A distraught Augustine Eguavoen faced the press and, for once, words seemed to fail him. “My players simply could not play their game,” he croaked.
Resting entire team vs Guinea-Bissau proves Eguavoen’s determination to learn from history
The jury is out on the wisdom of resting players, but the Super Eagles coach was – and is – unwilling to leave anything to chance for a shot at history
“I have always preached against their slow game. We talked about it so many times and we practised. Honestly, I don't know why they decided to be that slow. It's not our game and it was the worst game I have ever seen.
“I don't know why they chose to play that way. I am equally lost as you are. I don't want to attribute it to fatigue. ”
Except, deep down, he probably did.
Nigeria had come into their 2006 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) semi-final meeting with Cote d’Ivoire on something of a high after beating reigning champions Tunisia. The Carthage Eagles had eliminated them on penalties en route to winning the 2004 edition on home soil, and so beating them in the same circumstances was particularly satisfying revenge for Eguavoen’s side.
The Elephants were expected to provide stiff competition, but it promised to be a meeting of equals.
What transpired instead was anything but.
The Super Eagles looked lethargic and bereft of ideas, incapable of executing against a Cote d’Ivoire side that barely needed to get out of second gear. “Today wasn’t our best performance,” Ivorian boss Henri Michel admitted afterward.
Eguavoen was openly critical of full-backs Taye Taiwo and Chidi Odiah as well, blaming their inability to move the ball on quickly, but that was less a cause than an effect in truth. And while the unavailability of Yusuf Ayila – and the consequent decision to hand Sani Kaita his first start of the tournament and only his second senior cap – certainly did nothing for the performance on the day, that alone should not have led to such a meek surrender.
Eguavoen 2.0: New and improved
One of the interesting themes of Eguavoen’s most recent return to the Super Eagles helm has been a sense of assurance and maturity.
The erstwhile Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) technical director just seems so much calmer, quieter, more in control. His decision-making has seemed more joined up too, and better-timed.
It is a stark departure from 2006.
There is also the sense that he is consciously trying to remedy (or is at least learning from) the mistakes of his last AFCON appearance.
For instance, whereas in Egypt 16 years ago his team struggled tactically through matches and seemed unable to find goals in the opening halves of matches, in Cameroon there have been fast starts – Nigeria’s haul of six has been split evenly between between first and second periods.
There has also been a desire to share the minutes around. Following Henry Onyekuru’s cameo against Guinea-Bissau, only one outfielder in the squad – Chidozie Awaziem – has yet to play a minute at the AFCON, and that is on account of fitness.
The reasoning here is two-fold, and is probably a little deeper than it at first appears.
It goes beyond the fact that Nigeria had already secured both top spot and a place in the Round of 16 before facing the Djurtus. Eguavoen faced a lot of criticism from back in 2006 for his use of the squad, incurring the displeasure of the likes of Wilson Oruma and Julius Aghahowa along the way.
It fostered an unnecessarily poisonous atmosphere within the ranks, and is a situation Eguavoen is clearly keen to forestall a repeat of.
There is also the possibility of fatigue, which the 56-year-old obviously wants to avoid.
Leaving nothing to chance indicates desire for title tilt
Coming into the meeting with Guinea-Bissau, Nigeria had only played two competitive matches under Eguavoen. While those two performances had seen the team installed as favourites, there was the sense that the core of the starting 11 could have done with at least 45 more minutes of creative problem solving in a competitive setting.
However, the prospect of fatigue was not one Eguavoen was willing to allow, and he duly made eight changes.
“We had to give some players some rest,” he said in the post-match press conference. “It was necessary.”
Except, strictly speaking, it was not.
Only two players – Ola Aina and Joe Aribo – were in danger of a suspension, and over the next 10 days Nigeria will only play twice, should they make it past the round of 16. There is plenty of time for recovery, and the effectiveness of resting players to prevent fatigue remains the subject of debate in the scientific community—there is risk the other way as well, with rustiness potentially becoming a factor.
Besides, most in the game will tell you the greater danger is mental fatigue. “Resting players for the sake of resting doesn't make sense,” Real Madrid boss Carlo Ancelotti said in 2015 when quizzed over his aversion to rotation. “I will only do that when the players are tired and at risk of injuring themselves.”
So Eguavoen’s decision was less to do with necessity, and more about being as careful as he possibly could. In 2006, despite winning the opening two matches and having a healthy enough goal difference that Nigeria would have made it through regardless, he named a full-strength lineup against Senegal in the final group match.
While it is difficult to be certain of its causative effect, those extra minutes will have played a role – in Eguavoen’s mind at least – in Nigeria’s lethargy later on in the competition.
Whatever side of the rotation debate one falls on, it is at least easy to appreciate this kernel of wisdom: those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Justified or not, there is no greater indication of Eguavoen’s desire to go one better than 2006 than his determination, even at the potential cost of dropping points against Guinea-Bissau, to make sure his players are as fresh as possible for the business end.