Rohr in/out: Neither, both, and a lot of nuance

It is important, in beginning this review of Nigeria’s outing at the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON), to lay down a few important declarations. These are for the benefit of the reader, and provide a lens through which the rest of the text should be understood.

To begin with, Gernot Rohr, on the strength of his results, does not deserve to be sacked.

There is no objective measure by which it can be said that Rohr has failed as Super Eagles coach.

Two things may appear to contrast, but can be true at the same time; one need not void the other.

These are important caveats because, in the aftermath of the semi-final defeat to Algeria, the discussion around the national team has, rather disappointingly, been stripped down and simplified in a dangerous way.

On the one side, there are those who believe defeat at the hands of Les Fennecs was inevitable – a point of view further strengthened by the fact that Djamel Belmadi’s side went on to win the final – and that getting that far constituted success. While the latter half of that summation is entirely subjective, a very strong case can be made for it; the first half, however, is objectively false.

The very history of football, and the competitive nature of sport, give the lie to the assertion. There are no two teams in the world, either in the club or international game, that are evenly matched. Economics and the uniqueness of every individual on the planet make it so. If the outcome of sport is inevitable based on the comparative qualities of the competing parties, there would be no point to it. The central theme of competition is overcoming disadvantage, and it is at the core of any form of achievement.

So, while it is easy enough to understand that one team can have greater quality than its opponent, and therefore will stand a better chance of winning (and that quality differential tends to multiply, rather than add, within a cohesive system, but more on that later), it is by no means foregone. The weaker team’s fighting chance may get smaller as the gap in quality increases from one player to the next, but there is a fighting chance nonetheless. Competitive sport depends on it.

The other side of the argument is that getting to the semi-final, only to lose, was, at best, par for the course and, at worst, a failure. No country has won more third-place matches in the history of the AFCON than Nigeria and so, in the minds of the proponents of this argument, Rohr has not exactly broken new ground. It seems a rather heavy-handed summation, but there is some nuance to it, and it runs a little deeper than is apparent at first glance. This piece will not branch off in that direction.

However, the meat of it seems to be that it is not enough for the German to simply achieve par. This idea has some merit: the mark of a good coach is in elevating the level of his team; coming into the AFCON, Nigeria was ranked third in Africa – you would have to go back to September 2018 for the last time they were ranked outside the top four on the continent – and as such the Super Eagles’ final placement certainly cannot be construed as an overachievement based on the team’s standing coming in.

However, this argument runs into a few roadblocks. Firstly, not exceeding a target cannot be said to be failure, only falling short of it. Second, it can be argued that the overachievement happened before the AFCON, and can be seen in the difference between the country’s international standing when Rohr took over and in the present day.

The danger of these opposing schools of thought is that they have appropriated exclusivity to themselves, so much so that a centrist view that leans even slightly one way is unacceptable, and must situate itself in one of the two camps. As such, a view such as this is considered an endorsement of the ‘Rohr Out faction’.

Even worse, neither side accepts there is even a modicum of merit in their other’s view. However, as I will attempt to explain, it is possible to hold neither view and both views at the same time, even if to unequal degrees.

As I said in the beginning, Rohr can neither be said to have failed, nor is he deserving of the sack on the strength of his body of work. I am sure more than a few would be willing to try, but to argue otherwise would be difficult. For one thing, one cannot make an appraisal of his work without looking at where the national team was when he took over.

Missing out on two consecutive AFCONs had seen the Super Eagles slink out of Africa’s top 10, and as a result, they were dealt a bad hand in qualifying for the 2018 World Cup: Cameroon, Algeria and Zambia – three former African champions. When one includes this in the consideration, how can Rohr be said to have failed?

However, that is not to say that any analysis of his time in charge is out of place. It was my opinion, stated time and again, that I expected a semi-final place at the very least, and that if he hit that mark, he deserved to remain in the position. Does it suffice then to simply say that, regardless of specifics, it was impossible to do any better?

I do not think so. Perfection may be an impossible state for man, but it has to remain a pursuit regardless. Much as it seems to rile some, the case that Rohr has not maximized the resources at his disposal can be argued, and it is a view I hold. On a macro level, the German’s work is unimpeachable. On a micro level, there is reason to furrow the brows.

To boil it down, Rohr’s chief foible is his appraisal of risk.

