In the immediate aftermath of Nigeria’s loss to Algeria, there were parallels immediately drawn with the defeat suffered at the hands of Argentina at the 2018 World Cup.
Then, as now, Nigeria had reeled in a one-goal deficit from the penalty spot, only to be sucker-punched late on and exit the competition.
However, attractive as the similarities are in a broad sense, a more accurate equivalent is closer to hand: the Super Eagles victory over South Africa in the previous round unfolded in much the same way as the events of Sunday night, albeit with the roles reversed. This time, it was Nigeria who were fortunate to be handed a lifeline, only to then have the natural superiority of their opponents win over at the end.
In much the same way as Nigeria were so apparently on a different level to Bafana, Algeria were able to keep the Super Eagles at bay with almost contemptuous ease. The reason for this, and for the bloodless victory of the previous round was the same: Stuart Baxter’s side simply did not have the tools on the pitch to cause Nigeria harm; similarly, Gernot Rohr’s men were unable to lay any hurt on Algeria.
However, unlike with South Africa, it was not a problem of unavailability, but of capacity and misappropriation.
Indeed, on the night, the two chief foibles of Rohr’s time in charge of the national team combined for a highly unsatisfactory outcome: his inability to consistently change the tide of a game via tactical alterations, and his unwillingness to trust the team with the handbrake off.
The former was in evidence in the aforementioned defeat at the hands of Argentina, where his inability to account for the movement into the final third of the opposition left-back all-game long ultimately saw his side concede late: Gabriel Mercado swept in a cross from the right flank, and arriving in the centre of the box was Marcos Rojo from deep to turn the ball home.
Through the course of the Africa Cup of Nations, maintaining compactness between the lines of defence and midfield has been a concern due to the composition of the double pivot: both Wilfred Ndidi and Oghenekaro Etebo are aggressive players whose preference is to press the man in possession rather than to protect the zone in front of the back four.
Here, they found themselves in the eye of a raging storm, overloaded in central areas and unable to keep up with the tempo of Algeria’s passing.
Throughout the tournament, the positioning of Riyad Mahrez has been a point of interest tactically. Often, he takes up very narrow, deep positions in the build-up, allowing Sofiane Feghouli to push up higher and creating a somewhat lopsided diamond in the middle of the pitch. One possible reason for this is for a more effective defensive transition – Feghouli being the more intense in pressing situations – while it could also be a ploy to leverage Mahrez’s passing range by placing him in a zone whence he can have a wider field of vision.
He can, however, be pressed more readily himself, and indeed Nigeria’s best opening in the first half came from such a situation, as Etebo pressed him into a turnover. However, such opportunities were not always seized upon, and with Feghouli breaking into the space behind him, Etebo’s timing of the pressing actions needed to be spot on anyway to take advantage.
With Algeria playing through the Nigerian midfield with a spare man, and then switching the ball to the far-side winger, they were posing problems the players on the pitch could not solve. Despite such an obvious numerical disadvantage in that zone, there was no move from Rohr to alter the shape of the team; a change to a 3-4-2-1 could have allowed the Super Eagles to compete in the centre of the pitch, while potentially solving the team’s major problem going forward: a lack of impetus out wide.
Samuel Chukwueze was unable to reprise his performance from the win over South Africa here, and was shut down by the close attentions of Ramy Bensebaini, who was saved from having to worry about a possible overlap by the fact Nigeria fielded Chidozie Awaziem at right-back. This brings the discussion right around to the other major foible of the Rohr tenure.
Following the return to fitness of Jamilu Collins after the Group Stage, it was expected that Ola Aina, who had made a game fist of playing at left-back – and played one of the passes of the tournament to get the Super Eagles off the mark in the opening game against Burundi – would return to right-back and end the reliance on an out-of-position Awaziem. Instead, Rohr elected to drop Aina altogether, the rationale being that he had been poor against Cameroon, which always seemed extremely harsh; instead, it is probably likelier that Rohr simply was wary of fielding two attack-minded full-backs at the same time.
As it turned out, a still match-rusty Collins was unable to get forward to any significant degree, and so Nigeria essentially had six of 10 outfield players contributing little to the attack. For all that Awaziem had been solid defensively and dropping him would have appeared unwarranted, for the overall function of the team, it probably needed to be done. It was amusing to see Bensebaini not bother with him on the handful of occasions he did get forward, as he obviously lacked the nous and technique to take advantage.
A 3-4-2-1, with Ahmed Musa and Collins withdrawn for Aina and Moses Simon, could have had a ripple effect right through the team: both as wing-backs would have forced Riyad Mahrez and Youcef Belaili back; in the inside-forward positions Chukwueze and Alex Iwobi would have been able to play closer to Ighalo and overload Adlene Guedioura, while at the same time posing a dilemma for the Algeria full-backs Bensebaini and Mehdi Zeffane; and crucially Nigeria would have evened the numbers in the middle of the pitch, while being able to defend the half-spaces better.
Instead, Rohr’s sole substitution was a slightly puzzling one: having opted against using Henry Onyekuru all tournament, even when the game state was crying out for it (in the second half against South Africa, with spaces opening up on the counterattack), the German sent him on in place of Chukwueze to play on the right.
Perhaps the idea was for him to take up more aggressive positions, but he was even less likely than Chukwueze to beat Bensebaini in a sprint, and he is not as good a dribbler as the Villarreal youngster. Instead, it felt like a sop; if it was – and it may well have been, as Rohr has (circumstantial) previous in using players he does not trust in less-than-optimal roles in order to more readily dismiss them (see: Anthony Nwakaeme, John Ogu) – then the timing of it was particularly ill-judged.
All things considered, perhaps the closest similarity to that Argentina game in Saint Petersburg, beyond the events on the pitch, is the crushing feeling that, despite facing a superior opponent, Nigeria did not exactly deploy at full capacity themselves. Here, faced with an opponent that had played 120 minutes and penalties in the previous round, with a day’s less rest, the Super Eagles – and Rohr – failed to press home their advantage.