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Nigeria’s attack the major positive of international break

5:34 AM GMT+4 20/11/2019
Victor Osimhen Nigeria 2019
The Super Eagles’ frontline has been the highlight of a fine start to the Africa Cup of Nations qualifying campaign

by James O'Conners

The Super Eagles recorded an impressive 4-2 win over Lesotho on Sunday, as Gernot Rohr’s men ruthlessly exposed the space afforded to them by Thabo Senong’s 3-5-2 structure.

Space Wide

From early in this game, it was clear where the space would be for both sides; with Senong setting Lesotho up in a 3-5-2 shape, it left Chidozie Awaziem and Ola Aina as the easy out-balls when Nigeria were under pressure. Both players had a direct hand in goals for the Super Eagles by the end and enjoyed the time and space give to them.

On the flipside, with Gernot Rohr not instructing his wingers to track the opposition’s wing-backs, it left them free to get forward and deliver balls into the box, with Awaziem in particular not keen to go out of his defensive shape to engage on the right flank.

Nigeria had been warned about leaving left wing-back Bokang Sello with time and space to cross from his side, and they were made to pay. In the third minute, he had delivered a lovely cross which took Daniel Akepyi and Semi Ajayi out of the game, and Aina had to clear well at the back post.

When he got free up the left in the 11th minute, with Samuel Chukwueze nowhere to be seen, his delivery was perfect, and the crossover movement of the Lesotho strikers saw Ajayi unaware of Nkoto Masoabi’s run off Aina. He headed in well, and Nigeria were behind from a pretty basic goal. The central defender’s body positioning left a lot to be desired.

Throughout the game, the Super Eagles looked uneasy facing two out-and-out strikers, a rare sight in modern football and therefore not always something central defenders are used to dealing with.

Inside Forwards; Iwobi Key

Against a back three, both Moses Simon on the left and Chukwueze on the right could play as inside forwards as opposed to being used as wingers to track full-backs (due to the men behind them being occupied by wingers – Lesotho had none).

This was a good move by Rohr in that it meant Victor Osimhen did not have to face as much aggressive marking because each of the side central defenders were occupied and, very often, one would be drawn out completely to engage Chukwueze.

The movement of Alex Iwobi was constantly impressive, as he pulled out to the sides both to create overloads with his full-back and inside forward, but also to drag one of Lesotho’s two deeper central midfielders out of the middle to open a passing lane to the front three.

Whilst many have looked at Joe Aribo as John Mikel Obi’s successor, the fact is that the latter was used most recently as a number ten for the Super Eagles and has been replaced by Iwobi’s movement and ball progression in tight spaces. Give him the ball under pressure and he will so often look after it until teammates can join him in support in forward areas.  

For the opener, Osimhen moved out to the side in an area where the left centre-back didn’t want to go. He took the ball down on his chest, delivered a cross, won the ball back after losing it, and assisted Iwobi to finish. 

That contribution was a microcosm of how much more he brings to the team than Odion Ighalo or Paul Onuachu did at the Africa Cup of Nations. He brings their best qualities together, plus so much more.

When the second goal came, it saw Osimhen drop off the back three centrally to find space. 

Usually, a team would have enough cover at the back to have one of the three central defenders get tight to the number nine, but they were concerned by Chukwueze and Simon’s inverted positions. The striker controlled and found the former over the top to head home.

66’- Nigeria match up

At 2-1 up after 65 minutes, Rohr moved to reinforce his side’s position. 

Off went Chukwueze, scorer of the second goal and dangerous in his positioning, but with the trade-off of him not giving any defensive cover whatsoever – less than ideal when protecting a lead on the road.

Ahmed Musa came on, moved to join Osimhen in a front two, and Simon moved to right wing-back back. Later on, Ramon Azeez replaced Aribo after a solid outing from the latter, before Rohr got Samuel Kalu on for Simon as right wing-back, a role he has started games in for the Super Eagles.

This switch to match up to Lesotho’s 3-5-2 saw Awaziem move to a role as one of three central defenders for his extra cover aerially. Both Ajayi and Troost-Ekong were constantly in bother against goalscorer, Masoabi and Sera Motebang, who has impressed at club level for Bloemfontein Celtic in recent weeks.

However, before his own goal in dealing with a cross, Awaziem was extremely fortunate not to be sent off for tugging back Motebang as he ran onto a through-ball from his strike partner. This probably gave a good idea of why the on loan Leganes man is yet to be trusted by Rohr to solve something of a problem position as Troost-Ekong’s partner in the middle.

Rohr Deserves Credit

Since the side’s third-placed finish at the Afcon, Rohr has done a good job of refreshing the side, and those new faces’ skill-sets have added more variety to the Super Eagles’ play. 

Osimhen is the perfect front-man for this side, and can be equally good as a focal point to bring others into play, as he can be as an isolated frontman running channels in a more defensive setup.

Aribo brings a nice balance to the side with his efficient passing and comfort with both feet, and although his passing lacks real incision, his superb timing of runs into scoring areas centrally does. That was not seen much in this game as he instead looked to help Wilfred Ndidi to build play as Lesotho focused on blocking the Leicester City man.

Iwobi’s move from a narrow winger not really offering penetration with his dribbling, to a central role as a number eight/number ten hybrid has added a great deal. He can operate in a dearth of space or move behind or around opposition midfields to create overloads and yet still does not leave Nigeria exposed defensively in the engine room.

The one concern remains in finding the right balance at the back. 

Jamilu Collins has struggled defensively of late, Aina is far from the finished product defensively despite being a very dangerous two-footed over or under-lapper of both sides, and Ajayi is yet to show he deserves to keep Kenneth Omeruo on the bench. 

For now, it is probably a good thing to have tinkering of the defence based on the opponent. 

At home, Collins and Aina can both start, whilst on the road, Awaziem is a safer bet to ensure at least three men are in position in the side’s ‘rest defence’ phase.