All hail ‘Balogunbauer’
It is in observing the simplicity of football that we appreciate its complexity.
That there are three basic departments to a team — defence (of which the goalkeeper consists), midfield and attack — is easy enough to grasp, and is essential in understanding what is unfolding. Yet, in any good football team, the interaction between these is fluid enough to create varying levels of originality. All books in the earth, after all, consist of the same letters used in an infinite order of variableness.
What was all that hot air about? Well, the Super Eagles moved one step closer to Russia 2018 with a fine performance in Yaounde, drawing 1–1. For me, it was a very meaningful result; the game in Uyo was something of a caricature, as the latent superiority of Gernot Rohr’s side was greatly exaggerated by the haplessness on the day of the African champions.
The most important thing to pick out is that it showed us the level of selfless sacrifice this team can put in toward achieving a goal. From back to front, there was a focus that has not always been familiar within the national team. As Cameroon dominated the ball, the wingers dropped in and the team was extremely compact out of possession, allowing no ingress whatsoever through the middle of the pitch.
Defensively, there has not been a better display from a Nigerian team in ages. Much praise has gone to the pair of Leon Balogun and William Troost-Ekong (more on them later), and while they were great, it would be a disservice not to acknowledge how well the rest of the side did to make their tasks easier.
Ironically, it was going forward that this team showed some worrying concerns. Averaging 2.5 goals a game, you would not think this side has a problem advancing up the pitch. It is however becoming clear that this team is not just one that counters very well, but may be one better served by employing that by default anyway.
It is well said that you can tell the identity of a team by its style of defensive midfielder. A possession-based team will almost always employ a playmaker at the back of midfield: it needs to circulate the ball and look for gaps, after all. A transition-based team will broadly want an energetic, mobile ball-winner to regain possession and transfer it forward quickly.
Who is the deepest midfielder in the Super Eagles set-up? Ogenyi Onazi, a terrier-like battler who plugs gaps and harries opposing attackers. Interestingly, he is partnered, just ahead, by Wilfred Ndidi, himself a roving ball winner who plays simple, unambitious passes.
The most comfortable the Super Eagles looked last night was when Cameroon had the ball. When the home side’s intensity dropped somewhat, and this team tried to build up, the problem with such a defensive double-pivot in midfield was clear: how to advance the ball into the attackers?
In Mikel John Obi, Victor Moses, Odion Ighalo and Moses Simon, Nigeria have a quartet that seems to riff very well together. Ighalo now offers movement (in a transformation that makes one wonder how far gene splicing has advanced in China), Simon pace, Moses dribbling and Mikel is the binder whose ability to both hold possession and play one-touch passes holds it all together.
How do you get the ball to them when neither of the two deeper midfielders is (a) capable of evading pressure, or (b) passing incisively? That was the major dilemma presented to Nigeria yesterday.
Cameroon’s best openings of the first half came when they pressed Onazi and Ndidi. It didn’t take long to figure out something had to change. The first bit of proper build-up occurred when Mikel came slightly deeper, put his foot on the ball, spun and sprayed the ball wide left. It however leaves the team with one less man in attack.
Realistically, Moses comes inside and the left-back bombs forward to maintain width in this situation. Well, our left-back is Elderson Echiejile. Suffice to say he is no marauding full-back.
So, unorthodox solution. Balogun spent much of the latter part of the first half in a role closely approximating the old-fashioned libero, running with the ball out of defence in order to transfer it forward. Having played at full-back before, and being stationed on the right of Mainz’s back three last season, it is something he definitely has in his toolbox. Problem solved, yes?
First of all, what then happens when the opposition cotton on to this? In the second half, Cameroon got wise to him and proceeded to block him off in the build-up, letting Troost-Ekong have the ball. Did anyone notice how often Ekong gave the ball away in the second period, trying to pass between the lines? That wasn’t his fault.
Secondly, knowing Balogun’s proneness to injury, what happens when he is unavailable? How does this team build up?
I have some solutions, but those will come in a later post. This is already a lot longer than was initially intended. Your resident Super Eagles worrywart will sign out by stating the obvious: this was an immense performance by our young national team, and we are now a point away from making the World Cup. Crazy.
P.S: I would hold off on lighting Ikechukwu Ezenwa’s funeral pyre. His rush of blood to the head is a flaw that extends beyond him to locally-based goalkeepers — judging when and how to come off the line is a frequent weakness. So I would not make a scapegoat out of him.