Nigeria: midfield questions…

June 10, 2014

Nigeria won the Africa Cup of Nations last year, despite the fact they never found the perfect balance in midfield, and this is again their major issue.

Two men are assured of their place in the midfield, but not their actual role. John Obi Mikel, who plays a much more cultured, inventive role for Nigeria than for Chelsea, is the key midfielder. He won’t play in the deep-lying holding position, but instead as the ’second’ midfielder in this triangle, to the left, from where he can spread play to the flanks and dart forward to join attacks.

There’s an argument, however, that should be at the top of the midfield trio, because Nigeria have struggled to find someone suited to that position. In the 0-0 draw against Greece last week, Keshi tried to play forward Peter Odemwingie as the number ten, but he performed quite disastrously in that unfamiliar role, positioning himself poorly and unable to receive the ball on the run. For the next friendly, a 2-1 defeat against the United States, Keshi took the opposite approach, and played Ramos Azeez, a simple central midfielder who struggled to link midfield and attack.

Possible Nigerian XI - although it's tough to say who will be at the top of the midfield triangle

There’s no obvious solution, and Keshi might consider moving Mikel forward and bringing in Reuben Gabriel as the deepest of the three midfielders. A more unorthodox solution would be to bring Victor Moses inside to play as the number ten, where he has played at club level, although he’s accustomed to a wide role.

The problem isn’t solely about creativity, either. With Mikel as the second midfielder in the trio, it means Ogenyi Onzai is forced to act as the deepest midfielder, which doesn’t suit his skillset – he’s more energetic and likes to cover lots of ground. This means he’s bypassed easily, and the defence can be exposed readily.

Onazi could do with someone behind him, and it’s odd that Keshi seems so determined to field a midfield in this format – with two deep and one ahead, when the two don’t look comfortable together deep, and there’s no obvious candidate to play just ahead. It’s hard to see Nigeria dominating matches with these problems, although their usual approach is to sit deep anyway.

Counter-attacking front three

That’s because their attackers are best playing quick, ruthless counter-attacking football. Moses starts from the left but drifts inside and tries to link midfield and attack – no-one else is doing so – by dribbling directly with the ball. He’s become more of a goal threat recently, although he rarely makes off-the-ball runs past the striker.

On the opposite side, Ahmed Musa as a pure speedster and stays much wider. He’s capable of solo runs by picking up the ball in deep positions, then simply roaring past the opposition left-back – his speed is incredible, but it’s his acceleration that causes most problems. He should score more goals, but is a brilliant ball-carrier.

Upfront will be Emmanuel Emenike, who runs the channels manfully and is capable of cool finishes – he was top goalscorer at last year’s Africa Cup of Nations. He might not last 90 minutes often, though, and Keshi has Shola Ameobi if he wants to play more of a long ball game. Alternative, Odemwingie can appear as a second striker in a 4-4-2 if Nigeria are chasing matches – that will solve the problem with the third midfielder.

Basic backline

The defence is unconvincing. Elderson Echiejile was a late withdrawal from the squad which means Juwon Oshaniwa should start at left-back – he’s physically imposing but average on the ball. Right-sided Efe Ambrose is similar – a converted centre-back and a willing runner.

Joseph Yobo is an option in the centre, but it seems more likely to be a partnership between Kenneth Omeruo and Godfrey Oboabona, who offer much more mobility. However, they need to be protected, and this is once again a great worry because of the problematic midfield format. In goal, however, Vincent Enyeama is genuinely excellent – by far the best of the African goalkeepers at this competition.

This will be a fairly simple counter-attacking team, playing into the hands of their speedy wide players, and hopefully hiding the lack of creativity and the structural concerns in the midfield zone. There’s a worry about where the goals will come from, though.


It feels like Nigeria should be in a better position – they have a core of good footballers and last year’s Africa Cup of Nations victory shows they have a winning mentality. But, not dislike Cameroon, there’s a question mark about the midfield trio, and a worry they might not play their best midfielder, Mikel, in the role that suits the side.

Their performance is really dependent upon the qualities of the transitions, and the decision-making of Moses and Musa on the break. The latter, in particular, could enjoy a very good tournament – the left-backs in Group F are weak, and his speed could cause real problems.

Quick guide

Coach: Stephen Keshi – won the Africa Cup of Nations last year, seems to have the side united but questions remain about his tactical ability

Formation: Some form of 4-3-3, although the midfield trio remains to be seen, so could shift to 4-2-3-1.

Key player: Musa needs to carry the ball forward quickly

Strength: Counter-attacking speed

Weakness: Lack of goalscorers, problematic structure

Key tactical question: Who is the third midfielder?

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