In the squad named by Super Eagles coach Gernot Rohr for March’s double-header against Sierra Leone, two names jump out right away: Cyriel Dessers and Kingsley Ehizibue.
Where Dessers is concerned, there is already a sense of familiarity. He has long stated his preference to represent Nigeria on the international stage, and his name has hovered on the fringes for quite a while. A decent explainer of his style can be found here, but it is easy enough to see what the upside is.
He leads the Eredivisie in scoring so far this season with 15 playing for a modest Heracles; however cynical you feel about his choice – “would he stand a chance anyway holding out for a Belgian call-up,” the naysayers argue – goals are a currency difficult to gainsay.
The real mystery, however, is with Koln’s Ehizibue.
The 24-year-old was born in Munich, but grew up in the Netherlands and spent his formative years at PEC Zwolle. After seven years with the Eredivisie side, he made the step up to the Bundesliga with Koln last summer, and so far this season has scored once and laid on another in 21 league appearances.
He has always been rated quite highly, and represented the Netherlands at youth level, albeit in a non-competitive fixture against Serbia in 2016. Unlike Dessers, he was previously keen to represent the Oranje at full international level as well, and even refused to rule out a Germany call-up. As such, his selection has come as a bit of a shock.
Resist the temptation, however, to chalk this decision up to convenience. Ehizibue is very open about his faith – he is a member of a Christian WhatsApp group with a number of other young footballers. His belief system informs much of his choices. He turned down a very lucrative move to Genoa during the 2018/19 winter break at the last moment; he had already been received by the Serie A side, but demurred because the night before the signing was to be concluded he was restless.
“My gut feeling was wrong,” the 24-year-old told 11Freunde.
This suggests a player who considers his decisions very deliberately, and who is unlikely to decide on a whim. “I obey my [inner] self and find peace,” he said.
His upbringing is also quite relatable. Ehizibue failed his first try-out at PEC Zwolle, partly because he turned up in swimming trunks. He chalks it up to naivety, but really it was more to do with the fact he grew up poor and his family did not have the money to get him the right gear. At his amateur club CSV 28 (also based in Zwolle), he had always trained in swimming trunks, and so thought nothing of it.
However, the initial rejection spurred him on, and two years later (in 2012) he was invited again. That time around, he was accepted.
Ehizibue came through at Zwolle playing both as a right-winger and a right-back, before being converted fully to the latter position.
He has described his speed as his greatest asset, one which enables him to “cover the entire right flank”, and he does extra sessions to improve his explosiveness and power. He currently holds the Bundesliga sprint record, clocking a top speed of 35.85km/h.
At Koln, however, the attacking side of his game has taken a back seat somewhat. With the Billy Goats in the lower reaches of the table, he has generally done much of his best work inside his own half, using his pace to good effect in defensive situations: he averages 2 clearances a game, an indication his mobility gets him first to loose balls inside his defensive third.
There is a slight concern with Ehizibue, and it is in the fact he has given away two penalties already so far this season. Both – against RB Leipzig and Bayern Munich – were for incredibly clumsy challenges on Christopher Nkunku and Philippe Coutinho respectively, and both came in situations where he was caught out positionally. It could be an indication of a weakness in high-pressure situations—those are the top two teams in the Bundesliga.
The case can be made that the full-back position is the one, goalkeeper aside, that Gernot Rohr has most struggled to fill in his time as Super Eagles coach.
At the Africa Cup of Nations in 2019, the German went through all his options in the squad, but never seemed quite convinced by any of them. Ola Aina started the tournament with a glorious assist in the opening game, and then lost his place after the Round of 16. Shehu Abdullahi also started against Burundi, but was taken off before half-time and was not seen again.
Ultimately, he settled upon Chidozie Awaziem, a natural centre-back, and a convalescing Jamilu Collins.
The Super Eagles’ most recent outing against Lesotho saw Aina start at left-back following Collins’ loss of form over the course of the previous three matches, and Awaziem start at right-back before reverting to the centre of a back three at half-time as Rohr made a tactical adjustment.
Simply put, it is a matter of no little urgency that some sort of stability is found.
Ehizibue should mean the end to Awaziem moonlighting as a right-back, and means Aina and Collins will likely have to duke it out for the left-back spot.