African champions Nigeria laboured to a goalless draw with Iran in their opening Brazil 2014 group match in Curitiba. This was a match so poor and devoid of sparkle and excitement that the locals at the end were booing both sides.
Iran, under the tutelage of Carlos Quieroz, were content to get a draw believing that they were the inferior side. Maybe as he went to bed, the Portuguese manager of Iran regreted that approach seeing that the Nigerian team hardly created any chances.
Defence: The Nigerian defence was rarely troubled in the whole match although goal keeper Vincent Enyeama had to pull off a superb save from header after a corner kick close to the end of the first half. There is a big possibility that first choice centre-back Godfrey Oboabona might have played his last in the tournament as he left the stadium in a wheelchair ─ unconfirmed reports suggest he has fractured his toe.
Skipper Joseph Yobo came on and was hardly troubled as were both full backs ─ Juwon Oshinawa on the left and Efe Ambrose on the right.
The defence looking solid was a function of two factors. Iran were not very interested in attacking even if they did not look like they have the players to trouble Nigeria at all. The second factor was that Nigeria played with two holding midfielders in John Obi Mikel and Ogenyi Onazi. So, defensively these midfielders did their jobs very well.
Midfield: However it was creatively or offensively that the midfield let the team down again. Iran “parked the bus” but the Super Eagles’ most advanced midfielder young Ramon Azeez could not provide the final ball for the forwards. The Nigerian midfield trio of Onazi, Mikel and Azeez are not natural creative midfielders and in Mikel the team has a footballer who seems to be superior to the rest and plays in whatever way he desires to. We shall return to this later.
Forwards: The starting front three ─ Ahmed Musa, Emmanuel Emenike and Victor Moses ─ on paper offered the team pace, power and guile. However, it was patently unfair and almost always unworkable to set a team out and ask the front players to weave the magic alone and win matches. Against Iran in Curitiba, it did not work and it was not from a lack of effort.
Since winning the AFCON and playing at the Confederations Cup later in 2013, honest assessment of the African Champions will show a team that has not improved tactically. One can even say that the team has regressed.
One of the points being made about this present set of Nigeria’s Super Eagles is that unlike in previous years the team lacks quality of players and this may well be true. It then becomes extremely important that this ‘defect’ is fixed with proper tactical plans and coaching. This is so clearly lacking at the moment and it is very embarrassing to observe.
In possession the Nigerian team seem very ponderous once the ball gets to Mikel or Onazi. The absence of a genuine dribbler in that midfield role also means that passes from the midfielders are almost always sideways or backwards. The biggest conundrum is that the team has in Mikel and Onazi, two players who are defensive midfielders at their European clubs but here are asked to provide creativity. Can’t work. Won’t work.
Playing against Iran who were content to sit deep and defend, it was surprising that both Mikel and Onazi finished the match. One of them should have gone off for Osaze Odemwigie with Ramon Azeez pushed back a little – to bring on Odemwigie with less than 15 minutes to go was hard to understand.
The biggest indictment on the coaching of the team, or the inherent lack of it, is the abject nature of the set-pieces. At this level of football it was embarrassing to watch. Nigeria over the last 18 months seem to pose little or no threat from free-kicks or corner kicks. The plan seems to be – knock it to Emenike to strike it, if it is close to the box. Anywhere else and the delivery is usually poor into the area.
Unfortunately, no one can say this performance against Iran was a one-off. To have a striker of the power and pace of Emenike and not get him into scoring positions even on one clear occasion says a lot about the team.
There has to be some tough but brave decisions made for the next match against Bosnia-Herzegovina which has now become a must win tie.
One of these decisions is to play only ONE of Mikel or Onazi, with the one chosen instructed clearly to SIT as a proper holding midfielder. Ramon Azeez should then also start but this time he should have Odemwigie ahead of him. How Ahmed Musa (pictured) starts and finishes so many matches has baffled more informed match observers than this writer so I am not going to try to analyse it, except to say he needs to sit out the next match.
Coach Stephen Keshi has been a wonderful servant of the country both as a player and as AFCON-winning coach that has also taken the team to a World Cup. The biggest danger to his short term reputation is the state of the side currently, he has to step it up now.