Nigeria repeated the trick from four days earlier: going behind early, before reeling the opponent back in and pulling ahead.
However, here the circumstances were slightly different.
Against Benin, a somewhat dozy start was to blame, as was the continued erosion of Jamilu Collins’ form. He paid for that here with his place in the starting line-up, with Chidozie Awaziem coming in and Ola Aina moving to left-back.
What Lesotho had going for them, however, was the element of uncertainty.
Much has been made of the hard, bouncy surface; as artificial turf goes, the Setsoto Stadium hardly offered the very highest grade. The key uncertainty that contributed to their opener was of a tactical kind, though.
Increasingly, the idea of a front two causes defenders problems, as it forces both centre-backs to engage at the same time, and there is no spare man. Here, Lesotho’s system allied two strikers with aggressive wing-backs, and Nkoto Masoabi met a teasing cross from the left wing with a well-placed header. Semi Ajayi, usually tasked with sweeping up behind William Troost-Ekong rather than engaging himself, barely got off the ground.
The West Brom man did not have the strongest first half: he never got tight enough to his man, and Lesotho were able to work interesting combinations between the front two, especially when Aina and Awaziem advanced to close down their wing-backs.
However, after the initial period of adaptation to the surface, the Super Eagles found a tactical advantage in possession: the home side’s eagerness to go man-for-man in midfield meant they gave up quite a bit of space in front of the defence, and Samuel Chukwueze began to drop into that zone more frequently.
– Took @NGSuperEagles some time to get to grips with Lesotho’s front two and wing-backs.— Solace Chukwu (@TheOddSolace) November 17, 2019
– Samuel Chukwueze’s movement between the lines has been brilliant.
– Osimhen: two assists. What an upgrade. Cannot wait for the goals start pouring in (and they will).#LESNGA #AFCON2021Q
There, he was able to receive the ball and run at the Lesotho defence; neither the wing-back nor the outside centre-back in the back three was comfortable following him, and he was able to influence the game and turn the tide slowly.
Moses Simon soon began to mirror the same movement on the other flank, and suddenly Nigeria had a situational 5v3 advantage in the middle of the pitch, and that forced Lesotho’s midfield two a little deeper. Consequently, Alex Iwobi’s influence on the game grew; it also helped that he had been the beneficiary of Victor Osimhen’s industry, firing from a tight angle to level the score.
There was also the beginning of a quite interesting attacking dynamic between Osimhen and Chukwueze. The latter now appears to take the former dropping deep as a cue to run in behind; against Benin, the Villarreal man struck the frame of the goal, here he was more precise with his head, looping a header over Ntsane Lichaba.
However, the lack of stability in deeper positions remained, and Awaziem’s tentative attacking movements meant the full benefit of the wingers’ narrow positioning was not maximized.
Despite leading 2-1, Gernot Rohr made a surprising move.
He mirrored the home side’s back three, with Awaziem at right centre-back, Moses Simon moving to right wing-back, and a flat two of Wilfred Ndidi and Joe Aribo in midfield.
This meant Iwobi and Chukwueze permanently between the liners, a sort of box midfield, and Osimhen forcing the Lesotho backline back.
“In the second half, we changed our organisation a little bit and it was better and better,” Rohr said after the game.
Indeed it was, as Nigeria produced their most controlled spell of the match; suddenly able to retain the ball in the middle of the pitch.
Now, both Aina and Simon had straightforward one-on-one duels on the flanks, and Aina relished the freedom of the left side, getting forward uninhibited to great effect and assisting Osimhen for 3-1.
Most crucially, the Super Eagles now had a spare man at the back, and defended with more stability.
There was a hairy moment when Ekong mistimed stepping out of the back, opening the defence up and almost getting Awaziem in trouble. However, referee Joshua Bondo took an extremely kind view of the incident.
The tactical switch was key, in that it helped Nigeria wrest proper control of the tie, and exert their superior quality.
It was also key in answering a criticism of Rohr: that his ability to read a game is non-existent. He even got the substitutions correct, and all in good time: Samuel Kalu for a flagging Moses Simon; Ramon Azeez – a more tenacious midfield presence – for Aribo; and Musa for Chukwueze.
While there is no guarantee that his reticence will not re-emerge in tournaments, it was hugely encouraging to see him make a proactive tactical shift, and reap the reward(s) with an improved display.