The Super Eagles of Nigeria since time immemorial have been known for playing a brand of football that places great emphasis on midfield and wing play. The fulcrum of the teams of the past was laid on these and every manager the team has had, irrespective of their success rate has always domiciled on the importance of entertainment and an attractive brand of football.
Arguably the best Super Eagles team of all time, the 1994 class played with great gusto and chemistry that stupefied every opposition they faced and gave them huge respect going into every game. While Sunday Oliseh mopped up the mess as a sitter with a legendary understanding of the tenets of shielding the defensive line greatly despite his teenage years at that tournament, JajJay Okocha pulled the strings in the middle of the park, twisting and turning and making the key passes that were necessary to deliver the killer blow, aged just 20. Both players were delightful to see with wingers, Emmanuel Amuneke and Finidi George wreaking havoc with their great pace on the flanks consistently.
The 1994 set is incomparable with any other set the Super Eagles have presented afterwards but Gernot Rohr like Clemens Westerhof has done a massive work with the mentality, commitment and dedication of this present generation of the Super Eagles.
Hostilities will begin in the midyear and nations will file out for one purpose, to represent their badges and sing their national anthems to the hearing of the whole world with upsets on the cards and the big fishes, expected to do the needful. However, sizes of islands and strengths of national treasury will mean little as every team is fighting for one thing- victory.
The Super Eagles, like many others are hoping to go farther than their best finish of the Round of 16 and dare to dream on the cold Russian turfs. In order to achieve this, the Super Eagles and Rohr must solve a teething conundrum and find a lasting solution to the evasive runner syndrome that has beleaguered the team for sometime, affecting its cohesion and leaving a loophole that quality opposition use greatly.
Known to play with a midfield triangle, the Super Eagles for years now have played with a sitter, a passer and a runner, typical of most teams. Under Stephen Keshi, at the 2013 AFCON, Ogenyi Onazi mopped up excellently for the flying Sunday Mba to use his great energy to cause problems to opposition teams. John Obi Mikel, in his usual precursory self, played in the hole and delivered excellently as the Super Eagles ruled Africa for the third time. Ever since, a string of terrible performances not helped by an ill-advised European move from Mba, Onazi’s injury worries and a host of trial-and-error selections from coaches has ensured we have struggled to gel in the midfield.
Nosa Igiebor, blessed with great skills and power has always shown glimpses of having great abilities to deliver the sucker punch needed in a game but his inconsistency and arrogance have ensured he’s been shut out of the team more often than he has played. At the 2014 World Cup, disappointed at Joel Obi’s injury when he thought he’s got his magic man, Keshi had to resort to former youth international, Ramon Azeez whose inexperience was all too glaring to hide.
Raheem Lawal, Babatunde Michael, Mikel Agu are random names that have been tried at the runner role with success not coming as expected. Unfazed by the challenge he’s facing with solving that problem, Rohr has jostled with the usage of Mikel Agu and Etebo to plug the runner role with the former particularly failing to impress the few times he’s been used. In order to set the team’s springs working, Rohr has resorted to sticking with Onazi, Ndidi and Mikel with Ndidi often found being the runner despite his languid pose and leggy nature and in a position that is a bit off his well known strengths of ball winning and breaking opposition play.
With an eye on the quality of opposition the Super Eagles will square up with in Russia, Rohr understands that a midfield combination of Mikel and Ndidi may do so little to help the team as both players aren’t the best of runners with their strengths well elucidated by the extent of their contributions. Modern day teams hardly play without good runners in their midfield as the energy is important for ball retention and to add a bite to the attack.
The options being posed by the returning Joel Obi and in-form midfielder, Oghenekaro Etebo will give Rohr pleasant selection headaches as any of both men have great pace and very high work rates to complement the duo of Onazi and Mikel. Though with Obi comes the fears of some disappointments from niggles and that may pull Rohr back from depending on his skillset for such a grand stage like the World Cup.
Another option for Rohr will be to use Ndidi as a sitter in the team and allow the attack-minded Onazi to be the runner in the team in a situation he’s unconvinced with what Obi or Etebo have to offer the team.
Alongside the problem of goalkeeping, the midfield runner is the Super Eagles’ greatest missing piece that will perfectly complete the jigsaw being made out of these Rohr’s Super Eagles. All efforts must be made to solve the problem in order to avoid a repetition of the 2014 show where an injury to Onazi blew open the Super Eagles’ midfield, leaving young Paul Pogba to shine admirably, further sending the Nigerian team out of the tournament.
Whatever Rohr decides to do with his midfield, he must be convinced that he selects the best players to prevent the Super Eagles’ Runner Syndrome from affecting the hopes of many and high expectations of millions as this World Cup looks more than ever like the best opportunity to make the big step.
Opinion contained in this article is strictly the writer’s and not Aledeh’s.