Nigeria may struggle for creativity in midfield
Nigeria have traditionally been the strongest African nation, at least in terms of the quality of players they’ve produced. The likes of Ghana, South Africa, Senegal, Cameroon and Egypt have shown quality at points throughout the past two decades, but Nigeria has produced a stream of genuinely top-class players.
Off-the-field problems have undermined their chances of performing well at this tournament, however. Shaibu Amodu was sacked for the fourth time (yes, the fourth time) as Nigeria manager after the Africa Cup of Nations, despite having lead this team to the World Cup. He’ll doubtless get a fifth chance one day, but for now team selection is down to World Cup regular Lars Lagerback.
There are many differences between Scandinavian football to African football, but both are based around fairly rigid, structured formations, and in that sense Lagerback may fit in quite well, although how much opportunity he has to impose his playing style on the side with so little games before the World Cup is questionable.
He hasn’t broken the side up too much from the one that came third at the Africa Cup of Nations, though he has been hindered by the Chelsea injury curse, as Jon Obi Mikel has been ruled out. Mikel is a better footballer than many give him credit for, and in a Nigeria side short of technical quality in midfield, he is a big miss.
Lagerback may be forced to slightly re-jig his side, and the most likely shape looks to be a standard 4-3-3. He has the most options in the final third, where he’s able to leave out players of the quality of Obafemi Martins, John Utaka and possibly even Chinedu Obasi – all good footballers who would get into most other African sides.
Instead, Yakubu will be his poacher upfront, possibly supported from either side by Victor Obinna and Peter Odemwingie – so that’s two very direct, pacey forwards supporting a relatively immobile central striker, which has all the makings of a forward trio that won’t play particularly cohesively.
In Mikel’s absence, the midfield will be based around Dickson Etuhu, who will perform a similar job to the one he does with Fulham – sitting in front of his defence and leaving the creativity to others. That’s a tough ask of Sani Kaita and Lukman Haruna, neither of whom are naturally inclined to try and provide key passes. 19-year-old Haruna scored against Colombia last week and has come from nowhere to be in with the chance of starting – he provides more of an attacking threat than Kaita, who sits deeper on the left of midfield.
This makes sense considering the tendencies of the full-backs – Taye Taiwo of Marseille bombs forward from left-back and offers an attacking presence (and a fearsome long-range shot) whilst Chidi Odiah, the replacement for the injured Yusuf Mohamed, may play a more low-key role, although he does like to get forward for his club side CSKA Moscow. In the centre, Danny Shittu and Joseph Yobo form a physically strong partnership.
They have strikers to get on the end of chances, but will those chances be created in the first place? Nigeria, like almost every African side in this competition, lack a real playmaker and could struggle for that reason.
They might still be the best chance Africa has of a side progressing when you consider their group – Greece and South Korea are possibly superior teams, Argentina certainly are, but Nigeria have certainly got a more favourable draw than the other African sides.
Nigeria will look to physically overpower opponents, which may work against South Korea but will be tougher against Greece, where Lagerback may have to change his system.Nigeria may struggle for creativity in midfield