By Solace Chukwu
Certain events can be viewed as defining moments in a footballer’s career. A challenge to either step-up and be counted among men or slink away into obscurity. These moments can serve as catalysts or paralysers, and are often a good test of mental toughness; one of those intangible qualities that cannot be done away with, even in today’s stat-obsessed world.
So when Ogenyi Eddy Onazi was excluded from the Flying Eagles squad list for the 2011 FIFA U-20 World Cup in Colombia, it was clear that his moment of trial had come. He had been a part of the team two years earlier at U-17 level as they finished in second place to Switzerland on home soil. It must have been particularly galling for him to miss out, as the team had been promoted alongside its manager, the garrulous John Obuh. Such rejection hinted at one thing only, there could have been no excuse of not knowing Onazi’s capabilities; Obuh simply did not consider him good enough.
So how did Onazi react to being turned down?
He simply knuckled down and worked his socks off. He earned a move to Lazio in 2011, along with friend and fellow Flying Eagle Sani Emmanuel, who had won the Golden Boot award while they were at U-17 level. The latter was selected to go to Colombia, unlike Onazi; but in a startling reversal, Onazi has grown and progressed to the Lazio first team setup. Emmanuel’s career in Italy has not yet taken off.
Onazi | Overcoming hardship to earn a spot
His cameo performances for the Italian outfit earned him his first call up to the national team, and in the intervening months, he has come on in leaps and bounds, from rookie to mainstay.
His energy and aggressiveness have proven to be vital in the way Stephen Keshi’s Super Eagles play; his absence at the FIFA Confederations Cup was keenly felt as Fegor Ogude struggled to fill in. Occasionally a player comes along who redefines a pre-existing role and makes it his own, and it is the firm belief of this writer that Ogenyi Onazi will own and dominate the Super Eagles midfield for many years.
He has been usually deployed in the deeper of two midfield positions, with Chelsea’s John Obi Mikel as his partner. The team’s results have been good; on paper this double pivot should work, given the skill set of both players and their styles. While there is however a temptation to say “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it”, in truth this setup has not worked as well as most think, and it is due to Stephen Keshi’s genius, a slight on the quality of opposition, or a generous helping of luck (or a bit of all three) that the permeability this partnership transmits to the midfield has not had catastrophic consequences.
To be fair to Onazi, the problem really isn’t solely of his own making.
To troubleshoot, one must look elsewhere on the pitch. There has long been a conundrum of who is best suited to round out Keshi’s midfield three. With the double pivot in place, a more attack-minded player is required, one who, while not shy of scrapping for the ball, has the nous to carry the bulk of the team’s offensive threat.
From Humble Beginnings...
Many have trialled there: Betis’ Nosa Igiebor had the role locked down before the Africa Cup of Nations but has hit an inexorable slide ever since, and is only just finding his way back to full fitness after a lengthy injury lay-off; Sunday Mba’s woes since his heroics at the African showpiece have been well documented, culminating in his recent move to French Ligue 2 side CA Bastia; while the Big Boss’s attempts to crowbar Varese winger Nnamdi Oduamadi into the line-up in that position have yielded predictably poor results.
This paucity of options has forced Mikel to play an even more offensive role from midfield, carrying the ball forward from the centre of the park, drifting out wide and orchestrating the play. While he has excelled in this role, his partner has been horribly exposed in front of the back four.
The conception of Onazi as a defensive midfielder is perhaps a nod to his tenacity and tackling ability, much like the legendary Claude Makelele, who came to define the role at the turn of the century. Unlike the Frenchman however, he lacks the understated but most important virtue of a true anchor man: positional discipline.
This much was already clear to see early in his career. While with John Obuh’s Golden Eaglets in 2009, he played as an anchor in midfield in the opening game of the U-17 World Cup against Germany. He endured a torrid game, was constantly dragged out of position and overrun as the ebullient Germans stormed into a three-goal half time lead. He was withdrawn, and the team played much better after the break, drawing level in a pulsating encounter.
He never won his place in the starting eleven back.
This was not a freak incident, nor was it down to the naïveté of youth. Onazi is simply not effective enough in such a deep role yet, and to utilize him there is to under-sell his most important attributes. His style of play and versatility are more reminiscent of Chilean powerhouse Arturo Vidal, a box-to-box midfielder who contributes in all phases of play.
Vidal & Onazi | Both complete midfielders...?
At the final of the Africa Cup of Nations, one of the game’s best chances fell to the Lazio man, after a coruscating run through the heart of the Burkina Faso defence had been picked out. While he missed the chance, his delicate chip showed a skill level and composure which can be used as weaponary in the attacking third.
It is instructive to note that even at club level, Onazi is usually paired alongside Argentine Lucas Biglia, who plays a disciplined holding role in front of the defence. This allows the Nigerian to play slightly further forward, breaking up play and showing the full extent of his attacking abilities.
Perhaps the search for the third Super Eagles’ component has been centred on the wrong position. With Mikel playing a more offensive role, it is maybe a more defensive player who is required, one with the discipline needed to play the deep midfield role shielding the back four, thereby flipping the midfield triangle. There is an indication that Keshi recognizes this: the recent call-up of Almeria’s Ramon Azeez is a step in the right direction, and would free up the Mikel-Onazi axis to play further forward.
Properly utilised in a more advanced role, we may yet see a more explosive, game-changing side to the Lazio terrier.
All eyes, then, on the upcoming friendly against Mexico on the 5th of March. If this new midfield configuration performs well, that’s one of the team’s problem areas solved.