Assessing Nigeria’s Nations Cup readiness: The Midfield

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With the qualifiers done, Goal examines the Super Eagles squad; does it have what it takes to challenge at the Africa Cup of Nations in the summer?

In fairness, a sense of uncertainty has hung over the Super Eagles midfield for much longer than Gernot Rohr has been in place as coach.

Under the late Stephen Keshi, the national team achieved a healthy degree of success, winning  a first Africa Cup of Nations crown for almost 20 years and getting to the knockout stage of the 2014 World Cup.

However, all that was achieved almost in spite of the absence of a working midfield trio: the base of John Obi Mikel and Ogenyi Onazi was cast in stone, but the identity of the farthest forward midfielder stayed elusive.

The likes of Nosa Igiebor, Sunday Mba, Sone Aluko and Michael Babatunde all held the position at various times, to mixed reviews.

Sunday Mba Nigeria Uruguay Confederations Cup 20062013

The challenge for Rohr is the same, but only in the broad sense: he also finds himself one shy of a full deck. However, the problem point has now shifted from the tip to the base.

The emergence of Alex Iwobi has been opportune: Nigeria finally has a central creator capable of poking and prodding for spaces and chinks in the opponent’s defensive organization.

Wilfred Ndidi has also grown in leaps, and against Seychelles and Egypt he showed he can bring a little more to the table than simply snapping at heels and nipping in to intercept. Effectively, his rise has rendered Onazi effete.

It is in the ‘Mikel role’ that there appears to be uncertainty.

Some of that is to do with Mikel himself. The captain of the national team has been on a leave of absence since the Super Eagles’ elimination from the World Cup in June. While reluctant to retire, the manner in which the affair has been handled has left a bit of a sour taste.

Gernot Rohr and John Obi Mikel of Nigeria

For his part, Rohr has tried to douse tensions whenever possible, and has even bent over backwards to reiterate his Mikel’s relevance to the squad.

“He remains the captain of the team till he says otherwise, we will be happy to have him back for his experience,” he insisted.

This means that there is a sense of uncertainty hanging over that second position in the double pivot: whoever takes it will be conscious of the fact that he is likely only a placeholder till the return of him who has legal right.

So far, the chief beneficiary in Mikel’s absence has been Oghenekaro Etebo, an attacking midfielder whose strength lies in making runs into the box.

He is, however, energetic; this is important, because his mobility has masked to some degree his weakness as a deep midfielder, and is a mark against the less agile John Ogu, who is an accomplished passer. Building up the play is not a task to which the Stoke City man is suited, and he often fails to see passing lanes open up, which can make the Super Eagles passing somewhat laboured.

Ogenekaro Etebo, Lebo Mothiba - South Africa vs. Nigeria

It is a configuration that has largely sufficed, but could be sorely exposed against some of the continent’s elite midfields come June. Even against Libya, the Super Eagles struggled to assert superiority in midfield, and were reliant on quality in attack as a bailout.

Beyond what now appears to be Rohr’s first-choice midfield, the pickings are slim.

Onazi has missed much of the season due to injury, and although he is now back in training, it might be a while till he is ready to play competitively.

Mikel Agu is one in whom Rohr seems well pleased, but when he has been called up, it has largely been in a substitute role; with so few competitive minutes, would dropping him into a crunch game at the Afcon be ideal?

The recent dalliance with the idea of Rotherham’s Semi Ajayi as a midfielder is just about the most puzzling decision the German coach has made in his time in charge of the national team.

Semi Ajayi - Rotherham United

On the eve of the Seychelles game, Rohr bigged Ajayi up for a midfield role, telling ACLSports: “Yes, I saw that- his midfield role at Rotherham [United]. He can play that also with us, we will see.

"It is possible that Ajayi can push a lot more in the midfield.”

Considering the problem of incisive passing from the back of midfield has plagued the Super Eagles for quite a while, it is a curious choice. Ajayi’s lack of distributive nous (he averages 15.3 passes per game for Rotherham in the Championship) should be a huge red flag; instead, Rohr has invested minutes in him over the last two international windows.

There is also the consideration that, in the event that Iwobi gets injured, there is no natural replacement.

Alex Iwobi - Nigeria vs Seychelles

The recourse would be a change of shape altogether, or asking Etebo to be the team’s main creator; again, not a role to which he is suited.

Surely this should have been a more pressing concern than the addition of another non-passing midfielder?

Granted, the circumstances which could see the midfield situation devolve into a full-blown crisis might seem far-fetched, but after a gruelling club season, it is not outside the realm of possibility that players pull up in Egypt in the summer.

If that were to happen, Rohr might be made to pay for his indulgence of truant captain Mikel, as well as his ludicrously sparse midfield selections over the last few months.