After a disappointing defeat by Egypt in an Africa Cup of Nations qualifier in March 2016 condemned the Super Eagles to sit out a second consecutive tournament, few could have foreseen quite how positive things would be a year on.
Interim coach Salisu Yusuf restored some positivity with a pair of friendly victories, although that was quickly dampened by the comic debacle of Paul Le Guen’s bungled appointment, and by the time Gernot Rohr was appointed in August, few had truly expected that the German could steer the Super Eagles back to the pinnacle of the continental game.
The honeymoon wasn’t to last long. A tough qualifying draw for the 2018 World Cup saw Nigeria pooled in the dreaded ‘Group of Death’. Having to contend with the Zambia, Algeria and Cameroon, a good start was imperative if the three-time African champions weren’t to miss out on the extravaganza in Russia.
Two wins in two games followed; away at Zambia—supposedly the weakest side in the group—and home to Algeria, and it was clear that Rohr was getting Nigeria back on the right track.
Both victories were impressive, and plaudits poured in with the manner in which the triumphs were claimed. The football was back to being top notch—something Nigerians had long yearned for—and had the Eagles had an air of ruthlessness as well.
Particularly telling has been Rohr’s preference for building his side around the next generation of burgeoning talent from the pool of players available.
To put this perspective, two of the starters in the victory against Zambia—Iwobi and Iheanacho—both aged 20 were shortlisted for the 2016 Fifa Golden Boy award, such has been the trust placed in them by the manager. More so, the fact that the average age of the squad called-up for the ongoing international break stood at 23.16 years gives an insight into the manager’s thinking to lower the average age of the Super Eagles squad and build for the long haul.
Rohr used the international draw with Senegal to introduce forwards Isaac Success and Olarenwaju Kayode to the squad, with the duo both younger options than the men they’re ostensibly replacing, Odion Ighalo and Ideye Brown.
The aggressive drive to get players of Nigerian descent to commit to the Super Eagles has been a positive too, with Chuba Akpom and Ola Aina recently pledging their international allegiance to the African giants. So many talented players have been lost to other countries in the past, and the Nigerian Football Federation is seemingly keen to change the narrative.
Nevertheless, it hasn’t been a perfect start to Rohr’s tenure. The team’s malaise at the back persists, especially at both full-back positions, where doubts remain about Elderson Echiejile and Kenneth Omeruo’s suitability.
Critics reckon Echiejile doesn’t do enough going forward, while Omeruo—who is primarily at his best in the centre—struggles in an unfamiliar berth on the right.
He’s done well to deputize in that role, but things need to change going forward. Perhaps, with Tyronne Ebuehi, predominantly a right-back—but capable at filling in at left-back—and Aina, a right-back by trade, solutions have been found to both issues plaguing the Eagles. Kingsley Madu is also an option to challenge Elderson for a starting spot.
Ultimately, even the staunchest critic can’t deny that Rohr is building something beautiful, and while some Nigerians may object to having such a young squad, they needn’t panic.
Building around a bunch of kids may obviously be accompanied by growing pains, but the German tactician is doing things differently, and Eagles fans have every reason to get very excited about what the future holds.