It can be a bit of a taxing exercise following the trajectory of the Nigeria national team under Gernot Rohr. Not so much because there is a lot to unpack, but rather the opposite: there can be frustratingly little from one match to the next.
The progress is glacial, a bit like the inevitable trudge of the undead army in the acclaimed HBO series ‘Game of Thrones’: you know something is coming, it seems mighty impressive in prospect, but it is taking an age to arrive.
The image of Rohr as the Night King is arresting: aloof, cold, little animation beyond the occasional smirk, inscrutable. However, where the similarity diverges fundamentally is in the constitution of their forces. However, more on that at the end.
From Ukraine to Brazil, from Dnipro to Kallang, the approach was largely the same, both in terms of strategy and shape. The hybrid 4-1-4-1/4-2-3-1 shape of the team largely stifled Brazil in Singapore, and whereas Andriy Shevchenko’s side were quite frequently able to advance the ball through the middle of the pitch and front up the back four, here the Selecao struggled to build in that fashion.
For that, however, the early departure of Neymar was crucial. His replacement, Philippe Coutinho, often came toward the ball too readily, being more of a midfielder, and made Wilfred Ndidi’s job somewhat easier; whereas Neymar had tried to exploit the Leicester man’s ball-orientation by making more blind-side movements, typically toward the left-hand side of the pitch.
The Super Eagles, on their part, carried less of a threat going forward for two reasons. The first, and most obvious, related to personnel.
The absence of Samuel Kalu hurt the team, as he is stronger running into space than Moses Simon. The Nantes man played the decisive pass for Joe Aribo’s goal, but aside his conscientiousness defensively (and playing close to Dani Alves was important), lacked composure and was much too indecisive in possession: in the move that resulted in Victor Osimhen testing Ederson in the 5th minute, he mistimed the pass to Alex Iwobi, and then played it to the Everton man’s wrong foot, forcing him out to the channel, whereas a pass to his right would have allowed him open up his body into the centre of the pitch, with Aribo arriving.
The other reason was tactical, and was dictated by the decisions both sides made.
In order to protect the centre of the pitch, the Nigeria midfield three was a lot flatter and deeper than against Ukraine. This gave better coverage, but hindered transitions: the lines of midfield and attack were not as close, and so the option to use Osimhen to play wall passes and change the angle before springing one of the wingers was taken away.
It also meant there were fewer interceptions, and it is very likely that the sub-optimal state of the playing surface, in addition to the length of travel, dictated a less proactive approach.
Rohr: “They (Brazil) had the advantage to know the pitch… They had the advantage also to be used to the time difference because we arrived only two days ago.”
Crucially as well, the positioning of Alves, who played very narrow and deep, made it doubly difficult to break down his side of the pitch.
The move that led to the goal illustrated just how the Super Eagles should have looked to transition more: balls into space for Osimhen to chase. Forcing Brazil to turn exposed their less athletic midfield (Casemiro is impressive enough, but Arthur is not the most dynamic) and meant Aribo was able to dance onto the pass from Simon with scarcely a care in the world.
The Rangers man has begun his international career in quite dizzying fashion, and it is even more remarkable that he only returned to training 11 days before following that horrific head injury in the Scottish League Cup. His ability to carry the ball forward, using a drop of the shoulder to glide past challenges, is tremendous, and was particularly key in the second period, when the Super Eagles had to weather major pressure.
That pressure came in the form of set-plays, which on the surface was somewhat surprising, seeing as Nigeria had a height advantage.
Rohr: “We can still improve in defending set-pieces. We have height, with players as tall as two metres, but we have to be better in the air. It is not enough just to have good size, they need to jump well with good timing.”
One might also suggest that even that’s not enough in itself, and basic positional organization is needed as well, especially in second-phase deliveries when the initial set-piece is cleared or the corner is played short.
The evidence of these two friendlies suggests this is the next step in the forging of this team. Interestingly, it is not all that different from what obtained previously. The key differences are two-fold: in Osimhen upfront, there is greater dynamism and awareness upfront, and in Aribo there is more nous on the ball to progress the ball from deep.
The question is this: will Rohr be able to resist the temptation to return Oghenekaro Etebo to the starting lineup? Even this current state may be too much change for him, going by precedent: he already has seen what his side can do when let loose (in the second half against Argentina in 2017), and baulked at that promise.
The concern is that, while the frigid German has been able to imbue tactical discipline and a rigid structure, his “undead army” is very much alive, and wants to charge, rather than shuffle endlessly from side to side. What if it cannot, and the denouement we get from the Night King’s plan is altogether anticlimactic, and all that potential never quite comes together?