At its core, football coaching is about managing the game’s inherent tendency toward disorder. This is attempted in a number of ways; tactical systems being one of them.
However, it is important to see a system as less a defined unbreakable structure and more a basic guideline, a default to which the team is to revert between bursts of entropy. The coach creates a framework for the team with an eye toward utilizing certain qualities in zones he considers appropriate, but then once the whistle goes, the players are required to move around in relation to the ball, to their opponents, and even to their own team mates.
It is necessary then for the coach to draw up his system with this understanding, while considering two things
- The ability of his players to shift between roles and duties in different phases of play, and
- Their aptitude to solve problems dynamically as they manifest during play.
During the 4-2 victory over Lesotho in November, Gernot Rohr began the game with his hybrid 4-2-3-1/4-3-3, and went into half-time leading 2-1.
However, when the teams emerged for the second half, the German had altered the shape of the team, moving to 3-4-2-1. The reason why this was necessary was covered in this piece, but what was most interesting about it was that he effected this without making any substitutions at all – his selection on the day had made it possible to shift from a 4-man defence to a 3-man defence almost surreptitiously.
In recent times, it has become nigh-on meaningless to refer to a team as “complete”, so much so that the term has been stripped of meaning. However, the true mark of a complete team would be its ability to resolve difficulty on the pitch. In order for a group to reach a point of absolute realization, it must be able to handle whatever it is faced with on any given matchday without the necessity of a substitution.
If this seems disagreeable, indulge a brief digression for a theory of mine.
Nigerians mostly understand their football in the same way that they do their society: they’re used to dysfunction as a default, and to a rectification that comes from an external influence or savior figure.
Similarly, the idea of a starting 11 without flaws from the start seems almost hubristic – “leave something in reserve!” they cry – forgetting that substitutions, unless in cases where fitness has been divined as a specific weakness of the opponent, are largely about fixing a problem with the initial group, or reacting to a situation beyond the abilities of the starting players. No, it has to be that salvation comes from the bench; the idea of a working, self-correcting system from the start is alien and as such, disturbing.
This, to a degree, is the basis on which the scrappy Julius Aghahowa came to be so highly-regarded. It also explains why most Nigerian football fans – in fairness, this is not a foible peculiar to this demographic – often rate coaches rather inordinately on their ability to make match-saving interventions from the bench. These moments are necessary, of course; however, when a manager makes a habit of it or seems to need it a lot, it is usually an indicator of something amiss in his match preparation to begin with.
To return to that Lesotho game, the key to the seamless transition to a back three lay in the versatility of Nantes forward Moses Simon, who went from performing an inside-forward role on the left of the attack to playing at right wing-back. He would ultimately be substituted after 78 minutes, but he was important tactically to the state of the game, while also allowing Rohr keep back a sub for later.
However, that was just the one eventuality. If the requirement came to switch to a different system altogether, might the transition have been as smooth? How far along would the coaching crew be able to go before it began shoving square pegs in slots to which they are ill-fitting? And is it possible to select an 11 with the ability to adapt to whatever shape is required to gain the upper hand in a tactical battle?
In the interest of this analysis, we will take a look at nine different systems: the first five based on a back four, the other four based on a back three.
First, a look at what appears to be the first-choice starting lineup at the moment.
Immediately, it sticks out that the problematic player in terms of adaptability to various roles in Samuel Kalu. All else works just fine – Wilfred Ndidi spent some time earlier in his career playing at centre-back, and would be able to slot in there in a back three at a pinch, while Alex Iwobi’s best performance in Nigeria colours came when playing in a front two with Kelechi Iheanacho.
Kalu, however, presents a number of uncomfortable compromises. While, in a number of cases, especially with a back three, the problem can be somewhat remedied by simply moving him to play right wing-back and moving Aina to the other flank, that would still leave the problem of what exactly to do with Jamilu Collins, who does not play anywhere else but left-back.
Once it is required to shift away from a back four system not involving wingers, Kalu begins to seem very out-of-place. Playing in the no. 10 zone is hardly the best use of his attributes, and he would similarly struggle with the tactical demands of a central midfield role.
Simon, as a rival for that starting spot on the left of the attack, also runs into this problem, although he has the advantage of having featured as a striker on occasion with Nantes, and so would be able to, in a pinch, partner Osimhen upfront. That would see Chukwueze play in the attacking midfield band in a 4-2-2-2 system; doable, but it becomes a bit trickier if he has to play at the top of a midfield diamond.
The same applies to Heerenveen’s Chidera Ejuke, who was used in a very interesting forward role and distinguished himself personally, albeit in a 3-0 defeat to Ajax in February; ditto Club Brugge’s Emmanuel Dennis. Both, however, leave something to be desired when it comes to their application without the ball, a factor sure to count against them.
So, a replacement for Bordeaux man Kalu in the starting lineup would need to
- Be able to play wide, but also slot into a midfield/central attacking midfield role
- Offer the same (or better) dribbling (3.2 successful dribbles per 90), ball progression and defensive contribution (46% duels won, 1.2 interceptions p90, 0.5 clearances p90) that he does.
An interesting option would be to move Iwobi out to the left and reintroduce Oghenekaro Etebo to the starting lineup. While it solves every problem tactically, it disrupts one of the major gains of Rohr’s continuity: the positioning of Iwobi to start counter-attacks.
The Everton man’s ability to play one-touch means he exerts a huge influence over the team’s transitional play and, for all his qualities, Etebo does not replicate this adequately. Rohr has stated his preference is to play quickly into pace in the wide areas, and while Iwobi is no slouch, speed is not his strongest attribute.
Perhaps the most optimal solution involves a player who has yet to actually play for the Super Eagles, but who is set to play a big part in the team’s evolution going forward: Ovie Ejaria.
Plug him into the system, and it’s immediately obvious how he resolves most of the concerns.
Fitting to protest on the grounds that he’s a central midfielder? While that is technically true, he is well capable of playing wide on the left. In fact, Reading have utilized him in that role on a number of occasions this season, and he often drifts out wide when played centrally. His heat map paints an interesting picture, as do his numbers: 3.3 dribbles p90, 52% of duels won, 1.5 interceptions p90, 0.7 clearances p90. The lad is no slouch.
Also, here is a little demonstration of his productivity from the left against one of the better teams in the Championship. Reading beat promotion-chasing Fulham at Craven Cottage on New Year’s Day, and the 22-year-old was involved in both goals.
While this is by no means a call for Ejaria to walk straight into the Super Eagles starting lineup (and should not be seen as such), he fits very well into the group in terms of offering tactical options in a number of different systems. When he is ready, this is just one way in which he could be integrated in order to provide Nigeria with that rarest of traits: the wherewithal to seamlessly shift between systems as the game demands.