Super Eagles coach Gernot Rohr still appears to have a significant amount of goodwill from the Nigerian public even though his strategy with the national side is beginning to look questionable.
The German coach may have picked up two wins out of two with the West African giants this week—as the Seychelles and Liberia were swatted away—but the conservatism of his decision-making and his reluctance to exploit the Eagles’ talented offensive options are beginning to shine through.
Understandably, Rohr will have been keen to have steadied the ship after Nigeria’s rocky World Cup campaign, and three points in Victoria—however they were obtained—was the sole objective of this international break.
However, his team selection smacked of a coach unwilling to place his faith in attacking options, with the German coach opting to pair Wilfred Ndidi and Ogenyi Onazi in the heart of the midfield.
It was the least inspiring, and the most conservative duo Rohr could have plumped for.
Here's the confirmed @NGSuperEagles Starting XI vs. Seychelles - are people happy with this selection?— Ed Dove (@EddyDove) September 8, 2018
I thought we'd learned already that Iheanacho & Ighalo don't work too well together, while opting not to start Onyekuru feels like a missed opportunity.#Naija #SuperEagles pic.twitter.com/pwwQPE7RBe
Their presence, plus the absence of any genuinely attacking full-back options—necessitated, admittedly, by injury and retirements—meant that the Super Eagles took to the field against the Seychelles with seven defensive players.
Was this really a statement of intent from the West African heavyweights, against a side ranked 188th in the world?
Predictably, while Nigeria got the job done, there was no zip or style to their play; they were ponderous and lethargic, with only Samuel Kalu’s fleet-footness upping the tempo against an opposition who were there for the taking.
Similarly, Rohr continues to show a lack of imagination with his team selection.
It's only Seychelles, so I doubt it matters anyway, but— Solace Chukwu (@TheOddSolace) September 8, 2018
(a) the evidence up till now indicates that Iheanacho and Ighalo as a partnership doesn't work.
(b) not sure it's necessary to have a midfield of Ndidi and Onazi.#SEYNGA
One lesson learned during the World Cup qualifying campaign was that an Odion Ighalo-Kelechi Iheanacho pairing in attack doesn’t work.
The latter rarely looks anything close to his best when operating in support of the China-based frontman, lacking the guile and creativity to operate in a more withdrawn role.
Yet despite Nigeria’s options going forward, Rohr persists with an Iheanacho-Ighalo double act, even though the chemistry between them is lacking.
The Eagles still got the job done against the Seychelles, but this was the kind of match where a Plan B ought to have been trialled in order to give Nigeria a tangible option for tougher challenges to come.
Where will Rohr turn when his Iheanacho-Ighalo pairing fails to fire—as it predictably will—against Libya next month?
Against such lowly opposition as the Seychelles, the German coach ought to have gambled a little, placed his faith in in-form Tony Nwakaeme, attempted to play his part in the rebuilding of Isaac Success, or give Junior Lokosa or Simy Nwankwo another opportunity to shine after they were introduced to the fold ahead of the World Cup.
Yet the aforementioned quartet all remain underexposed to international football, even if the last of the four did get a run out—and a goal—against Liberia.
At least Ighalo is developing an understanding with Ahmed Musa, it’s a positive that should serve the Eagles well during the rest of this cycle.
Then there’s Henry Onyekuru.
If ever there was a game to allow the Galatasaray new boy to deliver a statement performance with the Eagles, this was it.
His consistent goalscoring record at three different clubs in three different leagues makes him an irresistible prospect, particularly for a side short on goals, yet Onyekuru was only given a brief cameo against Seychelles.
He was handed a start in the exhibition showing against Liberia, but this international break feels like an opportunity missed for the versatile attacker.
Of greatest concern, perhaps, is that another international window has passed, and the conviction still remains that Rohr is still to settle on a playing strategy that gets the best out of the players available to him.
If his plan moving forward is to rely on John Obi Mikel as the most advanced—and creative—of a midfield three, then why wasn’t another creator—Kelechi Nwakali given the opportunity to replace the Tianjin Teda playmaker?
Even the methodical John Ogu might have thrived in this role.
This would have ensured a level of continuity and helped the other players settle into Rohr’s style.
Here are five suggestions for how @NGSuperEagles could replace @VictorMoses - for the Seychelles, and beyond...— Ed Dove (@EddyDove) September 3, 2018
Ft. @henryconyekuru, @IbeJordon & @Simon27Moseshttps://t.co/EBOhJ8RSr2 pic.twitter.com/QiUdJ2hjX7
Coming in stark contrast to Rohr’s conservatism and the Eagles’ ongoing lack of a sophisticated attacking cohesion was Morocco, with their 3-0 victory over Malawi.
Two identical scorelines, and admittedly, the Atlas Lions had the advantage of the home support in Casablanca, although it’s worth noting that they were facing a side sitting over 60 places above the Seychelles in the Fifa World Rankings.
However, while Nigeria lacked style, Morocco oozed quality, even without key players such as Medhi Benatia, Manuel Da Costa, Amine Harit and Khalid Boutaib.
In order to cultivate Morocco’s style, and to ensure the Atlas Lions imposed themselves over lesser foe, Herve Renard opted to include AS Monaco midfielder Youssef Ait Bennasser in the centre of defence.
It was a calculated gamble; could Ait Bennasser’s work on the ball compensate for any struggles he might have in dealing with Malawi’s physical forwards.
He also gave gametime to Youssef En-Nesyri as a line-leader. Still only 21, the Leganes man isn’t yet the finished article, and hasn’t always appeared to have Renard’s trust.
However, given the chance to shine against lesser foe, the youngster netted twice—following on from the goal he scored against Spain at the World Cup.
Even if Boutaib returns for Morocco’s double-header against the Comoros, even if Renard recalls Aziz Bouhaddouz, En-Nesyri’s two-goal showing against the Flames have boosted his international standing and given the French coach a tantalising Plan B for the challenges ahead.
Elsewhere, his decision to incorporate the attacking Faycal Fajr into the team ahead of Mbark Boussofa was also unorthodox but adventurous.
The former is a Renard favourite, due to his superb work from set pieces, and while he’s no deep-lying playmaker in the form of Boussoufa, it was a calculated gamble, and one which gave Morocco an extra attacking resource.
Don’t be surprised if the Atlas Lions boast the richest attacking unit at the Afcon next summer. Of course, they have exceptional talent, but Renard knows the value of using opportunities like this to experiment and adapt upon his chosen strategy.
The unimaginative Rohr, for the time being at least, does not.