Success, the aphorism goes, has many fathers. Failure, by contrast, is an orphan.
However, sometimes failure comes with such an unimpeachable likeness that its fathers cannot possibly abdicate their responsibility. The Super Eagles’ two-point haul from a possible six against Sierra Leone certainly qualifies as ‘failure’ – albeit of a self-contained variety – and is inextricably linked to the crass incompetence of Nigeria’s football administration.
Myriad social media posts and column inches have already been devoted to the shower of idiocy characterized by extraneous elements training with the national team on the eve of the home leg in Benin City, so there is little call for treading over old ground. Instead, this piece will go in a different direction—administrative folly may have been a crucial factor, but it was far from the only one.
On the evidence of the two matches, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Gernot Rohr got outclassed by opposite number John Keister.
First, it is important to acknowledge that perhaps the biggest single culprit in the first-leg collapse was probably complacency. The four-goal lead had been acquired in such a relatively bloodless manner that it seemed to disarm the Super Eagles themselves. The thrill of the hunt is the chase; without it, in sets ennui, and subsequently mental disengagement. Unsurprisingly then, there was a noticeable drop in intensity from around the 35-minute mark.
That said, it would be rather simplistic to completely commit to that diagnosis. Even before the capitulation actively began – and the departure of Leon Balogun can be considered an appropriate marker for this – Sierra Leone had been causing Nigeria problems in a very specific manner.
There were a couple of enforced absences for Rohr to grapple with coming into November’s international break.
With Samuel Kalu and Moses Simon both recovering from injury, a decision was required on the left of the attack between a handful of options, most of whom remain unproven with the national team. Similarly, missing midfield lynchpin Wilfred Ndidi left behind significant boots to fill in the middle of the park, and the absence of a like-for-like replacement for the Leicester man meant Rohr would need to get creative.
Nevertheless, it was impossible to telegraph quite how differently he would ultimately format the side, especially in light of his selection.
What seemed like the standard 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 he has largely favoured in his time in charge instead turned out to be a 4-2-2-2, morphing into a flat, narrow 4-4-2 out of possession. Alex Iwobi was selected on the left, with Ahmed Musa getting the nod to play just off Victor Osimhen upfront.
Sierra Leone were in a 3-4-3 shape, with their wingers often maintaining width during attacking situations, before ultimately dropping into a solid 5-4-1 without the ball.
Nigeria dominate centrally, Sierra Leone threaten wide
In theory, the match-up of shapes was favourable to Nigeria: a spare man at the back afforded stability in defence and superiority in early build-up, while parity in midifled allowed them to go man-for-man against the ball. Most crucially, however, by positioning the nominal wide players – Iwobi and Samuel Chukwueze – narrow, Rohr was able to create overloads centrally and manipulate Sierra Leone’s zonal defence.
This was done both directly…
…or by building down the left, where Iwobi dovetailed very well with rampaging full-back Zaidu Sanusi, and Joe Aribo pulling out to that channel allowed the Porto man to fly forward unchecked.
As is evident from the first animation, Musa also played an important role (if a slightly ill-fitting one) in the execution of the former scenario by dropping off the front, and was able to receive the ball in pockets of space throughout the game. What was lacking from him (unsurprisingly given his skillset), as well as from Chukwueze and Iwobi was incision and timing in terms of threading passes through.
Nevertheless, Musa was integral to Nigeria building play from the back: if he did not come to the ball, the Super Eagles would often opt for a more direct approach and seek to play to Victor Osimhen, who typically drifted right to receive from William Troost-Ekong or Oghenekaro Etebo and combine with Chukwueze.
It is worth noting that, even after going off the boil physically and mentally, Rohr’s side largely continued to create good openings via the above avenues, and were at no point second-best in the contest. However, they did come up decidedly short in one particular aspect of their play time and again: transitions – mostly from attack to defence, but also occasionally going the other way.
With both Chukwueze and Iwobi in central positions whenever attacks broke down, Sierra Leone had an easy, obvious path to progression through the wing-backs every time. While Aribo’s covering on the left (referenced earlier) helped somewhat in terms of containing the threat on that side, Etebo could not rightly do the same thing on the right without completely vacating the centre of the pitch. The full-backs could not afford to step out and engage either, as Mohamed Buya Turay and Kwame Quee held wide positions, pinning them back and stretching the pitch horizontally.
Here, in the build-up to Sierra Leone’s fourth, Kei Kamara drops deep to create an overload on the first line, which causes Iwobi to tuck in. As a result, by the time the ball goes out to the overlapping Osman Kakay, he has lost sight of the run. Also note how Sanusi is concerned with Mustapha Bundu (who came on for Quee in the second half) on his inside, and so cannot immediately go out to the wing-back.