At the Africa Cup of Nations, Nigeria’s best (read: most commonly selected) side featured six players whose brief and positioning could be considered primarily defensive: the back four and two defensive midfielders, both of whom were tasked with breaking up play. The selection of Chidozie Awaziem at right-back further exacerbated this: it essentially shut down that flank in an attacking sense, for all that it provided greater solidity.

In some ways, it can be argued that this lay at the core of Nigeria’s issues at the AFCON. Wilfred Ndidi and Oghenekaro Etebo have iron lungs, but expended way too much energy winning the ball back only to have just four targets ahead to pass to. When you consider neither is particularly incisive to begin with, the problem becomes clearer.

As a result, the Super Eagles’ transition from defence to attack consisted of Alex Iwobi carrying the ball from deep positions, and he was visibly exhausted from having to do this. This role became even more imperative in the game against Algeria, as Belmadi’s side had their full-backs stick very tightly to Ahmed Musa and Samuel Chukwueze, safe in the knowledge that there was no other outlet in wide areas to worry about.

Odion Ighalo spent large periods of matches isolated in central areas, being the only target to hit with his back to goal. Yes, he scored five goals in the competition, and finished as top scorer. However, by the player’s own admission, it is not a brief he enjoys. The contrast with Algeria, and even with South Africa in the second half of the quarter-final, was clear: both teams got numbers between the lines, and stressed the Super Eagles defence. It makes a striker’s job easier, having players whose positioning can create holes in the opposing defence.

Now, the obvious riposte would be that this was a matter of expediency, and that it was necessary for Rohr to eschew risk in this fashion. However, committing so few resources to attack places greater pressure on the nominal attacking players to have good games (against their direct opponents) in order to create dangerous situations, and also requires greater individualism.

So, looking at all these, that is the team’s attacking transition limited; build-up less than optimal (there’s a reason William Troost-Ekong and Kenneth Omeruo needed to hit so many diagonals, a ploy which Algeria saw through and stopped very easily); spacing in attack too diffuse. That’s to say nothing of the concession of space in front of the back four, a feature of the team throughout the tournament.

These shortcomings, looked at objectively, could all have been remedied with personnel already present within the squad: giving a stronger passer like John Ogu more active playing time in midfield prior to the AFCON, for instance, or using Ola Aina as a more attacking full-back on the right to allow Chukwueze play narrower between the lines. That they were not raises the concern as to whether Rohr is the right type of coach for the team from this point going forward.

In 2006, Jurgen Klinsmann led Germany to the World Cup on home soil, winning bronze. Considering how far Die Maanschaft had sunk between 1998 and 2004 – their run to the World Cup final in 2002 was a blip – he was important in getting a nation to believe again, himself an icon of a better time, and was crucial in mid-wifing the process of a rebuild. However, after the World Cup, he resigned the role, citing fatigue, and handed over the reins to Joachim Low, who he described as a “partner” in his success.

It was Low who would take the team on to another level, further freshening up the team and building, first, a counter-attacking style and then, a more possession-based approach.

There are coaches who can take a team to a certain level, and no further. Antonio Conte famously walked out on Juventus following a hugely successful spell, claiming it was impossible for the club to be successful in Europe with its transfer policy, only for Massimiliano Allegri to lead the team to the final of the UEFA Champions League in the same season.

Yet, it is clear to everyone that Juventus could not have come out of the dark cycle of irrelevance and consecutive seventh-place finishes without Conte. His work is as much a part of the story of La Vecchia Signora as Allegri’s.

This is not to say that Rohr cannot take this team forward, of course. Neither is it to suggest he is the problem of Nigerian football – that would be foolhardy. There are many more fundamental problems in the development of football in the country, and this excellent piece brings that to the fore very well. However, remember how two things can be true at the same time?

The point is that Rohr has not shown enough bravery – in his outlook, his incorporation and use of young talent, and his problem-solving on the fly – to indicate he can extract greater marginal utility from the pool of talent (whatever one’s opinion of their level is) he does have at his fingertips. So the question of whether he is the One, or we are to look to a Biblical Joshua to finish the relay, can and should be considered, at the very least.

Personally, the calls for him to be sacked ring very insincere, and are actually just the projection of a deeper frustration that has little to do with his work so far. That said, to act like the question cannot be asked, and that his work is entirely above reproach is not satisfactory.

There is way too much nuance for such a binary stance, on both sides of the argument.

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