NIGERIA 2-1 BENIN: PROBLEM-SOLVING 101
Nigeria beating Benin might seem routine, even “logical” in the words of the Squirrels’ boss Michel Dussuyer, but it was a result elevated by the entire context surrounding it.
Much of the build-up coming into November’s international window had instead centred on Gernot Rohr’s contract winding down: whether he would be renewed, and under what terms a potential renewal should be.
Perhaps one of the most impressive facets of the German’s management of the Super Eagles has come off-the-field. His willingness to remain detached – at least outwardly – from the politics of the Nigeria Football Federation has insulated him from a lot of the pervasive chaos in the Glass House.
This was something that, pointedly, former national team coach Stephen Keshi played a lot differently. It eventually contributed to a calamitous start to the qualifying campaign for the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations as, amid all the uncertainty around the football administration, Nigeria fell to a 3-2 home defeat to Congo in Calabar, a result that would ultimately prove terminal.
This game threatened to echo that somewhat, as Benin took an early lead in Uyo through Stephane Sessegnon.
There are few worse sides on the continent to go a goal behind to: Dussuyer’s side proved this at the Africa Cup of Nations in the summer, as they drew their way to the Quarter Final stage by being solid and relying on breaks and set-pieces. Along the way, they eliminated one of the pre-tournament favourites in Morocco, and held off Senegal till very late.
Allied to that is the fact that one of the chief concerns around the Super Eagles under Gernot Rohr has been just how they would respond to having to chase games against precisely this sort of opponent. Being able to break into space through the pace of the wingers is one thing, but needing to prise open an obdurate defence is quite another.
As it turns out, the Super Eagles managed it in the end, and there was even enough to suggest that the problem-solving potential of the side is growing with experience; the two goals were illustrations of just what is needed in order to overcome a deep block.
For the equalizer, the build-up notably featured both full-backs: Jamilu Collins’ driven cross into the box was worked all the way over to the other flank, where Ola Aina won a penalty after a one-two with Alex Iwobi. The use of width was important, and it is instructive that rather than sling crosses into the box, the focus was on low deliveries against the grain, as well as on combining quickly to create an opening.
The value of dribbling as a tool against a defensive opponent was alslo emphasized by Samuel Kalu’s brilliant solo goal, which proved to be the winner.
Jamilu Collins needs competition
The Paderborn left-back has struggled in recent internationals, and was again in the wrong as Benin took a shock early lead. The 23-year-old can sometimes lack concentration and positional awareness, but his sterling physical attributes will usually get him out of trouble.
However, the concern with defenders of this ilk is that when they are less than 100 per cent physically, there is nothing to fall back upon. The brief turnaround time during international breaks also does not help him in this regard.
While there is room for improvement, and he has performed creditably overall, he could do with some competition to really light a fire under him. Perhaps some jeopardy might spark greater mental engagement from him.
Closing out the game remains an issue
It is difficult to quarrel with a hard-fought victory in potentially tricky circumstances, but a slight nit-pick would be the team’s inability to slam the door shut in games. Benin hit the post late on, and substitute Chidozie Awaziem needed to pull off a brilliant last-ditch tackle to secure the result.
It is not exactly a new complaint though, and while many will be quick to blame Rohr, the truth is there simply is no midfielder of that ilk within the national team set-up at the moment. There are ball-winners aplenty (Wilfred Ndidi, Ramon Azeez and Oghenekaro Etebo), and even an interesting option for marshalling space in Mikel Agu, but there really is no player who can take the sting out of the game with controlled possession.
That has to be a point of concern for Rohr, and he will need to exercise his scouts to find someone in that mould. It is hard to imagine that living on the edge holds much appeal for him at 66; if it does for him, then maybe think about the fans?
Hats off, Victor Osimhen and Alex Iwobi
There is little more one can say about Osimhen. It may seem a tad hyperbolic, but the Lille striker is probably the closest thing the national team has seen to a complete striker in ages. Pace, a lithe frame that lends itself to agility, and a tireless work ethic combine with a clean strike technically for the perfect killing machine.
So far, both his goals for the Super Eagles have come from the spot, but that does not count against him in the slightest, as so much of what comes before and after is of a high quality. Here, he set up Samuel Chukwueze with a brilliant bit of link-up play in the first half, and worked Fabien Farnolle in the Benin goal.
Behind him, Iwobi’s ability to find pockets of space was, and is, a breath of fresh air. Whether dropping deep to pick up the ball and progress it, or positioning himself in the half-space, the Everton man is a prompter of all that happens in the attack. He seems to work better the less space he has, interestingly.