Nigeria coverage breaking down in midfield
Another aspect of the game with which Nigeria struggled was in their marking scheme in midfield. Indeed, Rohr admitted as much afterward, saying, “We had some individual mistakes, losing balls too easily… not being on the man-to-man exactly…”
In his time in charge, the German has favoured a man-oriented zonal coverage in midfield, with his pivots expected to track the player in their zone closely without the ball. However, in this game there were a few instances when the set-up broke down, leading to chances for the visitors.
Here, for instace, is a scenario from late in the first half. With their three centre-backs, Sierra Leone have a numerical advantage on their first line, and since Osimhen is blocking the passing lane into midfield, Umaru Bangura brings the ball out. Note also that Etebo and Aribo are keeping tabs on the Sierra Leone midfielders.
As Bangura advances, Mohamed Kamara drops back, ostensibly to guard a possible turnover, but also to draw out Aribo. The Rangers man naively takes the bait…
…and the Leone Stars have an opening. Observe, also, the overload on the far side; it is a good thing Bangura is a defender, as this possibly causes him to make a wrong decision, seeking penetration too early rather than playing in the wing-back Mustpaha Dumbuya. Sierra Leone probably should have worked more situations like this over the course of the game.
Another instance when the man-orientation caused problems was for Sierra Leone’s first goal. To be fair, there is a plethora of mistakes here, as about six to seven players all make an error of some sort in the build-up.
One of the more fascinating things about football (and team sports in general) is how concessions are rarely down to the failing of a single individual.
However, it’s quite concerning when six different players all make an error for a goal.#NGASLE #AFCON2021Q pic.twitter.com/TnUL74OItQ
— Solace Chukwu (@TheOddSolace) November 17, 2020
Etebo’s decision-making is not the most egregious of the lot (and he played superbly for the most part) but it is relevant to this particular structural problem.
When Chukwueze loses possession, Etebo is in a good position. All he needs to do, given there is a great separation between the centre-backs and he is the team’s deepest midfielder, is drop between Ekong and Leon Balogun, or at least get goalside.
He does neither. Instead, he ignores the space and begins to move as if to mark Kei Kamara…
…before realizing the greater danger comes from the man in possession. He tries to course-correct, but cannot arrive in time and is unable to put in an adequate challenge.
Sierra Leone earn reward for bravery
Having weathered the opening quarter of an hour in the second period, Keister played his hand, sending on forward Alhaji Kamara for defender Ali Sesay on 58 minutes. Crucially, Sierra Leone changed their shape to a 4-2-3-1, dropping Kei Kamara into the hole: they now had a numerical advantage in the middle of the pitch.
Alhaji is an altogether different type of striker to Kei, and he put himself about immediately. He gave away a succession of fouls quickly upon coming on, smashing Ekong mere moments afterwards and sliding in on Kevin Akpoguma; most tellingly in terms of the eventual comeback, he rammed into Balogun on a high ball, requiring the Rangers man to be substituted.
While it would be harsh in the extreme to place the blame at the feet of substitute Semi Ajayi, the similarities between Sierra Leone’s second and Lesotho’s opening goal from November 2019 are worth remarking upon, if only in passing. In both cases, a cross was swung in between the centre-backs from the opponents’ left flank, and Ajayi failed to adequately cover Ekong.
In any case, by the end of it, fortune rewarded Keister for his bravery: Osimhen, who remained a threat especially with one less centre-back to worry about, went off injured, and his side found their way back into the game. Rohr, for his part, simply made straight swaps, and almost refused to acknowledge Sierra Leone could now find a man free between the lines.
Rohr’s assessment after the first game was interesting, but only partly true. He described the team’s first-half performance as the best of his tenure to this point. “We have to not forget it was very good in the first half, we cannot forget. But the result is here, the result is one point.”
While some of the play – especially in the build-up phase – was excellent, there were nevertheless glaring tactical problems that were unaddressed, and that led to danger throughout the game. He was right in another way too, but only inadvertently: the players certainly played strongly for about an hour, but his own input, in terms of helping the team over the line, continues to leave a lot to be desired.
The return leg in Freetown was difficult to assess tactically. However, Keister clearly retained the same shape that finished the game in Benin City as a result of a suspension to Bangura. Noticeably, Nigeria struggled to find players between the lines that time; certainly this had much to do with the state of the playing surface, but Sierra Leone were unmistakably more solid and aggressive without the ball.
On the whole, two points from two matches was sufficient to keep Nigeria top of Group L by a point still, and another win will suffice to send the Super Eagles through to the Africa Cup of Nations in 2022. It would take an unprecedented turn of results for a scenario wherein Rohr’s charges miss out to occur.
Still though, it must count as a disappointment.
November’s internationals evinced familiar failings on the German’s part, but there was also the stirring of something new and altogether more disquieting. It used to be that Rohr could be relied upon to win matches Nigeria should; only in the bigger games could his aptitude be questioned. If, as it has turned out, he can no longer be trusted with even that barest of minimums, what then is the point of him?