Nigeria will began their 18th Africa Cup of Nations campaign in Egypt against debutants Burundi on Saturday. After missing the last two editions of the tournament, the Super Eagles had something to prove against the 134th ranked side in the world.
Nigeria came into this game having had disrupted preparation. On the eve of the game, Samuel Kalu collapsed in training with a suspected heart attack, but thankfully it proved to be dehydration. He was left out as a precaution so Samuel Chukwueze started as the right winger.
After a bout of illness, Jamilo Collins was missing at left back so Ola Aina moved over from his more natural right-back position to cover. Kenneth Omeruo was preferred to Leon Balogun in central defence after a season of minimal game time for the latter at Brighton.
In attack, Odion Ighalo was surprisingly left on the bench with 6’5” Paul Onuachu selected instead, whilst Ahmed Musa was also only amongst the substitutes. John Mikel Obi was back in the squad and started as the number ten.
Burundi selected Gael Duhayindavyi at left back in preference to Christophe Nduwarugira, whilst in central defence, it was David Nshimirimana who got the nod ahead of Omar Ngando.
The squad’s oldest member, forward Selemani Ndikumana was sent home after breaching camp rules. He would not have started, but gave the side one less option to change the game from the bench. Saido Berahino captained the side in attack.
Faty Papy sadly passed away in April from a heart attack, having been back on the bench for the final qualifier in late March.
Immediately from the start of the game, the initial plans were clear. Burundi had no intention of pressing high and exposing themselves in midfield. They went with a compact 4-4-2 shape, where both of their front men, Berahino and Fiston Abdul Razak would drop off to the halfway line and screen passes into Nigeria midfielders.
The wide players, Francis Mustafa and Cedric Amissi both looked to tuck in very narrow when the ball was on the opposite flank, whilst looking to stay close to their midfielders when the ball was on their side, encouraging passes out to Nigeria’s fullbacks. The Burundi fullbacks then looked to get tight to the wingers and try to force the fullbacks to play passes to their feet or more risky passes into the congested centre.
In the first 25 minutes of the game, Nigeria had 69% possession but had very few ideas of how to move Burundi’s compact block around. Daniel Akpeyi, perhaps selected in goal for his superior buildup play to the other goalkeeping options, would look to slowly play out from the back. However, with a lack of incisive passing ability in Nigeria’s backline, Burundi were given few problems.
The main moments of quality came from Alex Iwobi on the left, playing diagonal passes inside when on the half-turn. However, Nigeria had a right-footed left back too in Aina, and no one in defence or central midfield that was comfortable on their left side, most of the side’s attacks broke down on that flank.
Omeruo was allowed the ball for long periods and had made 64 passes by full-time, but not one single line-breaking pass along the ground. In the first five minutes, he gave the ball away twice, once with an under-hit pass to Aina and one rushed punt forward when under only minimal pressure.
When Nigeria did get the ball into the final third, they had a significant aerial target in Onuachu but no movement or runners around him. The selection of veteran Mikel as a number ten meant Peter Etebo, the side’s most dynamic player off the ball, was used in a deeper distributing role that he looked ill-suited for. A simple switch of these two players’ positions would benefit both players’ skill-sets.
BURUNDI DOMINATE SECOND BALL
Prior to the tournament, Nigeria’s coach, Gernot Rohr warned his side that their opponents in the Afcon would play direct football, telling German sports magazine Kicker:
''It [the Afcon] is operated on with long balls and then pressing, it's a different style of play, there are more surprise effects compared to the World Cup.”
This proved true for Burundi, who played long from the game’s kickoff and had little interest in trying to play out from the back. The majority of goalkicks by Jonathan Nahimana were played long onto the head of Abdul Razak, with the midfield getting close to support for second balls.
Frederic Nsabiyumva also looked to play early long passes forward, often to left winger Cedric Amissi, who was excellent with his back to goal and could bring the diagonals down. On the opposite flank, Mustafa also challenged very well in the air against Aina.
Nigeria’s lack of anticipation or urgency to pick up the second ball was alarming, with Burundi gaining possession from nearly every knock-down in the first half. They would play through central midfielder, Gael Bigirimana from the second phase possession and he brought genuine quality to their play.
