The World Cup is over and done. What's next? Time to think about the 2019 African Cup of Nations (AFCON) and the long journey to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. Yes, I realize that there would be another Cup of Nations before 2022 but that isn't really as important now as the 2019 version.
There are things that we learned from the recent World Cup in Russia that come in handy as we take a look to what's next. For one, Nigeria's midfield commander in the last few years, Mikel Obi, is on a downward trajectory and while we expect him to be at the AFCON in 2019, that may not be the case in Qatar 2022. But this blog piece is not about Mikel but a position-by-position review about the team. The team, in terms of its character and then in terms of its personnel, bears another review. That is what this blog piece is about. So let's get started.
The Team: Character
As long as Coach Gernot Rohr remains coach it seems Nigeria is married to his much loved 4-2-3-1 as the base formation. Changes come slowly for the man. Yes, one should give him credit for trying the 3-5-2 and seeing some success with it but he continues to hesitate and continues to stick to his 4-2-3-1. Nevertheless, it is becoming clear that Nigeria has a load of international level midfielders than it does with international class defensive personnel. That should nudge Rohr towards using the 3-5-2 as the base formation. It provides him with better attacking width and then provides assistance defensively better than his current base does. However, old dogs rarely learn new tricks or atleast remember new tricks when in a live battle.
Nonetheless, one must acknowledge that even in the 3-5-2, Nigeria is yet to show that among its plethora of midfielders there is one with the pedigree to dominate at the most advanced position of that middle line. Oghenekaro Etebo does not appear to be that guy. Yes, he shows ability to hold the ball, to distribute it in limited spaces, and at times to take a crack at goal but how many goals has he assisted yet? The fact is that he has yet to show the ability to make a goalscoring pass, whether it is once in a while or consistently. The media have put forward Alex Iwobi and some have even mentioned his bloodlines to the great JJ Okocha. The fact, however, is that this is a mere wish. Alex has not shown that he can do this at his club- -- Arsenal -- and it is only speculative to claim that he can do so with Nigeria. However, one thing is clear -- he has better passing vision than Etebo. What is questioned is his ability to protect the ball in crowded areas and his ability to command the middle with confidence and consistency.
Are there new names at that position? Well some have called for Eberechi Eze on loan at Wycombe Wanderers from QPR in England. The ultimate question is will Rohr care enough to give him a chance? Same goes for Kelechi Nwakali who is still struggling playing lower league football. Ultimately, it does speak volumes that these are names that Nigeria is throwing up as heirs to the Okocha legacy. The fact is that Nigeria lacks, and have lacked for sometime, in developing a midfielder with the ball skills to dominate in advanced midfield spaces. It is a shame considering that this is a position that Nigeria had routinely churned out superior talents until the post-Okocha era.
The Team: Personnel
Goalkeeping: Although it seems Francis Uzoho will be the solid choice at goal after a good World Cup, this position is far from being a solid one for Nigeria. In the last couple of years, since Ikeme's diagnoses, this has been a weak spot until Uzoho's World Cup outing but with Ikeme now retired Nigeria needs to find at least one other goalkeeper that is sure to be with the team for the long haul. Even then, with Uzoho likely to spend a long time on his club's bench, his confidence and fitness is likely to erode.
Defense: Whether Nigeria plays four or three at the back, it seems that only Balogun and Ekong have demonstrated any consistency over a long period of time. Far more is needed here and that is going to be based on what Rohr thinks his base formation will be going forward. Perhaps, it is much simpler to use three at the back with Omeruo and Awaziem battling for the third spot.
Midfield: This is Nigeria's deepest position with multiple players able to play confidently in this position. Obviously, the likes of Mikel Obi are short term considerations, which means that Rohr has to be looking for his replacement in the coming months and definitely after the AFCON in 2019. There are also a plethora of choices from players that did not participate at the World Cup including Mikel Agu, Nwakali, Joel Obi, and Eze. The challenges here are developing a highly skilled advanced midfielder for the future and re-stocking with other capable players.
Forward: Ahmed Musa's play, in both the Iceland and Argentina games at the World Cup, puts him in contention for one of the forward positions. Prior to the World Cup, I had speculated here that Musa may be considered for this position instead of the usual wide midfield position and Rohr did try him out as a forward against Serbia. However, Rohr appeared to have changed his mind after that game and then suddenly Nwankwo was listed as the third forward instead of Musa for the World Cup proper. However, adverse conditions, based on the poor opening result against Croatia, forced a Rohr change of heart and Musa's subsequent display must now put him as the key starter at this position. But the continued use of Nwankwo and Ighalo must now be open to questions when the likes of Sadiq, Onyekuru, and Awoniyi are knocking on the door. Furthermore, it seems that Iheanacho's future as a national team forward is going to be under serious evaluation in the coming months.
Gernot Rohr was dubbed a difference maker when he was appointed. After 19 games in-charge, Rohr's record is middling (see Table 1). One of Rohr's widely publicized statements was about the relative young age of the team. That was indeed a cop-out used at the World Cup but he cannot now use it at the AFCON nor can he use it at the 2022 World Cup if Rohr leads the team to Qatar. First, the team will be experienced going into the 2019 AFCON following its participation at the World Cup and in 2022, if most of the team remains intact, it should be one of the most experienced. Thus, as the saying goes: Mr. Rohr, it is time to put up or shut up.