebor or Mba have convinced for a long period as one of the midfield three.
Would it be wiser, therefore, for Keshi to switch to a 4-2-3-1?
Currently the most popular formation in world football, many of the globe’s finest teams employ this tactic to great success and it could well be an option for Nigeria.
Crucially, I believe this formation could get the best out of Ahmed Musa, one of the most talented players available to Stephen Keshi. Last term, the 21-year-old excelled as part of CSKA Moscow’s title-winning side playing in a central role. Injury to Seydou Doubia meant that the Super Eagles youngster was brought into the middle of the park. Here, his influence was enormous, particularly in tandem with Vagner Love.
Musa’s finishing is not, as yet, strong enough for him to operate as a forward, however if we were played behind Emenike, as a second striker, he could emerge as one of the stars of the World Cup.
To date, Keshi has preferred to play him on the flanks or as an impact substitute (and understandably so), but it may be that he decides to switch his prodigious forward to the centre of the pitch in time for next summer’s centrepiece. From here, his pace and movement could trouble even the finest defences and would doubtless create more space for the likes of Emenike, Moses and Mikel.
This could also provide a perfect opening for Sone Aluko (injury permitting) or Nnamdi Oduamadi to take their place on the right side.
4-4-2: A Plan B
Finally, the recent performances of Bright Dike and Shola Ameobi against Italy and Keshi’s clear preference to include more physical presence in his forward line might tempt the Big Boss to experiment with a 4-4-2.
This tactic has been much maligned in recent years but, as Arsene Wenger once said, it is the formation that is “rationally and mathematically the best suited for the dimension of the football pitch”.
If Keshi were to choose this, then he could include one of the two bulkier players without sacrificing Emenike. It would allow the Super Eagles to vary their approach and also increase their menace from set-pieces.
However, it might not be a formation suited to this squad and particularly, John Obi Mikel.
4-4-2 demands dynamism, strength and energy in the middle of the park and the Chelsea man has a tendency to get flustered when closed down in possession. If we were to play with a midfield two against a midfield three, I doubt that Mikel would have the lungs or the guile to take control of the contest.