The weight of history certainly makes Saturday’s AFCON Round of 16 clash between Nigeria and Cameroon intriguing, but a greater point of interest will be how the tactical battle unfolds.
So far in the competition, Gernot Rohr has stuck with a 4-2-3-1shape, and there is little to suggest he might deviate from it for this game. The German tends to use a system with three centre-backs against stronger opponents or in matches where he feels he needs a result; the implication is that, for him, it is more about defensive stability. He is unlikely to revert to that here.
Cameroon’s Indomitable Lions are a lot harder to read. Clarence Seedorf has used three different starting shapes in the three matches so far: a 4-3-3 against Guinea-Bissau, a 3-4-3 against Ghana, and a 4-3-1-2 against Benin.
These changes have been made as a reaction to the specific attributes of the opposition – against Ghana, it appears Seedorf was looking to mimic the system with which Benin had frustrated the Black Stars; against Benin, packing the centre was a means to open up the flaks for the full-backs to attack.
This malleability works out as both an advantage and a disadvantage for them. Coming up against a side whose shape has not wavered makes it easier to prepare a counter-strategy. On the flip side, Cameroon have not scored since their opening game, and have struggled to find a consistent attacking system.
If there is a thread, it is of a narrow attack. Whether in the 4-3-3 or 3-4-3, the nominal wide players pop up in central areas often, most notably Christian Bassogog, who has a lot of freedom positionally.
The deliveries from out wide are therefore the function of Collins Fai and Ambroise Oyongo from full-back (or wing-back); the latter in particular has been one of the standout players for the Indomitable Lions, capable defensively but boasting the energy to get forward.
This game will provide a further degree of difficulty in the physical stakes. The Indomitable Lions are probably one of the few teams with the potential to physically match the Super Eagles’ energy in the middle of the park; it is easy to see Seedorf opting to match up, with Arnaud Djoum or Pierre Kunde on Wilfred Ndidi, Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa on Oghenekaro Etebo and Georges Mandjeck watching Alex Iwobi. That would, at the very least, ensure a stalemate in that zone.
As such, the game is likely to be won in wide areas, and there are two options open to Rohr.
Cameroon tend to leave their three attackers high up the pitch, meaning they can appear “broken” in defensive transition. It might, however, be a ploy to discourage the opponent’s full-backs from advancing, while enabling them to move into an attacking phase quickly once the ball is won.
The upshot of this is it leaves the midfield with quite a bit of ground to cover laterally in order to gain access to the ball when it is in wide areas. There is a chink there to be exploited by playing early switches to the far side for a ball-carrying winger to build up a head of steam and run at the full-back.
Rohr can take the reactive option, and decide to field Moses Simon, whom he prizes for his defensive work rate, in order to provide protection to the full-back and prevent one-on-one situations. He would also track Oyongo’s forward runs all the way.
The alternative would be to play on the front foot, and keep Oyongo honest by playing a forward who will be aggressive and scare the Montpelier man into not attacking: this would be as good a time as any to reintroduce a player like Samuel Chukwueze.
Already, Ola Aina (by virtue of playing on the left) and Chidozie Awaziem offer little going forward, but have been extremely solid defensively. Pulling back the wingers as well is almost cowardly in its risk-averseness.
If Nigeria is to have any kind of x-factor, it is imperative to not offer the same stale fare that characterized the Group Stage. It would go against all the evidence from Rohr’s tenure, but having publicly acknowledged the rumours of his imminent sacking, there is no greater motivation to finally take the shackles off this team.