The Super Eagles coach developed an unusual free eight-inspired system that brought some fascination to the second game against the Indomitable Lions
At the friendly match between Nigeria and Tunisia in October 2020, Super Eagles coach Gernot Rohr tried out an interesting, bold new structure.
It seemed to stay under the radar to most observers, and it’s not hard to see why.
For one thing, it wasn’t very memorable, especially after a first half when both teams ended up in the net and Kelechi Iheanacho missed a penalty.
It was a tough game because of the venue, the ambience and the camera angle. In addition, a few days earlier it followed a disappointing friendly match that ended in a 1-0 loss to Algeria.
If all of this sounds eerily familiar, it’s because many of the same themes were repeated on Tuesday when the Super Eagles competed against Cameroon’s Indomitable Lions at Wiener Neustadt Stadium.
After a lonely defeat in the first encounter five days earlier, few were in the mood for a new edition, and even fewer expected a long-legged team to suddenly come to life the second time around.
However, Rohr brought some intrigue into the process by bringing the same structure out of this Tunisia draw. The result – a very daring 4-3-3 with Alex Iwobi and Kelechi Iheanacho in midfield – was reminiscent of Manchester City’s concept of the “free eight” in Pep Guardiola’s first season of winning English football.
At the base, Wilfred Ndidi provided an approximation of Fernandinho and completed a central triangle with vertices that shift in relation to the position of the ball.
The idea seemed to be a possession game aimed at patiently working the ball through the pressure of Cameroon into the last third; With no possession, the team pushed directly on their opponents, trying to deny the space and chasing long balls across the field, which were then (theoretically) reused to start another phase of possession.
The results were extremely mixed.
There were successes especially in the second half, when Nigeria’s play structure seemed a little more fluid after initial uncertainty. In the first half, the most interesting spins were seen on the left: instead of left-back flipping, Alex Iwobi occasionally fell lower, allowing Jamilu Collins to overlap and Moses Simon to pinch in the field.
On the right Ahmed Musa held the width, while Abdullahi Shehu sat lower and slightly narrower and Iheanacho was oriented higher and played closer to Paul Onuachu.
What really mattered was the staff.
The center-back pairing Chidozie Awaziem and Valentine Ozornwafor ultimately kept the door closed but failed to meet the requirements of the tactical idea in both possession (both) and possession (the latter).
Their inability to play through the gaps as they appeared made team build-up even slower than necessary and, too often, resulted in players receiving the ball with their backs to goal and under pressure, rather than forward or halfway to look -turn.
Similarly, the rusty ozornwafor (apparently only valued for his left footed foot) was slow in pushing up and down on opponents when Cameroon tried to go over the high press so his direct opponent would pick up the ball in the space between the lines and either play could be a wall pass or a twist.
This allowed the Indomitable Lions to break at an exposed defense and underscored the inherent risk of the overall structure: without all the units supporting the press and staying compact at all stages, it can be pretty easy to play through.
It didn’t help that the team did without so many offensive regular players.
Up front, Onuachu did little to disrupt the idea that he was playing worse as a starter, offering little as a connection game when he got deep and little exercise when he stayed high.
Width was all that Musa had, since he was completely on the sidelines and was deprived of one virtue that has built him an international career: dynamism.
Iheanacho didn’t look intense, which wasn’t surprising when you consider that club season is over and when you understand that his personality won’t always blend well with professional rigor.
As if to clarify, the team looked a bit sharper after the break when Onuachu was first substituted for Terem Moffi, then Marcus Abraham came on the right side.
Ball retention improved instantly in the final third and the Super Eagles slowly took control and later enjoyed a commotion to almost steal the game.
On the whole, even without the aim of livening up the occasion, this provided much more interest in Nigeria from a tactical point of view.
It was Rohr who did something that he was often accused of not doing: trying new things.
What is harder to understand is whether circumstances forced this idea on him (remember, for this Tunisia game he was similarly handicapped in terms of choices) or whether it’s a template he wants to build on medium term.