In the midst of the raging battle that was Nigeria’s lone-goal victory over Guinea, there ensued a slow dance, an engagement of sorts between the game’s two playmakers. Their moves in sync, each taking his cue from the other, they frolicked, never out of step; their private waltz the epicentre of the blood and thunder echoing around them.
It is difficult to pinpoint at what point football lost its innocence, or whether it ever even had it. In any case, evolution was inevitable: if football is seen as a sort of war, then it makes sense that its strategy would incorporate means not just by which one’s resources might be best deployed, but also by which the opponent’s own strengths would be minimized.
Even that concern has in turn evolved and taken on a more proactive bent in the form of counter-pressing. However, as a concept, shutting down the opposition’s key player(s) is very much an important facet of tactical planning.
The trouble, as even the great Franz Beckenbauer found out in 1986, comes when the only player in a position to shut down the opponent’s best (or, at least, most influential) player is also your most influential player. In the final of that year’s tournament, Lothar Mathaus spent the entire game shadowing Diego Maradona. The upshot of this was that neither exerted the greatest influence on proceedings until the latter, in a lone moment of freedom, slid in Jorge Burruchaga for a late winner.
In Alexandria, there was no reprieve for either Alex Iwobi or Amadou Diawara, who both might have been playing their own one-on-one mini football game as the other twenty players clattered into each other and the wounded dropped to the ground from pain and exhaustion.
Napoli’s Diawara has found game time hard to come by under Carlo Ancelotti, who has transitioned away from the 4-3-3 system that predecessor Maurizio Sarri installed with great success in Naples. However, he remains a young regista of impressive vision, both able to dictate the tempo of a game and unhinge a defence playing as a “quarterback”.
Madagascar awoke to his gifts much too late in the opening group game; they had already gotten fair warning by the time he sent Sory Kaba away behind the Malagasy defence for the opener, as he had done the same just minutes before.
It was obvious to Gernot Rohr, then, that to allow him that license would be criminal.
Iwobi, for all that he had a manifestly weak performance in possession, was pivotal still to the development of the game, albeit in an indirect way. He maintained access to Diawara at all times, and even when he stepped through to the ball carrier, screened passes into the Napoli man diligently.
The ripple effect of this was manifold: first of all, Guinea now had no player capable of putting his foot on the ball, and with Nigeria parading a midfield of Oghenekaro Etebo and Wilfred Ndidi – two committed battlers who are limited on the ball – there were frequent turnovers and breaks in play. It lent itself to a great deal of action, but little invention; and perhaps Rohr might have been better served starting John Obi Mikel in a deep role, or at least bringing him on in the second half.
Indirectly, it also contributed to the solidity of the Nigerian defence on the day. For all the plaudits Kenneth Omeruo has earned for his star turn, there has never been much of a doubt as to his ability to defend what is in front of him. It is why he has thrived at Leganes; in the middle of the back three, he has the entirety of the play in front of him in a team that defends deep, and so can see all of it.
It is in having to turn quickly and face his own goal that he is sometimes found wanting. Here, with Iwobi screening the one Guinea player capable of picking out a run over the top, neither Omeruo nor Balogun, himself not the quickest in short bursts, was forced to face that scenario.
That diligence took a toll as the game wore on, but no Nigerian player drew more saves from Guinean goalkeeper Ibrahim Kone, and it was his blocked shot that won the corner, leading to the winner.
While his functions were undeniably important to the team, it was one of the Arsenal attacker’s weakest games in a Nigeria shirt. However, that is what happens a creator has to fulfil a strict defensive brief. Essentially, to watch the duel between Iwobi and Diawara was (to borrow a turn of phrase from Vicente Del Bosque) “to see the whole game”.
That this duel between the game’s two outstanding playmakers was ultimately about defensive application is, in a way, a commentary on modern football.