COMMENT By Solace Chukwu Follow on Twitter
Focus solely on the results, on the cold, hard data, and it is impossible to see much wrong in Gernot Rohr's time with the Nigeria national team.
Every hurdle has been scaled with minimum fuss, and perhaps his greatest achievement has come in eliminating the recourse to mathematics and permutations. Under his watch, the Super Eagles have made light work of both qualifying campaigns he has overseen, on both occasion securing passage with a game to play.
Improbably, there remain some concerns over his man management, tactical nous and in-game decision-making. Those misgivings were amplified by the nature of Nigeria's ouster at the World Cup: Rohr came under immense criticism for his inability to make alterations to the flow of the game, as his team looked increasingly like sitting ducks in the minutes leading up to Marcos Rojo's late winner.
However, the Nigeria Football Federation rightly opted to retain him in the job, surmising that being the only team that lost to Argentina at the World Cup was not sufficient grounds for termination.
Removed from the immediate disappointment, it was a view the Nigerian public came to hold as well. As Rohr was keen to point out in the aftermath, it was a major learning experience for his young charges.
There is reason, however, to wonder whether that game was a similarly didactic experience for the 64-year-old. Asked this past weekend, in a roundtable with sports editors, to respond to the notion that he could have done more to affect the game late on, he offered an interesting peek into the working of his technical crew.
"I wanted to bring in Iwobi for Musa, because Musa was very tired from running so much," he revealed.
"I discussed with my assistants, and they told me, 'No wait, they (Argentina) are afraid of Musa!' So I waited. Next time, I don't wait."
While it is hard to say that was the change that should have been made in that exact moment, it was unusual to hear a head coach fault the recommendations of his technical staff publicly. That said, perhaps the semi-formal setting gave him the impression he could speak freely, and in any case the fact that there is a working feedback system is a definite plus.
There were no positives, however, in his explanation of what led to the late concession.
"With a draw, we were qualified. The players forgot, a bit, to first defend the result, and not to win and to go forward."
As a post-mortem, this simply is not accurate.
While Argentina were poor for huge stretches of the second half (the Albiceleste did not have a shot from the 39th minute to the 78th), Nigeria offered precious little attacking threat in the final 15 minutes of the game.
As Jorge Sampaoli threw on Cristian Pavon and Sergio Aguero, the Super Eagles dropped deeper and deeper, and could hardly get out, bar using the pace of Musa as an outlet.
In those instances, the team attacked with just the front two, while the rest of the side sat back. When Rojo arrived to sweep home Mercado's cross to break a nation's heart, Nigeria had six players inside the box. Argentina had three. This was not a team who had 'forgotten' to defend.
It might seem a trivial thing, but such is the nature of symptoms: they point to a deeper problem.
If Rohr truly believes what he said, there are two possibilities that can be inferred: either he and his colleagues have not since bothered to properly analyze that defeat and what led to it, or they have, but have reached inaccurate conclusions.
Neither is a comforting thought; his inability to take lessons from defeat casts doubt over the continued progress of the Super Eagles under his watch. It was interesting to observe that some of the same structural issues which led to that defeat in Saint Petersburg were in effect against South Africa during the international break.
Gernot Rohr is a dull coach, sorry to say but its true. He doesn't learn, he lacks imagination and innovation. I'm afraid he won't take Nigeria very far in the African Nations Cup even if Nigeria qualify. — Milan Time! (@Jo4Milan) September 9, 2018
There is still enough quality for Nigeria to create chances and win games against weaker sides, and that explains somewhat the ease with which qualifiers have been handled under Rohr's watch.
However, having qualified, the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations will pose perhaps the biggest test of the German's tenure—with the gulf in quality significantly reduced, especially in the knockout stages, it will become apparent just how good he really is, and how much he learnt from the World Cup.