After due consideration of various commentaries in the aftermath of the Nigeria-Argentina friendly, I feel obliged to present my opinion. I have waited patiently for the emotions to die down, carefully considering three perspectives — the loser’s, the winner’s, as well as that of those who did not have any stake on that match-day — to make the most objective submission possible, on the lessons Nigeria can draw from that unexpected victory.
1. A friendly is what it is — a friendly
One should expect that referees are usually less strict at this competitive level. The Super Eagles would have paid dearly for one of their player’s costly mistake, notably, Daniel Akpeyi’s handling the ball outside his area. In a World Cup situation, that event would have been a game changer in favor of the Argentines, as Akpeyi would have been sent off, and a forced substitution would have been made to pave way for a second choice goalkeeper. Argentina, a team that depends a lot on high possession, pressing and passing game will make any opponent with an inferior numerical strength, pay dearly. Thank goodness it was just a friendly! Hence, the Super Eagles must not rest on its oars.
2. Argentina missed Lionel Messi
Nigeria benefited immensely from the absence of Messi in the Argentina squad. Now this is no excuse for Argentina. To say Messi has been influential for the La Albiceleste will be an understatement. The five-times Ballon d’or winner carried Argentina on his shoulders on the road to their world cup qualification. This is rather a lesson to learn for Argentina, as the coach rightly insinuated in the post-match press conference, that a one-man team is a bad idea, and it played against them in the loss. Messi is the kind of player that can make a difference. Need I make this argument? With what we saw from Nigeria’s performance especially in the first half, Argentina would have wrapped up the game early had an in-form Messi been on the pitch, and this would have affected the Nigerian players, psychologically. A fight back for the Super Eagles would have been difficult — although still possible. So what’s the lesson here? In the World Cup proper, teams will be looking to punish us early, and their strategy may be to hold on to the lead by defending and relying on counter attacks. Let’s keep this in mind as we have been in a similar situation in the world cup stage in the past.
3. Super Eagles showed boldness and determination
This point may sound contradictory to the second, but what I’m presenting here is an all encompassing submission. Granted, some teams will punish you early, but the Super Eagles players, showed character by starting the fight back in the first half through Kelechi Iheanacho’s free-kick goal. That goal made the job easier for Gernot Rohr at the break. There is a big difference, talking to your players about getting back from two goals down versus motivating them to get back from just a goal down. The players already had the believe that they could draw level, they just needed direction. Gernot Rohr, as director-in-chief, did just that at the break, with timely instructions and substitutions.
4. With Gernot Rohr, there is time for everything
Gernot Rohr may have well been misunderstood during the World Cup qualifiers. Many commentators have been of the opinion that he is a conservative coach. Rohr’s change of formation from the overused 4-2-3-1 to a never used 3-5-2 in a friendly of such magnitude shows the Franco-German tactician is open to experimentation at the right moment, considering the match was not a must win.
5. A Lesson or two as regards Aina and Shehu
A three center back formation relies heavily on pacy and dogged wing backs, who should have the capability of performing their duties for 90 minutes. Nigeria’s wing backs at the first half, fell short in this regard. Olaoluwa Aina and Abdullahi Shehu did not perform to expectation, especially as they did not offer much options going forward. Nigeria must now learn never to deploy the aforementioned players as wing backs unless the players positioned at left-center-back, and right-center-back, are instructed to make up for spaces should they go forward. Even in that case, Aina and Shehu must improve in their recovery if they must be considered to start in a 3-5-2 formation, going forward.
6. Iheanacho, on set pieces
Kelechi Iheanacho is composed enough to take Nigeria’s set pieces. He should be our man for spot-kicks, free kicks and corner kicks, as long as he is on the pitch. He’s never showed a lack of confidence with his left foot, in those situations. And let me also chip this in. The Leicester forward is beginning to show that he still has the instinct for brilliant key passes, considering his double assist against Argentina — reminiscent of his Golden Eaglet days.
7. Victor Moses is replaceable at least…
Chelsea wing-back, Victor Moses, is not indispensable at least when Nigeria is playing with three men at the rear. With the formation against Argentina, Tyronne Ebuehi showed dynamism with a solid defensive display and with impressive fast movement going forward, characteristic of world class wing backs. He completely commanded his area while defending. With sweeping tackles and timely blocks he withstood everything that was thrown at him for 45 minutes with aplomb. Ebuehi, with his performance against Argentina, showed us he can replace Victor Moses, easily, as wing back. At least, this is debatable.
8. In Idowu, Nigeria may have just solved a lingering problem.
Left wing back, Bryan Idowu was simply the truth against Argentina. He had a debut every debutant would die for, scoring with his first touch, to put Nigeria ahead in the game for the first time, and doing all the necessary at the rear. For years, since the prime days of Celestine Babayaro, the Super Eagles has endured a lack of good options in the left back defense department. Although it may be too early to conclude that Bryan Idowu has knocked out super regular Elderson Echiejile from contention, a repeat performance from the Russian-Nigerian will definitely put an end to Echiejile’s reign as the Super Eagles left back king.
9. Perfecting the false nines.
The most lethal sides today rely heavily on dynamism in attack, with all forwards ever-switching positions during the run of play, and all capable of scoring — hence, false nines. Against Argentina, Nigeria showed such dynamism. Two-goal hero, Alex Iwobi, who has mostly played as a winger for Nigeria, continued to show he is more lethal drifting in, to the middle. All Iwobi’s four goals for Nigeria have come from the center of the attack line. Kelechi Iheancho — who scored a goal, and provided two assists for Nigeria against Argentina — likewise, have also been deadly for Nigeria, drifting in the front. Team captain, John Obi Mikel, who is not a center forward, supplied 3 goals for Nigeria during the qualifiers. Therefore, Nigeria survived the world cup qualifiers without a true nine, except for Odion Ighalo who only managed a goal during the qualifiers. Nigeria’s precise execution at the front against Argentina, shows the team may have just perfected the science of dynamism with false nines.
10. Hard tackling as strength and weakness
The Super Eagles is a physical side — an asset that played to Nigeria’s advantage in the win. However, it could also be a weakness in more serious competitions like the world cup, as some referees will not hesitate to flash yellow cards at will, especially against sides showing physical superiority — West African countries especially. A noteworthy event was Kelechi Iheanacho elbowing Argentina’s Nicolas Otamendi. That would have attracted a red card in a more competitive game. Gernot Rohr must check his boys on discipline, going forward.
11. Mikel’s indispensability, a risk.
John Obi Mikel must not advance when Nigeria is not in possession. His momentary lack of positional awareness, created a gap Argentina exploited in their quick build up to the second goal. Even Wilfrend Ndidi and John Ogu could not stop the Argentines. This goes to show that Nigeria will always feel Mikel’s absence. Something needs to be done about this quickly. No player should be indispensable to an extent that their absence can easily spell doom. This is a danger sign. Can Mikel ever be deputized? Please leave your comments or recommendations.