Gernot Rohr has instilled team spirit and discipline, leading to a much stronger togetherness than in previous World Cups.
Since Gernot Rohr stepped into the Super Eagles job in 2016, the team have progressively improved in team spirit and discipline. The togetherness fostered in the squad has seen Nigeria adopt a strong mentality that allows them to thrive against the odds. A young team bear the imprint of their manager, who has created a resilient counterattacking side capable of surprises at the World Cup.
Although Rohr has flirted with different formations – including a 3-5-2 used in November’s 4-2 win over Argentina – it is clear that he will opt for his trusted 4-2-3-1, based on defensive resilience and efficient counters.
While the Super Eagles are a team greater than the sum of their parts, their strengths are pinned on the individual brilliance of a few. Rohr always looks to the collective, though, preferring in public to downplaying the importance of those who truly stand out.
“We do not have such great players as Kanu or Okocha, who then shone, but the strength of this team is the teamwork,’’ Rohr told Przeglad Sportowy. “Our captain Mikel John Obi or Victor Moses are not the players who will decide the fate of the game themselves, like the stars from the 90s.”
However, Mikel’s influence is immense. The former Chelsea midfielder coordinates Nigeria’s play and dictates the pace of the game with his calm and intelligent ball distribution.
Behind Mikel are two ball winners, Ogenyi Onazi and the talented Wilfred Ndidi. They operate at the base of the midfield, acting as human shields for the backline. Both excel primarily in breaking up play but are far less convincing going forward. It is the major criticism of Nigeria’s midfield anchors: distribution and transition from defence to attack is often poor, a situation exacerbated whenever Mikel is unavailable.
Rohr’s solution was to get Mikel as close to Onazi and Ndidi as possible – playing closer to the pivot than the centre-forward, Odion Ighalo, whose ability to alternate his movement keeps him from being isolated. Ighalo’s ability to combine smartly, dropping deep to hold up play while still managing to ghost into good scoring positions, has placed him at the spearhead of the attack. Kelechi Iheanacho remains a potent option off the bench.
The attack is heavily reliant on the pace and guile of the Chelsea wing-back Moses. In Nigeria’s colours Moses is a virtuoso, adding directness to the team’s play and speeding down the wings. Playing as a more out-and-out winger for the Super Eagles, he is the the most important player – capable of magical moments but also, at times, prone to overplaying.
Rohr has stated the need for “great discipline” and “a great deal of mutual solidarity and communion”. Those traits are best embodied by the central defensive pairing of Leon Balogun and William Troost-Ekong. The pair share a deep bond and their relationship has created a solid defence that is difficult to breach. Balogun’s ball-playing abilities, matched with the imposing and physical style of Troost-Ekong, fit perfectly into the team’s style.
Probable starting XI
Which player is going to surprise everyone at the World Cup?
Francis Uzoho. For a goalkeeper who has only two made senior appearances for Deportivo La Coruña, Uzoho is perhaps fortunate to get into the World Cup squad but has a good command of his area and impressive shot-stopping ability. The 19-year-old may to start, despite his mistake against England – putting him in illustrious company with keepers such as Peter Rufai, Ike Shorunmu and Vincent Enyeama.
Which player is likely to disappoint?
Alex Iwobi’s poor form for Arsenal will leave many wondering whether he can deliver. After a breakout season in 2015-16 the attacking midfielder has failed to kick on, often stuttering when presented with opportunities. Too often he appears on the fringes of a game and he needs to be more assertive.
What is the realistic aim for Nigeria at the World Cup and why?
Given that they face arguably the toughest World Cup group there is the overwhelming possibility of an early elimination, but it is plausible that they can beat Croatia and Iceland to qualify for the round of 16. Much depends on the first game against Croatia.
Solomon Fowowe writes for Guardian Nigeria.
Follow him on Twitter here.