COMMENT By Solace Chukwu Follow on Twitter
For the entirety of the Super Eagles' World Cup qualifying campaign, Gernot Rohr stayed committed to his preferred shape: a 4-2-3-1, with two deep ball-winners and Simon, a repurposed inside-forward, holding the width on the right side of midfield.
It worked, as the results attested. The former Gent man was restrained in his attacking movements, but was disciplined enough to fulfill his tactical duties: providing a counterweight to Victor Moses' roaming from the left, allowing Shehu Abdullahi - a converted midfielder - to tuck inside rather than bomb forward, and also protecting the right full-back zone in defensive transitions.
Losing him necessitated a switch to a 3-5-2, but Rohr did not seem convinced by that shape, and stubbornly tried to plug Alex Iwobi, a totally different sort of player, into the role for the opening group hame against Croatia. It failed spectacularly, and the German shed his stubbornness subsequently, but the damage was done in a 2-0 defeat.
It would be a stretch to say Simon's injury cost Nigeria a place in the Round of 16, but not by much.
That makes this weekend's Africa Cup of Nations qualifier against Libya intriguing indeed, and that because it challenges Rohr to make a decision between his own staid pragmatism and the continued growth of his Super Eagles build.
As Simon nursed back to full fitness, Samuel Kalu seemed to rise out of the blue.
It seemed odd that he was not considered leading up to the Mundial, even if it would have been a left-field call, as he is more naturally a wide player who can stretch the play and deliver crosses.
Surely, if Rohr was able to keep tabs on Simon, he must have noticed Kalu as well, who had a more eye-catching season?
In any case, the 20-year-old made his international debut last month against Seychelles, playing in Simon's position on the right, and impressed in winning a second-half penalty. However, with Simon back in the fold, might Rohr be tempted to revert to his preferred system and personnel?
The evidence would definitely suggest precisely that. The 64-year-old is fiercely loyal, even when it is manifestly not in the common interest.
Simon, aside his tactical conscientiousness, is reportedly one of the German's favourites in the national team set-up, and will be favourite to regain his position in the side, in spite of the fact he has only played a total of 49 league minutes this term for new club Levante.
While this is in keeping with Rohr's general preference, it would be a shame to see Kalu miss out.
Even with the uncertainty over the team's optimal shape, the World Cup exposed the need for evolution within the set-up.
If the relative inexperience of the side meant Rohr was keen to play the underdog, the logical next step would be to expand on that safety-first approach, to flesh it out and make the team more comfortable playing on the front foot.
Kalu embodies that progression, being a more natural winger, as well as being quicker and a superior dribbler. If the side is to become a more coherent, potent creation, it is important to embrace square pegs in square holes.
Even more so, it is important to embrace merit. Rohr is somewhat justified, in that international football can be an unforgiving terrain for the inexperienced.
However, to continue to hide behind that borders on cowardice, and will continue to keep the side from fulfilling its destiny.