My thoughts on the Eagles

By Nduka Orjinmo
The Super Eagles qualified for the Nations cup with an unexpected 6-1 demolition of Liberia. The victory perhaps was expected, but the score line nobody saw coming.

Skipper Joseph Yobo was unavailable, so Azubuike Egwueke partnered Godfrey Oboabona in central defence, Mikel Obi made his return to the team and was given a starting place in the absence of Gabriel Reuben, playing alongside Obiora Nwankwo in a two man pivot with Nosa Igeibor just ahead of them and Emmanuel Emenike upfront. It looked like a 4-2-1-3 formation, a hybrid of Keshi’s favoured 4-3-3.

Respect should be given to national team coaches who only have three or four days to work with their players and produce a winning formula. These are players who play with different clubs with different football philosophies and have to come together as a unit to play either according to what the coach wants or the country’s football philosophy.

It is best in my opinion for coach to find out from the player specifically how he loves to play and try to integrate such a philosophy into the general scheme of things.

Keshi had a Nosa Igiebor, Emmanuel Emenike and even a Mikel obi who have not really been part of the set up.

For the qualifiers in June, I felt he used the same set of players for the three matches and an understanding was beginning to develop. When I saw Emenike in the starting line-up, my thinking was a 4-4-2 formation with a Moses or Ike Uche there to feed off the big man Emenike.

But with the 4-3-3 and Musa and Moses flanking Emenike, he just felt so isolated upfront. He wasn’t helped by his supposed strike partners, who played more like wing forwards than strikers.

When the ball was hit by Musa into the box, Moses failed to get into the far post area and vice-versa. Both men also stayed too tight on the line with the opposition full-backs and had little interest in cutting inside.
Both players were also immobile, which provided little space for Emenike to run into to receive the balls. A better mobility from all three of them would have stretched the Liberian defence and perhaps more goal scoring opportunities.

The midfielders also did not know what kind of ball Emenike feeds on. Is he a runner or does he love the ball played onto his feet? Does he love high balls or does he want to run with the ball on his feet? Surprisingly when I asked him later, he said he loves to work the channels and run unto the ball. A cause not helped by the immobility of the two wing forwards.

The early goal scored by the Eagles destabilized the Liberians but once they settled in, you could see they were a better ball passing team. They made better runs off the ball and were far more mobile in our half.

Man of the match Efe Ambrose who got the early goal, had a game to forget in the first half despite the cheque he received later. When I asked him later if he was playing out of position, he said he was comfortable anywhere on the defence line but that he had a twist in his hip during the celebration after his goal. He did a front-flip if you missed it.

I had to agree with him. He is not, my ideal right-back as he is less adventurous, but he is a solid defender. Once the Liberians noticed his discomfort they worked that position so well that they could have gotten an equalizer in the first half.
Ambrose was not helped by his positioning and Moses’ who stayed too high up.

Oboabona had to always drift into that right back position to assist Ambrose and it took only a matter of time for the Liberian winger to find his number too. Oboabona was my man of the match as he was never scared of getting into the tackle. However, he needs to curb his tendency to always boot the ball when it would be easier to bring it out of the defence and start a counter-attack. With such lateral movement from him, the Eagles defence became stretched and spaces opened up. A more prolific strike force than that paraded by the Liberians would have made us pay.

In the first home match against Rwanda, goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama served 21 short balls to his central defenders who always moved wide to receive the balls. I thought we were evolving into possession based football but it clearly was a one off. There was no concerted effort to build from the back in this game, it was all cut and join, not helped by a midfield that failed to carry the ball forward.
Keshi’s big headache as the Nations Cup approaches will be who plays just behind the striker or at the tip of his middle trio. He has tried Victor Moses, Gabriel Reuben, Raheem Lawal and on Saturday it was the turn of Nosa Igiebor.

The Real Betis man took a while to settle into the game, but once he did he clearly understood what was expected of him. At first he stayed too high up, very close to Emmanuel Emenike. He was always looking behind, expecting one of the two central midfielders to move closer to him which did not happen but only provided the Liberians so much space to occupy and isolate him and Emenike. Once he realised this, he fell in deeper and was always seeking the ball. That was the point at which our midfield got a foot hold in the game.

The Mikel Obi and Obiora Nwankwo partnership for me is one we should never see again for the simple fact that both players are too similar. Both were given roles they are used to and they fell into it seamlessly. Both love hitting occasional diagonal balls and they are interceptors who love to sit deep, very deep. None is a box to box midfielder and none has that aggression that a Gabriel Reuben offers. The Eagles lacked that charge and energy he brings and when he returns, I would love to see him take one of the two pivotal roles.

Mikel Obi made his much talked about return and was anonymous for the better part of the game. It was good to see him take responsibility with the penalty, but his body language was that of one who didn’t want to commit too much. Maybe he was sure that we were going to slaughter the Liberians and he has not lifted himself out of the malaise of the past. Such performances from our better players is what has cost us repeatedly in major competitions.

The second goal by Ahmed Musa confirmed that Emenike loves to work the channels. Moses had chased a loose ball back to free up space on the right which Emenike ran into to collect a Mikel pass before firing a low shot into the path of Musa. That and the yellow card picked up early on by the Liberian left full back were the other highlights of the first half.

The second half started just like the first with Victor Moses getting off the mark for the country with his first goal. Nosa Igiebor picked up the ball on the edge of the box and played a short sharp ball to Moses who rifled home. The fourth goal was not so far behind as pressure on the Liberian defence led to a clumsy challenge on Musa that resulted in a penalty. At that point, the game was a fruit cake as shown by Victor Moses who had the temerity to wag his tail in the face of the Liberians. Once their captain was sent off later for a second bookable offence, I closed my note pad.

Ike Uche made his entrance for Emmanuel Emenike and at some point Ogeyi Onazi came on for Nosa.

The combination of Mikel and Uche brought joy to my heart and reminded me of what was once a potent force. Uche is a runner and far more mobile than Emenike. He knows how to work those pockets of spaces to receive the balls and it only took a matter of time for Mikel to be hitting those diagonal balls. The front three of Uche, Moses and Musa became much more mobile and they switched roles at will which made it easier for the midfielders and a pleasure to watch.

The first time I saw onazi for Lazio against Tottenham, he was running all over the place and I found it difficult to place his position. He was no different against the Lone Star too and he looked like he didn’t know what his task was on the field.

Keshi would be worried once more about the level of concentration of his defenders in the dying minutes of matches, a theme that recurred once more with the Liberians practically walking through our defence to get their goal.

We may have walloped them to pick the ticket, but the performance was not impressive in the first half maybe due to the new legs in the team. The Nations Cup will provide much compact teams and stiffer oppositions that such average performance will not be able to see us get past.

The task before Keshi now is to search for a right-back, make up his mind about the midfield trio and decide on who will be the point man upfront.

You can follow Nduka Orjinmo on twitter- @orjinmonduka
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