In the opening seven minutes, Berahino was found twice between the lines as he operated just off Abdul Razak, drawing Omeruo out on both occasions. With Wilfred Ndidi not focused on screening passes in-behind him, the Stoke City man had a hand in the first half’s best chance.
William Troost-Ekong was pulled out of the backline by Berahino dropping off, and Bigirimana played a perfect ball over the top for Amissi’s diagonal run off the left flank into the space vacated. He could not beat Akpeyi from a clear one-on-one chance, which had unsurprisingly come after Burundi collected the second ball from their long goalkick.
ROHR MOTIONS FOR CHANGE
In those opening 25 minutes, Nigeria’s only real threat had come from inverted winger Chukweze on the right flank, who was cutting in and causing problems, having one shot deflected away for a corner and leading a dangerous counter-attack. This had come from Burundi’s own corner and was a rare occasion Nigeria could attack space in the first period.
After the lifeless start to the game by Nigeria, Rohr was clearly seen motioning for his central defenders to play direct passes up to target man Onuachu. This changed very little for the side as Burundi were still picking up the second balls. Onuachu even tried to drop off a few times, pulling Frederic Nsabiyumva with him, but Mikel was not the player to go beyond and Iwobi was instead looking for balls to feet.
Nigeria did manage some half-chances from individual quality, such as from Iwobi’s “Cruyff turn” after Aina had mishit a cross, and another opening after Ndidi ran with the ball in midfield, finally bypassing an opponent. The other openings were after Mikel had flicked on a long throw, and later the captain headed a corner wide.
The second half continued in the same direct way as Iwobi and Aina rained in crosses from the left, clearly under instruction from the coach, and this led to several corners. Mikel was also getting closer to Onuachu for second balls, whilst the target man won one freekick which led to Omeruo heading wide at the back post.
MUSA AND IGHALO CHANGE GAME
After 58 minutes, Rohr withdrew Mikel and brought on Ahmed Musa as a left winger, with Iwobi moving to number ten. The side immediately looked more balanced and had greater width on the left flank. Iwobi set Musa away down the left after a one-two with Onuachu and the winger later got around the side of Omar Moussa with sheer pace to win a corner.
Although it took 15 minutes after Musa’s introduction for Ighalo to come on, it also coincided with Burundi starting to tire. The two wide players had worked themselves into the ground and Mustafa went off for Elvis Kamsoba, whilst Amissi was struggling with his defensive duties having switched over to the right flank.
There was immediately greater movement in attack for Nigeria after the change. Ighalo ran in-behind onto Musa’s pass with the outside of his boot, and then the winner arrived.
Aina carried the ball in-field, pulling right back Moussa out and then playing a surprise backheel which wrongfooted David Nshimirimana. Ighalo raced through to curl home. In a game where Nigeria had lacked ideas, movement and creativity, the one moment of improvisation led to a goal.
The goal had come at the worst possible time. Not only was it late in the game, but coach Olivier Niyungeko had just withdrawn the creative Shassir Nahimana for a more defensively-inclined replacement in Christophe Nduwarugira.
They did put some late pressure on Nigeria, with Akpeyi first dropping a deep diagonal pass and needing to save from close range on the rebound. Then the goalkeeper flapped at a corner after Abdul Razak has spun away well from Troost-Ekong, whilst Amissi headed wide under pressure after a deep cross from the left.
None of these were clear openings and despite their goalkeeper’s troubles, Nigeria held on fairly comfortably.
This was a very impressive, compact performance from a Burundi side who did not lose a single game in qualifying and created the best chance of the first half here. Their direct style and strong link-up play from their strike pairing was impressive, whilst the midfield were excellent at winning second balls. They can feel disappointed not to take a point from this game.
Nigeria, on the other hand, looked unbalanced throughout. With no real width on the left, Mikel completely unsuited to playing as number ten, and the central defenders unable to buildup with quality, most of their chances came from off-the-cuff moments.
The fact that Nigeria played essentially a long ball game from the 25th until 70th minutes shows how few ideas they had. The introductions of Musa and Ighalo were key, not just for their technical quality, but because Iwobi could move centrally, Mikel went off, and the route one option was removed.
Rohr has tough choices going forward, but if he fails to make the changes which he never did at the 2018 World Cup, then Nigeria will struggle to fulfil their potential at this tournament.