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Nigeria's Rohr exploits 3-5-2's advantages to beat Iceland

21:59 SAST 2018/06/23
Gernot Rohr
It took until the second half, but once the Super Eagles figured out where the spaces were, they were much too good for the Scandinavian side

COMMENT    By Solace Chukwu     Follow on Twitter

When Gernot Rohr stated, in the aftermath of Nigeria's limp defeat against Croatia, that the problem had not been tactics, there were understandably a few eyebrows raised.

For much of the Nigerian footballing community, tactics are a vague thing, only really brought up following defeat. As such, the notion of a man cocksure in his rectitude, even in the face of loss, was hard to understand. Even worse, it bordered on stubbornness and arrogance.

Yet, Rohr was partly correct.

While most had faulted his decision to revert to a back four, he rightly pointed out that it would have been a mistake, faced with a Croatia side that played with three forwards. Subsequent events bore out his judgement: Argentina were utterly destroyed by the Croats after opting for a system with three centre-backs.

For the subsequent game against Iceland, however, Rohr opted to use a back three.

The logic of it is simple: a 3-5-2 works so well against a 4-4-2 because it gives a spare man at the back, fields two strikers and still gives a numerical advantage in the middle of the park. It does mean that there is a shortfall on the flanks, but the threat of a 2 on 2 direct attack behind advancing full-backs means teams will rarely push them forward anyway.

Having a spare man in defence is crucial for building out from the back; allied to a deep midfielder, it is essentially a 4v2, which makes it easy to work the ball forward through the middle of the pitch.

For the second game running, Rohr got his tactics - at least in the sense of the shape of the side - correct.

However, the Super Eagles were extremely poor in the opening period, recording no shots and carrying no meaningful threat going forward.

Whereas, in the Croatia game, a number of players featured in sub-optimal roles, here the roles were apportioned quite carefully: Victor Moses played as a wing-back, as he does at Chelsea, while John Obi Mikel reprised the deep playmaker role that is his bread and butter.

The trouble is that this is not yet a team that understands how to build up play properly...and that is an often underappreciated part of tactical preparation: not just working on shape, but also on the possession structures within that shape.

The circulation from the back lacked purpose and snap, and was often just safely passing the ball for the sake of it, as opposed to patiently drawing Iceland out. As such, the Super Eagles could not progress through the lines, and opted for long balls in the vague direction of Kelechi Iheanacho and Ahmed Musa.

An unfortunate corollary of this was the lack of offensive contribution in the first half by Oghenekaro Etebo. As the closest player to the front two, he needed to receive the ball in space in front of the Iceland defence; it took until after the break for him to get the ball in this zone, and he tested Hannes Halldorsson straight away.

With Etebo out of the game in the first period, there was no natural connection between the back five and the front five, save diagonals knocked out wide to Victor Moses on the right.

In theory, the wing-backs are to provide width, but with no support out wide, they are not meant to be hit early in the build-up, else they will invariably be forced back toward their own goal. Instead, the width they provide is used as a means to stretch the opposition and open up the centre.

With the aforementioned disconnect between the front and back ends, it was no surprise the Super Eagles created little. The decision to select both Musa and Iheanacho upfront further exacerbated the problem: neither is a link player, and there was little combination between them.

The opening goal came via a counter, in which the major factor was the sheer desire and responsibility shown by Musa to collect Moses' inexact cross from the ether, before slamming home.

However, as far as demonstrating the strengths of Rohr's system, the second was a far better exemplar – Musa running onto the ball in the channel, behind the slightly advanced full-back, isolating and speeding past his marker 1v1, before rounding the goalkeeper to fire home.

The evidence of these two games points to one thing: in terms of setting out the team to match up against opponents, the German coach largely has got the shape right. Croatia deserved to win, but scored off an own goal and a penalty won from a set-piece, while Iceland rarely put Nigeria under significant pressure from open play.

It is the conviction of the attacking approach; the team's work to exploit the areas of comparative advantage more readily – whatever the appointed system – that Rohr needs to figure out.