Nigeria’s Coach Gernot Rohr may not have debuted any of the current starting players in the Super Eagles but he has made some key changes. Unfortunately, the media have rarely commented on these changes. I will comment on them by focusing on five key ones.
The formation and focus on defense first. Gernot has moved away from Nigeria’s most recently preferred use of the 4-3-3 as the base formation with a great deal of attention to attack. Instead, Rohr has chosen to play cautiously, with a base formation of 4-2-3-1 that changes, at times, to 4-5-1. From these formations, particularly the 4-5-1, he relies on quick counters, using players wide, and widening passing lanes. His use of 4-5-1 in Yaounde, particularly, exposed what I believe Rohr will use at the World Cup against a favored opponent. The game in Yaounde has been, in my opinion, the most clinical display by Nigeria for years. Besides conceding an unforced penalty kick, Nigeria gave Cameroon few decent chances in front of goal and Nigeria closed down quickly and consistently. That is a recipe that we are likely to see more often at the World Cup.
Handing over the set pieces to Victor Moses. Over the years we have seen several players from Emmanuel Emenike, Moses Simon, Mikel Obi, Ahmed Musa, Kelechi Iheanacho, to Victor Moses assume set-piece duties for Nigeria. Even Rohr used Musa in his first game against Tanzania but that has changed when you closely watch Nigeria’s recent internationals. It is clear that Rohr has now handed that role, solely, to Victor Moses. Moses now takes both corner and free kicks. He is yet to score from one of them but he came close against Cameroon, forcing the keeper to a magnificent save and against Zambia he found Ndidi for a spectacular header. His precision and consistency taking these opportunities are self evident. Previously, Nigeria frequently over hit corner kicks and routinely frittered away free kicks.
Using Wilfred Ndidi for the throw-ins. The same thing has happened with taking throw-ins. It appears that the role is now strictly Wilfred Ndidi’s. This certainly keeps defenders free for defensive duties when the ball is quickly lost. This also means that midfielders are free from routinely scampering back to cover deep for defenders who are far afield taking throw ins consequent to an opponent’s counter. In any case, Ndidi’s ability to launch the ball a great distance from points on the touchline or sideline, close to goal, provides an opportunity similar to a corner kick.
Building bench support. While Rohr has not debuted a starter yet, he has done well to expand number of bench players capable of filling the role of starters. For instance, Nigeria’s midfield and striker positions now have quality substitutes. In central defense, Awaziem has the potential to become a quality substitute as well. Of course, there are still positions where reserves are not quite up to par but the squad is gradually building capable personnel.
Depending largely on players developed abroad. The NFF President, Pinnick Amaju, encourages Rohr to build the national team around young players who have come from foreign-based academies. In recent times, Rohr’s starting eleven players barring recent absences due to sickness and injury respectively to Ikeme and Iwobi, included five such players! If Ola Aina takes over from Elderson Echiejile as widely anticipated, that would be six of eleven starters.
Rohr has, thus far, justified these changes by results that include qualification to the 2018 World Cup and a possible qualification to the 2019 African Cup of Nations. His work on team playing strategies and tactics along with developing the team’s personnel are beginning to regenerate Nigeria and to create potential for greater things. Much of his success will ultimately be measured by how far Nigeria goes at the 2018 World Cup in Russia.