COMMENT By Seye Omidiora Follow on Twitter
Nigeria played some pleasing football on the road to Russia, but often struggled to replicate those performances in their pre-World Cup friendlies, which has lowered expectations amongst supporters. Ostensibly, Gernot Rohr doesn’t seem bothered by the West Africans’ recent poor performances and feels they’ll suddenly turn it up once the competition kicks-off.
Performances in qualifying and friendly win over Argentina heightened expectations of Nigerians. The recent results have however subdued that confidence amongst fans. That, in my opinion, is a good thing.— Oluwaseye Omidiora (@theReal_SeyE) June 6, 2018
It might have been a bit bizarre coming from Rohr; however the antecedent does give him a bit of credence.
Prior to the competition in 1994, the then-African champions won only one of four friendlies (a 5-1 thrashing of Georgia in Ibadan), whilst losing three.
In 1998, there were three defeats – the heaviest being a 5-1 hammering at the hands of Holland – and a draw. The fact that the one-time preparations were smooth in the pre-tournament outings – in 2002 – Nigeria failed to make it out of a group that included Argentina, England and Sweden, is perhaps revealing.
Perhaps, then, the team needs to be given the benefit of the doubt heading into their opener against Croatia on Saturday.
Rohr’s aforementioned assertion then invites a burning question: which is more important, performances or results?
It is often repeated that the hallmark of champions is getting required results even when performances aren’t up to the required standard. It may be an overused expression, as it’s lost every ounce of its original effectiveness, but remains a constant feature in football-related debates. On one hand, purists are naturally predisposed to an entertaining brand of football while ‘non-conformists’ are said to be result-oriented.
While the discussion on style is never ending, every critic is in unison about one thing: the aim is to win football games.
The approach, though, may be different.
The Italians are given credit for perfecting Catenaccio – a strategy that employs a very tight man-marking system, with players sat deep in their half to prevent the opposition from picking them off at will. It also requires rapid counter-attacking football with aggressive transitions. It may not be pretty but it’s highly effective.
Marcello Lippi’s side were successful in 2006 playing this way and it saw them concede just two goals – an own goal and a penalty – as they won their fourth World Cup.
Organization is a common theme in international tournaments, as national-team managers focus more on defensive schemes over attacking strategies. The Italians and many old German sides placed a certain level of emphasis on organization above offensive expression.
In 2002, runners-up Germany let in only three goals in the entire competition, with two coming in the final defeat to Brazil. In Brazil four years ago, Joachim Low’s side were breached just four times on their run to success.
However, organization doesn’t always have to translate to defensive football.
In 2010, Diego Maradona’s Argentina side were the hipster's pick, but that assertion couldn’t have been further from the truth, as there was still some method to what many perceived as madness.
The Albicelestes were breached just twice before their failure to overcome a better organized side in Germany and were dumped out 4-0.
Maradona basically focused on building solidity behind Messi and letting him do his own thing upfront, but that wasn’t enough for the South Americans.
La Roja’s rearguard wasn’t breached in the knockout stage which saw them set an admirable record of being the sole winners to achieve the feat. Vicente del Bosque’s side had the lion's share of the ball in their games as opponents played a low defensive block against them, but were incredibly well-positioned to not get caught on the break.
The fact that head coaches have little time with the players before tournaments is one major reason they place their focus on the more defensive aspects than expressive tactics.
For Rohr’s Nigeria side, it should be noted that the team have shown they can play expressively – as seen in the wins over Algeria and Cameroon in qualifying – and doggedly – as witnessed in the 1-1 draw against Cameroon and scrappy 1-0 win over Zambia to seal World Cup qualification.
Defensive organization, though, has been somewhat non-existent in the recent friendly games.
Against England, the three-time African champions struggled with the Three Lions’ movement off the ball and literally couldn’t watch and stay with runners.
There was also a noticeable weakness from crosses and set-pieces, which further proves how this side cannot be trusted as a defensive unit and plays better when on the front foot.
The glaring weaknesses have to be worked on as the Super Eagles will be picked apart by more efficient opposition in Russia.
In simple terms, playing well may not necessarily mean easy-on-the-eye football or efficient football.
It basically means following the head coach’s tactical scheme strictly to achieve a desired goal. The idea, irrespective of style implemented, is always to create loads of chances, give few opportunities to the opposition and consequently score more than the opposition.
For Rohr and Nigeria, they have so-far achieved better results when they are proactive and on the front foot, but with the world watching, will they stick to what has served them well, or will they twist?