Nigeria 4-1 Mali: a battle of attacking left-backs
Nigeria qualified for the final by controlling the game in midfield and attacking with more speed.
Stephen Keshi named an unchanged side from the XI that triumphed over the Ivory Coast at the quarter-final stage.
Mali coach Patrice Carteron left out Samba Sow and Samba Diakite, with Mahamane Traore coming into the side on the left, and Mohamed Traore in the centre. Mahamdou N’Diaye returned in place of Adama Coulibaly.
Nigeria dominated this match and fully deserved their victory.
Both sides played three central midfielders, with one ahead of two deeper holding players, and three forwards spread across the pitch – that’s become the default system in this tournament. However, it was particularly notable that both sides’ left-winger drifted inside quickly.
For Nigeria, Victor Moses abandoned his left-sided position immediately when Nigeria got the ball, and cut into the centre of the pitch to become a number ten, helping link the play and create between the lines. For Mali, it was slightly less obvious (partly as they had less possession) but because Mahamane Traore is right-footed and started on the left, he made diagonal runs towards goal when in possession.
The knock-on effect was that both left-backs were extremely attack-minded. Adama Tamboura has consistently been an attacking threat throughout this tournament (and previous editions) and was probably Mali’s most dangerous player, overlapping speedily and swinging crosses into the box. On the opposite side, Nigeria’s Elderson Echiejile is less technically talented, but got forward consistently to push Mobido Maiga back into his own half.
The key player in the centre of midfield was Jon Obi Mikel. As always with his national side, he plays a much more exciting game than at Chelsea – he patrolled the midfield zone with freedom of movement and great authority on the ball, and was particularly keen to spray diagonal passes out to the flanks, particularly the right.
In the opening stages, Mali weren’t good enough at pressuring Mikel when he received possession. Their two holding midfielders, Mohamed Traore and Momo Sissoko, took turns at playing to the left and to the right of the duo, but Traore was much more effective at pushing forward to press Mikel – Sissoko had a disappointing game, and stood off when he was towards that side of the pitch.
Equally important was that Nigeria pushed their wide players high up the pitch – when the opposition had the ball, Moses and Emmanuel Eminike played high up against the Malian full-backs, and this constant width provided diagonal options for Mikel.
On the other side, Maiga and Mahamane Traore retreated towards the midfield zone to protect their full-backs, which meant they were trying to play a counter-attacking game. However, their transitions were slow and unambitious – the central midfielders played easy passes and allowed Nigeria to get back into defensive positions. Maiga should have been able to exploit the space in behind Elderson, but his contribution was extremely poor with a couple of unnecessary flicks going wrong.
Seydou Keita, Mali’s leader, played a confused role – he was deployed behind the main striker to provide creativity, but was too high up to influence the game because he so rarely received the ball. One good dribble aside, he was quiet and was overshadowed by Mikel.
Nigeria scored three times in the 20-minute period before half-time, effectively putting the game out of Mali’s reach. The first two goals were appropriate considering the pattern of the game – for the first, Mikel looked up and hit a diagonal out to the right, where Moses was briefly positioned, and he crossed to the far post, where Elderson headed the ball into the net. That was three key features of Nigeria’s play – Mikel’s diagonals, Moses straying from the left, and Elderson getting in extremely advanced positions for a left-back.
Then there was the second goal – Moses picked the ball up towards the left but immediately dribbled into a right-of-centre position, and slipped the ball in behind the adventurous Tamboura, where Emenike crossed for Ideye Brown to finish.
The third was a fortunate, deflected free-kick.
Carteron made one change at the break – Maiga off, and Cheick Diarra on to play his right-wing role.
Immediately, Mali improved significantly. Granted, Nigeria may have been playing more cautiously with a three-goal cushion, but Diarra played much higher up the pitch than Maiga and pinned back Elderson, who had provided such a constant overlapping threat in the first half. Diarra was also comfortable coming inside into the zone behind Mikel, trying to overload Nigeria in that zone.
More importantly, he provided creativity. Within two minutes he crossed low for Keita, the best chance Mali had created in open play. Suddenly, Mali looked dangerous.
Maybe Keshi saw the impact Diarra had upon the game, because he made the exact same change – bringing on his number 7, Ahmed Musa, to try and pin back the opposition left-back. Moses, apparently injured, departed with Emenike going to the left.
Musa provided renewed energy and more structure to Nigeria’s play – he stayed in position rather than drifting around as Moses had. And he scored the fourth goal, in predictable circumstances – Tamboura tried to get forward yet again, but was caught way out of position, giving Musa the freedom of the opposition half to run and finish.
Mali deserved a consolation goal for their second half efforts, and it was fitting that Diarra scored it – but Nigeria were out of sight.
Nigeria were by far the stronger side, and it was appropriate that the key features of their play resulted in goals. Moses’ movement into the centre, Elderson’s overlapping from left-back, Mikel’s diagonal balls and Diarra’s second half energy all provided decisive contributions.
Nigeria 4-1 Mali: a battle of attacking left-backs