AFCON 2021: Eguavoen's infatuation with the past comes back to haunt Super Eagles

In trying to recreate the past and failing to anticipate Tunisia's counter-move, the Nigeria coach was left looking like a man out of time.

Nigeria had no answers on Sunday night against Tunisia (Photo by Imago/Shengolpixs/Tobi Adepoju)

The seeds of defeat are lodged firmly in the fruit of victory.

So, when that sweet, sticky juice is dribbling down your fingers and chin, be sure to keep a proper eye out.

It is all well and good facing a scandalous unprepared and unorganised opponent, stunning them with a blistering start, and raining crosses in till they lose their bearings.

Being the only team in the Group Stage to win three from three sure made the chest puff out that little bit bigger.

However, right in the midst of all of that, the chinks were clear to anyone who knew where and how to look.

Austin Eguavoen has made no secret of his belief in this system and style. He basically set this team up as a facsimile of the 1994 side, from a tactical perspective at least.

However, in doing so, the danger of nostalgia as a decision-making framework was laid bare: it can blind one to reality. In this case, that reality is two-fold.

With all the best intentions in the world, Samuel Chukwueze is not Finidi George. There may have been a time in the distant past when it was thought that the toga of Rashidi Yekini could wrap around Taiwo Awoniyi comfortably; it does not now, and likely never will.

Kelechi Iheanacho may have the number of The Bull, but his movements and decision-making against Tunisia on Sunday were decidedly bearish. Even more pertinent to the team’s ultimate downfall, Wilfred Ndidi is not Sunday Oliseh.

This is far from an indictment of the players, of course. Every human being deserves to be evaluated on their own merit.

What it is, though, is an indictment of Eguavoen's eyesight.

It gets worse, because if he had at least possessed foresight to compensate for it, he would not have stood on the touchline in Garoua, a man out of time.

That this is not 1994 should have been evident enough. However, understanding how that simple reality would affect his (and Nigeria's) antiquated conception of "wing play" required both humility and foresight.

The truth is that football at the highest levels has reached levels of sophistication that make the turn of the century look positively sepia-tinted.

The idea of extreme width and crosses as the catechism before which every defence will ultimately bow just seems so basic, and was shown to be so for large swathes of a game where Nigeria seemed unable to engage and throw any punches.

There are simply too many tools for shutting that down now. Here, Tunisia's strategy was simply about smothering the Super Eagles' work and employing the clinch.

By denying access through the centre, the Carthage Eagles directed traffic to the wide areas before pressing furiously against the touchline doubling and even tripling up at times using the full-back, the winger and the ball-near midfielder.

It was a defensive strategy that also took in other contingencies. If the Nigeria full-backs advanced (they did so infrequently, as they clearly have been instructed not to), there was still a 3v2 numerical advantage out wide. The Tunisia centre-forward then focused on cutting off access to Ndidi to prevent him from accessing the space on the far outside of their midfield, forcing the ball all the way back to the last line.

It was a simple antidote for a basic plan. But perhaps the most damning thing about it all was that it was no more than was required.

Eguavoen had nothing else in his quiver.

The counter to that argument would be to point out that he had not, to that point, had any reason to deploy anything else. Everything was working so well. But that sort of makes the point; if everyone lies to you, surely you owe yourself a little honesty.

Egypt were so bad, and Sudan so qualitatively deficient, that it was impossible to get any serious read on this team’s level. However, in giving his starting 11 the third game off, instead of using it as an avenue to experiment with the team’s shape and attacking structures, Eguavoen betrayed himself as having drunk the Kool-Aid. He got high on his own supply, as it were.

War is prepared and planned during peacetime, not when the adversary is at the gates.

So it was that when his team could have done with a change of shape and a different mechanism of attack, they did not have a blueprint to follow.

In Daphne Du Maurier’s classic novel ‘Rebecca’, a young bride gets so engrossed with living up to the grand, ultimately false idea of her husband’s dead ex-wife that it overwhelms her and she misses out on the joys of her new marriage.

Nigeria has a squad that, in its own right, could have given a far more varied, dynamic performance on Sunday. Instead, in the Garoua night, they were left chasing, not just the shadows of their Tunisian opponents, but the ghost of AFCONs past.

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