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AFCON 2021: Set-pieces defer examination for Eguavoen's Super Eagles

January 15th 2022, 11:09:07 pm

The Super Eagles performance in victory over Sudan was far less eye-catching than in the previous match.

Austin Eguavoen

This time, it was not quite heavy metal. Instead, Nigeria’s second win of the ongoing Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) came in rather more sedate fashion.

This was not, however, a matter of choice.

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Part of the consideration coming out of the opening win over Egypt was the lack of tactical rigour displayed by the Pharaohs. Their inability to either deny access to or close off the wide areas led, time and again, to the Super Eagles finding easy outlets and avenues of attack. The obvious question was what would happen when Nigeria faced an opponent with a greater inclination to avoid the same pitfalls.

In Sudan, we got that answer.

Unable to find easy balls out to the flanks this time, Austin Eguavoen’s side looked far more leaden, and were forced to think their way through a lock scrub as opposed to blowing the door off its hinges.

The early goal helped take some of the pressure off, and indeed the timing of all three goals was important. The first came with the game having hardly established a pattern, the second right on the stroke of half-time, and the third a minute after the restart.

Three well-timed shocks, a three point palm exploding heart technique (to adapt a Quentin Tarantino original) to make certain of victory and allow Nigeria coast their way through for large periods.

It also forestalled Sudanese momentum at crucial moments.

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As it happens, it was not only expedient, but necessary. What Sudan lacked in quality, they made up for in enterprise and daring, and actually had their more illustrious opponents scampering a few times. Had the score been tied for much of the first half, the Falcons of Jediane may well have drawn strength from it, as well as from a porous Nigerian midfield.

On a number of occasions, they found an exposed Nigerian defence in retreat, and had they been more mindful of timing and quicker in their decisions, they might well have seen the whites of Maduka Okoye’s eyes.

That really is the concern when it comes to appraising this team.

It is impossible to quarrel with six points from six – only Cameroon and Morocco are perfect through two matches. However, even within those two wins, comfortable as they were and commanding as a +3 goal difference looks on the screen, there are enough concerns at both ends of the pitch to restrain full-on ecstasy.

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On the attacking side of things, there is a far from specious argument that the Super Eagles did not exactly figure things out, at least not as a collective. Here, Samuel Chukwueze was ineffective despite his goal, and Kelechi Iheanacho was forced to drop off the front more than he did against Egypt in search of the ball. Only Moses Simon, with his ability to go either side, seemed comfortable coming off the touchline to receive in the half space and attack on the inside.

Nigeria’s most consistent threat, curiously enough, came on set-plays: the opener from a long throw, the second from a free-kick. Even the scramble that saw Taiwo Awoniyi hit the post was the second phase of a set-piece.

Defensively, the cost of having Joe Aribo – who was excellent here after a poor opening 15 minutes – as part of a midfield pairing is increasingly clear, as Wilfred Ndidi was often left to fight fires on his own. That in turn imperilled the defence, and meant Sudan suggested more danger than they should have.

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In Eguavoen’s now-famous ATHLST interview, in laying out the organisation of the 1994 team, it was curious that he included Jay-Jay Okocha as part of the midfield two. It was a role that the dribbling maestro seldom filled in tournaments under then-manager Clemens Westerhof, for good – and obvious – reason. That came later, and the Dutchman’s wisdom was apparent when it did: it left midfield anchor Sunday Oliseh with too much real estate to oversee, and indeed Nigeria often looked most stable when, say, Mutiu Adepoju was used in that role.

This cuts to the heart of the concern around Eguavoen.

Is he so beholden to that grand legacy that he is actually misremembering the practical wisdom that underpinned it? Even more pertinently, are there more layers in terms of tactical sophistication yet unfurled?

Westerhof was not averse to variations on the general theme when the occasion warranted it, and that uncanny ability to introduce subtle alterations came to be seen as something of a superpower of his.

Whether Eguavoen has the nose and the ruthlessness necessary will become clearer as the opposition becomes stiffer.

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