So it may not have been the most convincing international break for 19-year-old Francis Uzoho, Nigeria’s latest number one, but Gernot Rohr’s decision to start the wonderkid in both of the Super Eagles’ friendlies at least appeared to solve one of the national side’s pressing problems.
He’s by no means the finished article, but this show of faith by Rohr would appear to confirm — barring a late swerve by the German coach — that he’s seen enough in Uzoho to confirm him as the Eagles’ first-choice goalkeeper at the World Cup.
Ostensibly, this solves the team’s primary concern—their principle area of weakness—in the run-up to Russia.
Uzoho may not be everyone’s preferred choice, but at least now there’s clarity, there’s a measure of certainty, and the inexperienced stopper can begin building a relationship with his defence.
However, while the teenager’s inclusion would appear to end one debate, the pair of showings against European opponents this week has only served to raise another.
Are Nigeria equipped enough in attack to achieve their aims this summer and break new ground at the World Cup?
Victor Moses’s penalty against Poland was the only goal the national side scored during 180 minutes of action this week, and their offensive play largely lacked cohesion, bar the occasional foray.
Despite some of the quality options they have in attack, it’s been some time since the Eagles truly looked devastating going forward.
Excluding the second half against an Argentina side who demonstrated that they have major defensive problems after being pummelled 6-1 by Spain on Tuesday, Nigeria haven’t scored more than once in their last five fixtures.
The relentless waves of delicious attacking football that so devastated Cameroon in Uyo haven’t been seen since—apart from those manic 45 minutes in Krasnodar—with Rohr struggling to summon that same inspiration among his players.
Individually, the fortunes of none of his key attacking players have improved since that heady 90 minutes in September 2017.
Kelechi Iheanacho has flopped at Leicester City and is still without a goal this season, Alex Iwobi appears to have become enveloped in the malaise at Arsenal, while Ighalo has only scored four league goals since the Cameroon demolition.
Elsewhere, the goalscoring threat of Henry Onyekuru has been denied Rohr due to the wideman’s injury, and Ahmed Musa hasn’t yet managed to turn his miserable Premier League form around back at CSKA Moscow.
Victor Moses is another concern.
However, he’s faced accusations of fatigue at Chelsea this season, where the club has struggled and his own personal numbers have declined.
Moses was still lively against Poland—at least in patches—but the struggles of his offensive compatriots served a reminder of just how valuable he is, particularly when his peers are having an off day.
Perhaps if one or two of these players were struggling for form or fitness, Rohr could accommodate them, but with so many out of sorts, it’s inevitable that Nigeria are lacking the cutting edge they boasted last season and at the start of this.
It’s intriguing that the coach didn’t opt to turn to Gabriel Okechukwu, who made his impact felt at the African Nations Championship in Morocco earlier this year.
Beyond the toils of the would-be goalscorers, the absence of John Obi Mikel also undermined the Eagles’ attacking threat during the international break.
The deep-lying playmaker is a key figure in the heart of the park for the West Africans, serving to protect the backline, recycle possession, dictate the tempo and pick out the forwards with long seeking balls.
Even without him, John Ogu or Joel Obi could have been given a more offensive brief to try and link the midfield and the attack in order to provide service to the forwards.
However, with the former barely used, and the latter employed in a deeper role, Nigeria’s forwards struggled to get as involved in the matches as Rohr would have hoped.
Indeed, Nigeria’s passing against Serbia was palpably sub-standard, denying the Eagles any chance at establishing a rhythm.
Iheanacho proved himself to be woefully ill-equipped for a deeper role in the Poland game, although Iwobi moved inside in spells — to eye-catching effect — against Serbia.
Mikel’s return—work visa permitting—should help to give Nigeria a greater element of control and offensive coherency in Russia, although an injury to the talismanic midfielder could prove devastating for the Eagles.
It remains to be seen whether the 30-year-old’s reintroduction will be enough to reignite and reinvigorate Rohr’s underperforming forwards, although don’t be surprised if he takes the opportunity to bring Junior Ajayi or another attacking option into his provisional squad to ensure that he has at least one offensive option who’s firing at club level.