One of the intriguing things about international football is how national teams seek to take advantage of their best players’ attributes.
In this sense, the most poignant example is with Lionel Messi and Argentina. When Sergio Batista took charge of La Albiceleste in 2010 following the disaster that was that summer’s World Cup, he proposed a system that would ape Barcelona’s all-conquering team under Pep Guardiola.
That meant Messi in the “false nine” role that he had all but canonized, and a 4-3-3 system. It did not work.
For one thing, there were not enough analogues within the Argentina selection pool: Esteban Cambiasso and Ever Banega have had fine careers, but they were never Xavi and Andres Iniesta; Carlos Tevez was outrageously talented, but like Messi he had grown up idolizing Diego Maradona, so he wanted to play as a n.10, not as an identikit David Villa; and Javier Zanetti’s legendary engine, on its last legs, could not mimic Dani Alves’.
Even more importantly, Argentina simply could not replicate the pressing that made Barcelona so fearsome; it was not just a personnel problem, but a systematic one.
That offers a cautionary tale for what not to do, but that is not to say it is a broadly unrealistic desire. If there are passable facsimiles, and the players’ instincts are amenable to it, it is entirely within reason to seek to transplant a club’s style/shape (or both) into a national side. Replicating the approach ensures the best player is utilized, not just in his favoured position and role, but also within a system in which he is most comfortable.
This is relevant because, where the Nigeria national team is concerned, on the evidence of the second half against Cameroon, Gernot Rohr might have hit on a solution to his dysfunctional midfield almost by accident.
The immediate challenge presented when two 4-2-3-1 systems match-up is how to press the two deepest midfielders. In the first half, Nigeria’s idea was to have both Odion Ighalo and Alex Iwobi blocking the paths from the Cameroon centre-backs to Pierre Kunde and Georges Mandjeck.
The idea hit a stumble, however, whenever the ball was played out to the full-backs, most especially Ambroise Oyongo. Ighalo, covering that side, is a willing enough worker, but his defensive instincts are not refined; he often failed to re-orient himself in order to keep Mandjeck in his ‘shadow’, and this would force Wilfred Ndidi to step forward, leaving a lot of space behind him.
In addition to this, Ndidi and Oghenekaro Etebo, nominally the Super Eagles’ deepest midfielders, wanted to press Mandjeck and Kunde anyway. Interestingly, neither of them began their careers as defensive midfielders, and they are fielded there for their energy. Their natural instincts are inimical to holding disciplined positions in front of the defence, and so as they pushed forward, there was room aplenty between the defence and midfield lines. It is worth noting that this has been a problem persistently throughout the course of this tournament, and stretches back even further.
In that zone, Eric-Maxim Choupo-Moting revelled. In the first half, he was the game’s key player, constantly creating separation between himself and the Nigerian midfield. Regrettably for him, a lot of that excellent movement went unnoticed; despite playing out from the back, Cameroon were often too quick to fire direct passes into the wide areas for the wingers to take on.
His positioning was, however, exploited for the Indomitable Lions’ equalizer. With Ndidi forced to step out and cover Mandjeck, Choupo-Moting took advantage of the space behind him to receive the ball directly from Oyongo. William Troost-Ekong might have stepped out to him, but he had to mind Stephane Bahoken in his zone, and so was caught in no man’s land as the Angers man first pinned him, and then spun behind him to begin a far-post run.
That, however, was enough time for Choupo-Moting to receive and slip in Christian Bassogog on the left, whose cross was turned in by Bahoken.
Nigeria would go in behind at the break, but turned it around in the second period. The key here was a subtle but effective change of system to a 4-1-4-1, with Iwobi playing a slightly more withdrawn role to the right and Ndidi now tasked with marking Choupo-Moting tightly.
The midfield could now go man-for-man with no fear of leaving space to be exploited, but crucially Etebo was now acting higher up, in a more natural position, and was better able to shut down Kunde.
That really is the theme that defined the second half: simplification of duties. For Ighalo, his defensive detail now consisted simply of isolating the centre-backs; for Etebo, he was now able to do what comes naturally; Iwobi now had a bit more space to run into from deep.
However, the biggest beneficiary was Ndidi.
The concern with the Leicester man has always been that playing as a pivot inhibits his ball-winning ability and athleticism. In fairness, there is some truth to that, but for all that he is a phenom at pressing, his use of the ball itself is largely unimaginative. Contrary to popular belief, the key to improving a multifunctional player (or at least making him more effective) is not to indulge his many talents, but to simplify his duties.
Leicester boss Brendan Rodgers has hit upon this, telling the Leicester Mercury in April, “All we try to do is make it clear what his function is in the team.
“He has to win the ball and give it, simple as that. He doesn’t need to be in the box shooting, that’s not your job. Look after the other two boys in front of you, and just control the space in front of the centre-halves.
“We’re trying to improve him in that position because you’re going to be on the ball a lot. You’ve got to serve it, serve it over 10 or 15 metres. So it’s just simplifying his game and trying to make him efficient.”
Key to that has been installing him in front of the Foxes’ back four in a 4-1-4-1, with a dynamic midfielder and a creative carrier ahead of him (sound familiar?), and simplifying his duties. So far, it has proven an unprecedented success, and may well point the way for Rohr going forward, if he recognizes that second half for what it could be: a Damascus moment.
Ndidi is arguably the one member of the Nigeria national side with the potential to be one of the absolute best in the world in his role, and is certainly the team’s best player. The dilemma of how to get the best out of him (and all of the midfielders), while stemming the bleeding in front of the Super Eagles’ defence, might well be solved by simple copying.