The Next Step for the Super Eagles

super-eagles-1It is amusing to see many commentators/commentaries and reporters referring to the Nigerian team that faced Ukraine in the 2-2 friendly at Dnipro as ‘new Super Eagles’. Nothing could be further from the truth. What Nigeria paraded in that game is the bulk of the Super Eagles we know, plus a couple of new players: a staple in any evolving team.

And the evolution is what this article is about: the next step for this Super Eagles team that has to evolve following the (unsatisfactory outing at the) FIFA World Cup and the Africa Cup of Nations. The team that went to Russia and the one that played in Egypt were consistent with the sometimes turgid, predictable football they served. Something had to give; and the boys that filed out and played that exhilarating first half in Ukraine, showed us a glimpse of what is possible.

The World Cup and the Nations Cup was where some of the younger players served (or ended?) their apprenticeship. They had mostly cameo roles as the older and more established players kept their places. That set of Super Eagles played some good football, but it wasn’t good enough. These Eagles – in the first half, when they scored twice – showed us what we wanted from those Eagles: superb transition, heady pace, outrageous dribbling skills and heartwarming defensive organization.

An old cliché says, “Football is a game for the youth, old men don’t play the game”. The performance of these Eagles supported that saying. The descriptive ‘new’ that many placed just before the ‘Eagles’, should probably have been ‘young’: the team that was adjudged one of the youngest at the last two tournaments they attended, has become even younger with the retirement of Mikel Obi and Odion Ighalo. Assembling a younger team has been on the agenda for a while; we are finally getting there. This shows that future is good. That is one challenge solved.

The next thing the Super Eagles need to do, is improve on halftime/second meeting performances. While this is (just) a friendly game, the ‘collapse’ of the team in the second half is consistent with a (Nigerian) pattern that must end. The tendency is for our national teams to look the worse off when coming off a break. The Eagles looked to have passed that test when the second half kicked off in Ukraine, but alas…

It wasn’t as bad as it looks though: the Eagles still played some scintillating football and threatened to score more goals, but they didn’t take gilt-edged chances they created, and at times, looked lost when Ukraine pressed. Could this be a result of…

The game management from the bench? One of the accusations usually dumped on Gernot Rohr, is that he plays it safe every time. The talent of Nigerian players is undeniable (many would argue that the bulk of the players representing Nigeria don’t play in the top leagues, and so, that claim is questionable), and so, getting ‘passable’ results is always a possibility. But to squeeze the most out of a moderately-talented side requires massive inputs from the bench, and Rohr seems reluctant to make some calls.

For the Super Eagles to transit into world-beaters, the Franco-German must learn to trust his bench. Nigeria missed an opportunity at the Nations Cup as some of the electrifying young men we saw against Ukraine cooled their heels on the bench. Who knows how much of an X-Factor they would have turned out to be at the AFCON? Then in Ukraine, he waited too long to make changes, and kill off the game…

But then again, it must be re-iterated: this was only a friendly, and the coach may have seen what we couldn’t. Then, it must also be said that the match officials started misbehaving in the second stanza, but that’s football: the Eagles must learn to deal with such antics, if they want to rule the world.

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