Four and a half years after Gernot Rohr was first appointed by Nigeria, the German coach finds himself at a crossroads during his time as Super Eagles head coach.
Friday’s 4-4 draw with Sierra Leone, a defeat in almost everything but name, represented one of the national side’s worst performances in living memory.
Ironically, the first half an hour of that match represented one of their finest spells of football since Rohr took the helm, as the Super Eagles put four past the Leone Stars without response, and appeared on course for a record-breaking victory.
However, the subsequent collapse threatens to become the defining moment of Rohr’s troubled time at the helm.
Nigeria, their confidence ebbing away with each Sierra Leonean goal, wilted over the next hour of action, with their midfield losing control, their defence flagging under pressure, and the attacking unit increasingly toothless.
Rohr watched on impotently as his side unravelled, ultimately losing two points in the race for Cameroon but, more critically, enduring a hammer-blow to their morale and denting the nation’s fragile confidence in the Super Eagles.
While the players’ professionalism and attitude must be questioned, Rohr must also take a considerable portion of the blame.
Time and again his substitutions have proved ineffective and have too regularly appeared to cost Nigeria momentum and control in a match, rather than helping the Eagles consolidate their authority and continue to take the game to opposition.
It was as clear as day, as Friday’s match swung in the Leone Stars’ favour, that Nigeria’s midfield was labouring, yet Rohr watched on helplessly, making tweaks and cosmetic re-alignments, rather than fixing the gaping hole in the hear of the team.
Certainly, it can be hard to find too much logic in some of Rohr’s substitutions, and sometimes, his changes appear to be made just for the sake of it.
Why, for example, remove the influential Samuel Chukwueze, whose movement and running gave the Leone Stars something to be worried about behind their defence?
Why remove Leon Balogun for Semi Ajayi? Why introduce strikers Paul Onuachu and Kelechi Iheanacho when the midfield requires bolstering?
The substitutions themselves are problematic, as are the timings of the changes…Rohr dithers, watching on as Rome burns, when a proactive approach is required.
Then, the broader squad selection must also be questioned.
In the past, we’ve seen Nigeria setting themselves up to fail, rather than succeed, and it feels as though the same is happening again with Rohr.
Many eyebrows were raised when the German coach named four midfielders—one of whom was right-back Tyronne Ebuehi—in his squad for the double-header against the Leone Stars.
It was hard to see, without injured Wilfried Ndidi, who would offer the defensive rigour in the heart of the park, and there were always going to be a certain issue of the practicality of a Joe Aribo-Oghenkaro Etebo midfield pairing.
Unsurprisingly, both of these two problems—both very predictable—came home to roost for the Super Eagles, as the duo in the centre were targeted and ultimately overrun as the contest went on.
Why replace injured winger Moses Simon with Onuachu?
Why replace Frank Onyeka with Shehu Abdullahi?
Why invite two right-backs and then play centre-back Kevin Akpoguma in that position?
Was there no place for Ramon Azeez, Kelechi Nwakali, Mikel Agu, Uche Agbo, Anderson Esiti or Okechukwu Azubuike?
Perhaps they haven’t always impressed with the national side, but any of them should be a competent option—should Etebo tire or get injured, say—against a side ranked 120th in the world.
These are all questions, perhaps, that the NFF and Amaju Pinnick should have been asking Rohr and his team when federation officials called for a summit on Saturday morning to understand what went wrong in the 4-4 draw.
The federation also have some questions to answer, specifically about the decision to offer Rohr a new contract in May 2020—ahead of the World Cup, before the Eagles’ underwhelming performance and first-round exit at the grandest stage of all.
While Rohr’s handling of the 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign—after being drawn with 2012, 2017 and 2019 Africa Cup of Nations champions Zambia, Cameroon and Algeria—was a fine achievement for a progressive, adventurous side, the West African giants haven’t built on the promise of those years.
The coach’s desire to constantly cut the average age of the side, and oversee consistent influxes of new faces may have resulted in Nigeria being the youngest squad at the 2018 World Cup, but has it also denied the Eagles of some critical experience and calming older heads who can help the team get through difficult periods.
Introducing youth around a spine of Ndidi, John Obi Mikel and Odion Ighalo was one thing, but with the three of them absent, Rohr’s Super Eagles project may be entering it’s terminal phase.