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.
Lesotho start strong
Increasingly, the idea of a front two causes defenders problems in modern football. 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. In the 11th minute, the hosts took the lead, as 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, in truth. 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.
Chukwueze’s movement brings Nigeria back into it
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. This forced the Lesotho midfield two a little deeper and, as a result, Alex Iwobi’s influence on the game grew. In the 26th minute, he was the beneficiary of Victor Osimhen’s industry, receiving a through ball and firing home from a tight angle to level the score.
There is also the beginnings 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 for the lead.
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.
Rohr tactical switch wrests back control
At half-time, despite leading 2-1, Gernot Rohr made a surprising move.
He mirrored the home side’s back three: Awaziem moved central, Moses Simon moved to right wing-back, and Nigeria presented Wilfred Ndidi and Joe Aribo in midfield.
This meant Iwobi and Chukwueze permanently between the lines and Osimhen forcing the Lesotho defence 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.
Nigeria run up the score
Also, both Aina and Simon had straightforward one-on-one duels on the flanks. Aina relished the freedom of the left side, getting forward uninhibited to great effect and assisting Osimhen for 3-1 with 15 minutes to play.
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.
There was time still for Osimhen to complete his brace. With six minutes to play, he finished off a sweeping counter with a delicate dink from a Ramon Azeez pass for 4-1.
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; 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.