Debate: How can Keshi get the best out of the Mikel/Onazi axis?

Goal Nigeria explore some of the midfield issues that have emerged for the Big Boss over the last few months and examine how he can profit from the key talents at his disposal

By James Ezimoha & Solace Chukwu

The pairing of John Obi Mikel and Ogenyi Onazi has proved to be one of Nigeria's greatest assets since their fine performances during the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations. However, failings elsewhere in the team have raised the question of the best way of using the Chelsea and Lazio stars.

In this feature, two Goal Nigeria writers debate the best way of using the two players and of building the team around them.


By James Ezimoha

As we approach the World Cup, there are two categories of national team coaches preparing for the trip to Brazil. First, there are those who already have an idea of their formations/tactics and know most of the 23-man squad to execute the game plan. Secondly, those who are still working out systems to suit the players at their disposal or have difficulty in finding the right players to fill-in key positions and execute the coach’s preferred approach.  

It is every coach’s dream to find or create effective partnerships (frameworks) throughout the team; from the centre-back paring to the midfield triangles and the attacking options. So when Stephen Keshi discovered, for example, the symphonic partnership of Godfrey Oboabona and Kenneth Omeruo in the heart of defence, it was one problem solved and one less concern to think about.  

He also discovered the effective partnership of John Obi Mikel and Ogenyi Onazi. Adding (the inspired) Sunday Mba to the mix made it even sweeter. They flourished together and propelled the team to glory at the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations.

The successful coexistence of the trio gave further credence to Keshi’s beloved 4-3-3 system. But things have since fallen apart. 

While Luiz Scolari declared that he already knew the identity of his squad (using the all-conquering Confederations Cup team as a base), Keshi was busy narrating his dilemma of choosing from a pool of players. He told the Punch: “The major headache now is how to select the very best 23 from the long list available to us.”

Finding the ‘Third Man’ to complement John Obi Mikel and Ogenyi Onazi in midfield has so far proved abortive. With the World Cup less than 100 days away, Keshi is running out of time and games to continue his ‘ultimate search’.  

His resolve to retain the Mikel-Onazi partnership, which is a necessity, would require redefining their roles and/or altering his formation.  

For instance, in the 4-2-3-1 currently practiced at Chelsea, Mikel sits deep while using his positional discipline and crisp passing to give the team balance. If Nigeria employed this formation, then Mikel could continue in this vein, leaving Onazi, with his pace and agility, to do the mopping up.  

Another option is to pair Onazi and Ramon Azeez as the base of the midfield, with strict defensive instructions, and unleash the genius and guile of Mikel in the hole, flanked by two pacy wingers, behind the striker.  

Another option could be the 4-4-1-1 he managed to try against Mexico, which showed promise. These modern-day tactics could be adopted and used to devastating effects at the World Cup and beyond. 

The jigsaw to the current Super Eagles team is incomplete. The identity of the defensive and creative midfielders remain vague and undefined; there is no time for the sentimental arguments that Keshi shouldn’t try to fix something that’s not broken, until, at least, that ‘something’ has been established!

Follow James Ezimoha on 



By Solace Chukwu

The peculiarities of coach Keshi’s situation are quite unique: having won the Africa Cup of Nations, it was expected that this would be a springboard for the take-off of his massive rebuilding.

It has not quite panned out that way.

Of the team that started the semi-final against Mali (the team’s most resounding win of the tournament), only Efe Ambrose, Vincent Enyeama and Emmanuel Emenike can claim to be first-team players at their clubs. 

Contrast with the situation ‘Big Phil’ faces at the helm of the Selecao. His biggest concern, the lack of football for first choice goalkeeper Julio Cesar, has now been remedied. The other is the identity of his starting centre-forward, which is yet to be ascertained.

These worries aside, he has all of his trusted lieutenants fit and firing weekly at top clubs in major European leagues. 

With so much potential for upheaval leading up to the World Cup, surely it would be best to stick with the parts of the team close to being regarded as stable, one of which is the ‘hallowed’ axis of John Obi Mikel and Ogenyi Onazi. 

These two, while also caught up in the malaise of insufficient game time bedevilling the team, complement each other reasonably well: Onazi as the feisty scrapper, Mikel the languid orchestrator. 

Brawn and brains, if you will. 

With the team’s mainstays struggling in Europe, surely the best way to coax good performances from them is to rely on solid partnerships. The team already benefits from this in another area; the pairing of Godfrey Oboabona and Kenneth Omeruo has flourished in the heart of the defence by developing an understanding of individual roles: Oboabona marks tightly, Omeruo sweeps up behind. 

If an argument were to be made to split them up, how could this be done? 

Onazi, for all of his tackling and endeavour, is a fire-fighter rather than an anchor: he will charge across the pitch to get a tackle in and defuse a dangerous situation, but will in doing so likely expose the team.

Mikel, on the other hand, does not have the pace of his Lazio-based partner but is disciplined enough to play a deeper role. However, doing this will affect the team going forward; he still carries a significant part of the team’s offensive threat. For all of Mikel’s ability on the ball, he relies on Onazi to do the dirty work beside him. 

In truth, a perfect defensive midfielder would be a combination of both players. A perfect example is the man who is keeping Mikel out of the side at Chelsea: Nemanja Matic. Until we make a significant genetic breakthrough, we will have to persist with the Onazi-Mikel ‘dub-piv’ for the good of the team. 

 Follow Solace Chukwu on