In the build-up to their Quarter-final meeting on Wednesday, Stuart Baxter and Gernot Rohr engaged in a bit of verbal jousting, first tipping their hats and then stridently trying to pin the tag of ‘favourites’ on each other.
Rohr went first, his argument being that defeating the hosts Egypt, “favourite number one” in his mind, made South Africa the favourites.
He doubled down on this view, implying his side’s strengths going into the game would be their “unity” and “fighting spirit” – both traits that typically define the underdog – rather than quality. He also pointedly referred to Bafana as the “new” favourites; a subtle subliminal put-down of South Africa as upstarts, without pedigree.
Baxter bit (back), and hard. “Nigeria is absolutely one of the best teams on the continent and have been for a long time. One game doesn’t make us favourites. I don’t think he’s fooling anybody.”
It was a forceful comeback: no shouting into a microphone on radio, index finger jabbing the air and eyes wide; none of that. But it was clear which man had won the mind game.
All things considered, the mental state of both teams was perhaps the key determining factor on the night. Where the euphoria of a comeback against Cameroon meant Nigeria were high on adrenaline, South Africa’s victory had been a methodical effort, their winner the culmination of a slow asphyxiation of the host nation over the course of the preceding of 85 minutes. Bafana came in here gorged, and perhaps even too pleased with their work.
Consequently, they lacked the same urgency against the Super Eagles. There was a physical angle to it as well: having exerted so much energy closing off passing lanes and denying Egypt any sort of breathing room in dangerous areas, the front five looked a step slower to put their foot in, and arrived to duels just that fraction of a second later than they might have.
It provides one explanation for why international tournaments can lack the excitement that characterizes club football. It is, among other things, down to the intensity of pressing: with the turnaround time between matches at international tournaments short, there simply is not enough time to recover from breakneck physical exertion.
By necessity then, international teams will mostly hang back and focus on a solid shape; last year, France rode precisely that approach to World Cup glory, without ever looking convincing, or even greater than the sum of their stellar parts.
With the intense high press gone, what else was left?
Well, there was the interplay in midfield by which they progressed up the field to great effect against the Pharaohs. Nigeria, however, took that option away simply by not committing to an aggressive press.
Both Alex Iwobi and Odion Ighalo retreated as far as the centre-circle, the idea being to let the centre-backs have the ball while preventing passes through the middle. The Arsenal man also tried to maintain access to Bafana’s deepest midfielder Dean Furman, but was wise to his ploy of moving to the right of the centre-backs in order to draw him out, and remained disciplined.
When the ball went dead, the Nigeria defence line pushed right up, allowing Wilfred Ndidi and Oghenekaro Etebo to get on the toes of Bafana’s midfielders and dominate second balls. However, in open play, the focus was very much on squeezing the space between the lines.
It worked. South Africa were forced to look for direct diagonals to the wingers in the first half, but they were unable to get the better of Chidozie Awaziem and Jamilu Collins, who were switched on and got their body positioning correct time and again.
However, some of that was also down to a peculiar foible of South African football(ers): there is a surplus of players who want to get on the ball, but precious few who understand the value of “running away” from the ball, of creating depth both as a means of upsetting an opponent’s compact structure and for incision.
Without a player like this, the Super Eagles were eminently comfortable playing high up the pitch, and only twice in the entire game did Bafana attempt to spring someone in behind: the first time, Thamsanqa Mkhize was called offside; the second time, Kenneth Omeruo produced a sliding tackle to prevent the pass to Mothiba slipping through the net.
By contrast, Nigeria captain Ahmed Musa at the other end was all incision, but very little end product as a result, constantly going in behind and haring past Mkhize on the outside. Arguably, if South Africa had a player in their team able to do what he does, they would immediately be more dangerous: their style demands a complex choreography, every note needing to be perfect like the opera, permitting no dissonance when, really, they could do with a good drum solo, even if only to vary the tempo.
Musa did not have his best game by any stretch, but he was crucial here to the gameplan: as I noted in my preview, it would be necessary to get the ball to the wingers in space and in one-on-one situations with the full-backs in order to exploit South Africa’s narrow block.
Iwobi – who had a very good game – drifting out to the left created an overload on that flank, freeing up goalscorer Samuel Chukwueze on the right, and Musa switched the play time and again to allow him isolate Sifiso Hlanti and accelerate past him.
It was clearly an instruction, as Chukwueze returned the favour, usually after first dribbling infield to create a better angle. At times, it seemed like they were playing one-twos, only over the width of the pitch, and South Africa’s full-backs endured torrid games.
Baxter, speaking before the game on his team’s prospects, said, “When we hit a balance between good organisation and getting on the ball and playing with pace and using our natural inherent technique we can give anybody a game.”
That really was, and is, the difference between these two teams: South Africa need(ed) a lot of things to go right in order to be competitive; the more things there are that need to be right, the more things there are that can go wrong. Perfection exacts a high price, and requires superhuman consistency. The argument can be made that, until one is able to achieve a result while carrying out a function at a less than optimum level, one has yet to reach mastery in that function.
Players like Musa and Chukwueze might not zip a thousand passes between themselves in the middle of the park, and the former in particular may be the walking embodiment of inconsistency, but they only need to get behind once to create danger.