ANALYSIS

Super Eagles' best bet for success against Ghana is an extra midfielder, not more strikers

Despite needing to score and win in order to progress, Nigeria must refine their approach without the ball in order to triumph against Ghana in Abuja.

Oghenekaro Etebo (IMAGO/Ulrik Pedersen/ZUMA Wire)

The history of scientific triumph is littered with happenstance.

Sir Isaac Newton famously got bonked on the head by a falling apple in seeking to figure out gravity. A naked, streaking Archimedes had gotten an epiphany about buoyancy by soaking in a bath. The makers of Viagra were trying to test out medicine for the heart.

What this tells us is that genius is as much about inherent brilliance as it is recognising providence when it comes knocking, whether that providence is in the form of airborne fruit, an overflowing tub, unexpected tumescence, or a midfielder going off injured early in the second half of a World Cup qualifier behind enemy lines.

The dynamic of Friday's meeting in Kumasi between Ghana and Nigeria was clearly altered by the enforced substitution of Innocent Bonke in the 62nd minute. It was, however, less to do with how the Lorient midfielder had performed on the day (although even in that respect, he had hardly set the game alight), and more about the decision his injury necessitated.

The introduction of Oghenekaro Etebo meant the Super Eagles saw out the following half-hour with far greater control in possession and a much cleaner build-up, while at the same time carrying a lot more threat than they had managed in the proceedings prior.

If there was any regret, it came in the fact of Augustine Eguavoen's somewhat puzzling decision to substitute Joe Aribo earlier, but no matter – the stability and cleaner progression offered by the pairing of Etebo and Frank Onyeka provided a veritable blueprint for the second leg.

As the Super Eagles file out in Abuja on Tuesday night, it is imperative that they line up a midfield of Etebo, Onyeka and Aribo. Between them, that trio offers dynamism, verticality, personality and quality in possession, all of which will be crucial in a match that Nigeria simply have to win.

The corollary, which is a front three, is also desirable in a different respect: disrupting the Black Stars' build-up play.

The first leg at the Baba Yara saw Ghana frequently drop defensive midfielder Iddrisu Baba into the backline, forming a first line of three to play out against any attempt to press the ball from the visitors.

It was far from a novel approach to playing against this Nigeria side, but surprisingly Eguavoen was flummoxed by it yet again: against Victor Osimhen and Kelechi Iheanacho in tandem, Ghana had a spare man; when the Leicester man dropped onto Thomas Partey, the outside centre-backs Alexander Djiku and Daniel Amartey were able to carry the ball forward, forcing the Super Eagles back.

While Otto Addo's side did not create a great deal in any case, they were able to maintain possession and dictate the proceedings quite easily in the first half. By pushing Nigeria deeper, they also achieved the isolation of Osimhen in attack: the Napoli man completed one pass over the duration, an outcome that counted as a definite win for Ghana's strategy on the night.

In order to avoid a repeat, it is necessary to properly press the Black Stars early possession, and going 3-on-3 will be important in this respect, with one of the midfielders pushing onto Partey to press the pass into him.

This would force Ghana to go long early, exposing goalkeeper Joseph Wollacott's weak kicking while magnifying the Super Eagles' aerial advantage in deeper areas. With three in the middle to contest the second ball, Eguavoen's side would also be better equipped for battle in the zone in a way they simply weren't in Kumasi.

With the onus on Nigeria to win, a lot has been said about the need to start two centre-forwards and go at the visitors' throats from the get-go. However, it is almost as important to not, in a bid to make a swift statement, concede a sucker punch early on and completely lose control of the tie.

Ghana found this out to their detriment in the debacle that was defeat to Comoros at AFCON, when their over-eagerness left them vulnerable to a counter-attack inside the opening four minutes against the Coelacanths. They would relish meting out the same lesson to their eternal rivals.

While an early goal would no doubt settle the nerves, the greater priority from the off in Abuja should be to deny the visitors the sort of easy possession that would defuse the enthusiasm of the crowd inside the Moshood Abiola Stadium.

Playing on the front foot, both with and without the ball, would not only go some way toward keeping the crowd invested, but offers the most nerveless route to Qatar 2022.

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