Sunday, March 9, 2014

Dissecting the Super Eagles as Brazil Beckons…

The 2014 World Cup this summer in Brazil promises to be the ultimate test for Nigeria's Super Eagles. It is a test that will determine if the 2013 Nations Cup win was ephemeral and it is also a test that will evaluate Stephen Keshi's acumen against the big boys. Will Nigeria and Keshi pass the tests or will they disappoint? That is the question currently in the minds of Nigerian soccer fans.

Sure, we can all wait for the World Cup to find answers but it is more exciting to take a look at the team and Keshi's tactics in order to steal possible answers. Fortunately, I have watched most of the Super Eagles games under Stephen Keshi and I have observed enough to write confidently about the team's tendencies, its strengths, and its weaknesses. That is exactly what this piece will do.

Quick Overview

Nigeria is primed to do well at the World Cup barring injuries and off-the-field issues. This is not simply based on the team's stellar record but also based on its play on the field. The team has played consistently well and its tendencies lead to promises of a good outing at the World Cup. This is a team that will dominate most of its opponents, particularly in areas of ball possession (a hallmark of Stephen Keshi's team strategy) and with Emenike available it should win tight games. It is also a team that plays with confidence.

The team plays with a base formation of 4-3-3 but transitions to other formations depending on the context of the game. For instance, the team often evolves into a 4-4-1-1 or 4-5-1 or 5-4-1 when ahead of its opponents. This evolution can be achieved by the personnel on the field at the point the team has taken the scoring lead or with key substitutions after a lead. Usually, the team uses this formation variation with Ahmed Musa as the most advanced forward or Musa and Emenike both advanced while the rest fall back behind the ball and then rely on quick counters. An example of this was the devastating performance against Mali at the semi final stage of the 2013 Cup of African Nations (CAN) when Musa's runs created numerous problems. Additionally, a five-man defensive formation was used multiple times at the same CAN when skipper Joseph Yobo was introduced late in games to protect a lead.

Tendencies when with the Ball

Nigeria relies on ball possession and patience as a critical part of the team's strategy. Central to the success of this is Mikel Obi who serves as the team's conductor, providing a key outlet from defense and channeling the attack. While Obi is the central figure, it must be stated that other midfielders, especially Ogenyi Onazi, are allowed to roam and present themselves as outlets forcing the opponent to chase. The team's ability to use this to full advantage has depended on the form of the third midfielder due to the fact that all three must be on top of their game because the opponent usually has more personnel in the middle and, thus, Nigeria must rely on its three-person formation outworking the opponent. At the CAN, the poor effort by the third midfielder Nosa Igiebor in this area was problematic until he was replaced by the more productive and active Sunday Mba. Unfortunately, Mba has recently played poorly and attempts to use Nnamdi Oduamadi has also produced poor results.

A key aspect of the team's passing into the final third is the use of three options -- the quick interchange from the forwards around the box, taking advantage of crosses from pacy wide players, and most importantly the long targeted passes from deep usually from Mikel Obi or the central defenders. Unfortunately, the lack of a dominant advanced midfielder means that the first option is often the less chosen. This may change, particularly, if the coaches are able to find such a midfielder in the weeks ahead of the World Cup.

Importantly, the players frequently switch positions in search of advantages in wide areas. This is also made effective with the wide backs surging forward to join the attack particularly on the right side where Efe Ambrose operates. In several games, the most effective of these switches occur when Victor Moses suddenly moves to the middle where his technical ability and his ability to win free kicks presents the team with advantages.

Tendencies During Ball Recovery

A key to the team's ball recovery is its pressure on the ball high up the opponent's end of the field. This pressing effectively helps the team to recover the ball quickly and maintain possession advantage over its opponents. A key here and in most matches is the most advanced forward's ability to lead the pressure up high using moderate intensity. In the past, this was a key advantage that Emenike had over Ike Uche while competing for the advanced forward position. With Emenike being injury-prone, the challenge is discovering a clone that keeps this system impactful. Nevertheless, even with Emenike, this ball pressure is not consistent in all games. However, with the team training together for at least three weeks before the World Cup, it is possible that it will build the strength and endurance to pressure more consistently, with higher intensity levels, and over longer periods.

The team's biggest weakness is defending the weak side of the ball. Often, the defense slides to the strong side to close down space but the weak side midfielder often fails to complete the play by sliding to the weak side and covering behind the furthest defender away from the strong side. This has led to problems as demonstrated in Italy's equalizer in the London friendly.

On Set Pieces 

This is one area that Nigeria will be tested as several of the World Cup teams are very good at set pieces. In many cases, this comes directly from the kick itself. Nigeria's defending problems on set pieces are related to play on the weak side of the ball and inability to quickly identify 'pick' plays that are increasingly used by teams. These 'pick' plays set up human obstacles preventing a defender from quickly reaching a target that is about to get the ball. The first problem was demonstrated in Ivory Coast's goal against Nigeria at the CAN when only one Nigerian player was left to track two Ivorein players unsuccessfully at the weak side of the ball. In that case, a 'pick' was not used but there was a problem of quickly diagnosing the point of danger. Working out how to appropriately defend these situations will be a key challenge particularly in the group game against Argentina at the World Cup.

On the other hand, Nigeria's set pieces have produced fewer goals but it has not been because of a lack of effort. As demonstrated at the 2013 CAN, Nigeria has a variety of options for taking these kicks. When attempting to be direct, the team has the options of Oboabona, Nsofor (When on the field), and Emenike. Unfortunately, none of those players is prolific. When attempting to score off the second ball, the options often are Mikel Obi and Victor Moses. The reliance on a second ball can be more effective, as more often than not the ball reaches its target (usually the central defenders or Ideye) but the second ball from the target has been awful and, thus, the poor conversion rate.

The 'Beast' Opponents

Here we refer to the nightmare opponent for Nigeria i.e. the team that Nigeria should dread, particularly due to the opponent's tactical play. There are a few of such teams. One of such teams will be those that rely on deadly set pieces such as Portugal with Ronaldo. However, beyond the set pieces, the most dangerous opponent is a team capable of high intensity pressure all over the field. Nigeria often tends to be rattled by such tactics as was amply demonstrated in the early period of its World Cup qualifier against Ethiopia in Addis Ababa where such tactics forced numerous errors and difficulty in maintaining possession. At this World Cup, Brazil is the team that uses this high intensity pressure on the ball, leaving very little time and space for opponents. If Nigeria is able to reach the elimination stages of the World Cup, Brazil will be a nightmare opponent and one that may spell doom.

In Essence . . .

Nigeria should do well at the World Cup, barring injuries and off-the-field problems as I have mentioned above. Invariably, Nigeria will dominate most of its opponents in ball possession and will have several scoring opportunities. On the flip side, the danger is encountering an opponent with the endurance and discipline to pressure the ball with high intensity. Brazil is looming and the clock is ticking. . .

**To learn more about Nigerian soccer statistics checkout CHUKASTATS at books.