During the Africa Cup of Nations, I wrote about how Gernot Rohr might want to take a cue from what Leicester are doing in terms of shape.
The context of that, however, was two-fold. First, it was necessary to devise a means by which the space between the defence and midfield lines would be eradicated. The downside of playing a double pivot when neither player is a natural “holder” is that you’re relying on an instinct that neither necessarily has.
The solution to that would then be to hard-code that behaviour by designation. Rather than trusting them to pick and choose their moments – one sitting while the other advances – it would be safer to have one in that role permanently.
The other important context in which the suggestion was made was Wilfred Ndidi, and how to synchronize with his evolution at club level. Playing as a lone pivot in a 4-3-3/4-1-4-1 at Leicester, he is required to be less and less the roving, ball-winning twister he wants to be, and hold a more defined position in front of the back four, using his agility and defensive instincts to be in the right position.
As it turns out, Ndidi was not involved on Tuesday night, as Nigeria played out a thoroughly entertaining 2-2 draw against Ukraine in Dnipro.
However, we saw a 4-1-4-1 shape out of possession that Rohr really has not used before, with Oghenekaro Etebo(!) designated as the holding midfielder, and it was…quite interesting to observe.
It may well be that, with Ndidi available, the shape would have been different. After all, the only other option available to the German coach was the returning Anderson Esiti. So this may simply have been a matter of necessity. However, what this shape brought to the fore was just how much of a miss it has been playing with two limited pivots in front of the defence for so long.
When playing a 4-2-3-1 – as Rohr has done for the vast majority of his time in charge – you have one less player ahead of the ball in midfield as an option to play forward. That problem is magnified when neither of the two holders can carry the ball forward against pressure, or can pass reliably through the lines; this was the reality the team was forced to grapple with at the AFCON in the summer.
On Tuesday, a deeper starting position for Alex Iwobi meant he was optimally placed to play the first pass out in transitions, as opposed to being ahead of the ball. He was immense in that respect, and revelled in his free role – partly an ‘8’, partly a ’10’ – to get counter-attacks going.
On the other side, Joe Aribo had a truly superb performance on his debut, scoring the opening goal from an Iwobi cut-back. It’s a little unusual to have two central midfielders combining for a goal, but it spoke also to another big difference from the AFCON: there was a commitment to getting numbers into the box to finish moves: all of Aribo, Victor Osimhen and Samuel Chukwueze were attacking the six-yard box when the ball came in.
Beyond the goal however, Aribo also suited the team’s transitional game: his ability to retain the ball under pressure, and also to burst past it with a dribble, while at the same time moving the ball quickly when the occasion demanded it, meant there was a more natural flow to the team’s play.
And in the early possession phase, sparse as that was in this game, he dropped alongside Etebo to receive the ball and attract opponents up the pitch, allowing Iwobi to slide into more central positions on the blindside of the Ukraine midfield and combine with the forwards.
As Ukraine coach Andriy Shevchenko admitted, they were particularly susceptible to the Nigerian strategy. “We played with a lot of players in the other half,” he said. “After the break, we acted more carefully.”
So, no problems then? Not so fast.
For one thing, the selection of Etebo as a holder, while it may have been a matter of necessity, was an obvious point of concern. It wasn’t all bad though: a trio of athletic, nimble midfielders closing down in midfield meant Nigeria got a lot of interceptions, and it is clearly a thing Rohr wants.
However, the Stoke midfielder completely lacks positional discipline, and it is not so much a question of will as it is one of habit: this is, after all, a forward trapped in a defensive midfielder’s body, as it were, yearning to break free on an elemental level.
Here, he often got drawn to the ball needlessly and got passed around. Ukraine turned the Nigeria midfield quite a few times even in the opening half, but often failed in executing the final pass. They did, however, foreshadow their eventual equalizer when Junior Morales ran off the back of William Troost-Ekong, only to be thwarted and clattered into by Francis Uzoho racing off his line.
Ukraine did improve in the second period, and found joy mostly going in behind Jamilu Collins, who has been known to get his body shape wrong in defensive situations, and mostly makes up for it with his athleticism. However, it is instructive just how unable Nigeria was to create danger once Iwobi went off: his role was key to the transitions, and it became increasingly difficult to get the ball, as well as bodies, forward.
However, it is difficult not to be enthused by the first-half display, even with the caveat that Ukraine left themselves much too open. It featured an infrequent occurrence in the Rohr era: the entire team (bar Etebo) playing in positions and interpreting roles for which they were all perfectly suited, and it showed.