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The good and bad of Eagles

By Onochie Anibeze
Is football failing to be a unifying factor in Nigeria?
Since I started following football in Nigeria, never had I experienced the mixed reactions that followed the defeat of Eagles by Egypt last Tuesday. There were those who felt extremely sad and those who felt happy. There were those who were simply indifferent. They never cared for they have since lost hope in the national team.

From our newsroom where I watched the game to the streets and those who commented through telephone calls and texts, the reactions were the same.

Some grumbled, others celebrated. It was unbelievable. Nigerians happy that the Eagles lost a match? Their anger stemmed from the football federation’s insistence to swim and sink with Amodu Shuaibu in spite of signs that he seemingly lacked the capacity to turn an already bad national team around when he took over. They were happy on the grounds that the result justified their opposition to Amodu’s continued stay as head coach of the national team. Eze Anaba, our Saturday Editor continued to harp on  the shortcomings of Amodu.

“If Amodu knew the game very well, how could he have played  three defensive midfielders in a game he needed to win? Mikel Obi is defensive, Etuhu is defensive and Ayila was once voted one of the best defensive midfielders in Europe.

Why didn’t he change Ayegbeni who was not having a good game? I think it was good we lost. Somehow, it may turn out to be a blessing in disguise when we fail totally and we would be compelled to have a clean sweep from the federation down to the coaches,:”Anaba said. Dapo Olufade, the Sunday Editor felt same way.

“Those calling us names for opposing Amodu should know better now,”one Theo said from Warri. Many callers spoke in the same vein.

In football, results matter. And when you fail to get them it pains. Nigerians were so pained about Tuesday’s defeat. The defeat made them to lose sight of the remarkable improvement I saw in the way Eagles passed the ball, their slightly faster movements and a seeming confidence on the ball.

In the first fourty minutes, Eagles played their best ever football under Amodu Shuaibu. I was impressed. Idah Peterside had told me earlier that Amodu had taken absolute control of the training and that he laid emphasis on quick moves and short passes. I reported this in Vanguard. Truly, I saw these attributes in the team in those early minutes and I celebrated “If Eagles play this way at the World Cup, it may not be the doom many are already predicting”, I said to myself.

Moments later, it appeared they cast a spell on the team and their character manifested. I have written about the poor marking abilities of the Eagles for long. In my preview of the match, I wrote about the counter attacks of the Egyptians especially from the middle. In one moment of blunder or was it madness, the beautiful 11th minute goal of Chinedu Obasi was cancelled when our defenders forgot about elementary positioning when a team is on the offensive.

The two other goals came in similar way. This exposed their defensive flaws. That’s why many are criticising Amodu for not reading the game well while his counterpart in Hassan Shehata did better and he got the result. Eze Anaba argued that Nigeria had better quality in the individual players against that of Egypt but that Egypt had better team work. Many are still raising issues against Amodu and his approach.

For me, Eagles improved  in one or two areas but lacked the strong character in defence to shore up their game. And they paid for it. Another thing I want to point out was Amodu’s good plan that failed largely because he did not consider the weather factor. When I heard that he would adopt the 4-3-3 formation and the way he planned to execute it, I felt it was not a bad approach considering the way Egypt played.

But on the eve of our match, they told me that the weather in Angola in the afternoons was hot. I then developed some fears but hoped that the technical crew would be able to make the necessary tactical changes. In a 4-3-3 formation, you need fast players, you need a lot of pace to keep on attacking.

Two of the three attackers always fall deep and break away when in possession. Two out of the three midfielders join attack when in possession but very watchful of their positioning. 4-3-3 is an attacking formation which could, at the same time, be solid in midfield play depending on the runs and general tactical approach of the coach. But in the main, you need a lot of pace, you need energetic players who are ready to run for 90 minutes for such a formation to work out.

You must, therefore, consider young players for such formation.  You cannot vouch for our players in this respect. In Europe where the weather is conducive for such, it is a common formation now. The weather is cold and players have to run to cover the whole field. Amodu had probably planned this approach before getting to Angola. I’m sure he did not consider the weather before adopting it. It is a good approach but which does not suit the weather now in Angola.

Weather is one of the factors that influence tactics. Even the pitch of a stadium could.

There are so many details coaches must consider in football. In a hot weather, you could start with an attacking formation but you must change as the game progresses otherwise you could score a goal or two in the first half and burn out to concede more goals later when your players are tiring out. That was exactly what happened to us. The defensive blunders worsened the situation. But if we reverted to a 4-4-2 formation after our goal, we could have played conservatively,  consolidated at the back and midfield and only went on the counter.

Our game shouldn’t have been a one way thing.  Egypt, being down, would have naturally thrown more men up front in order to get a goal. This would have, naturally, reduced their number at the row and on a good counter we could have gotten  another goal.

But after scoring, we failed to, using the  words of Sylvanus Okpala, control the game and Egypt did what we were supposed to do. We could have changed our approach, considering the weather and the way Egypt played. Because we did not change, we tired out earlier than the Egyptians.

But largely, our undoing was a combination of tactical error and individual blunders on the part of the players and the coaches. There are some basic positionings that you don’t need a coach to teach you at that level.

Our defenders and the defensive midfielders disappointed me badly over this.   I called the camp after the match to ask why Mikel Obi was changed and they told me that he was exhausted. In Chelsea,  players like Lampard and Essien  who have tremendous work rate do the marking while Mikel collects the loose balls and passes on.

He is a good passer of the ball but very lazy as a worker. Others cover up for him and this enables him to shine at times. But in Eagles where he is always fielded in the defensive midfield without the likes of Essien, Lampard or even Ballack, total defensive play overwhelms him.

It is about a coach knowing the capabilities of his players and mastering how to complement them. That’s why you can have 11 stars and still not have a good team in football. A coach must know the qualities of his players and know how to use the players to complement each other.

That is one area Amodu must try to do something about. From his defence to midfield and attack, he must begin to assess and weigh the qualities of the players to make the best combination that will yield results.

Otherwise, the problem we saw on Tuesday will persist. But I must confess that the defensive blunders made nonsense of the work he did and he has to take responsibility and map out the way forward.

The passing game improved, their runs were better except that I still saw some back passes when they should be going forward to put pressure on opponents. Their confidence on the ball was better and the short passes more positive than they were when they played in the Qualifying matches.

Generally, I saw improved Eagles in terms of individual play and team possession but a team that still lacked tactical discipline in defensive runs, a vital department of the game. They can do better and go far if they get it right otherwise their return to home will be quicker than many expected.

The issue of players selected is a topic for another day. For now, let’s hope that they can turn things around against Benin Republic and get a result against Mozambique to move on. But they have to be more physical and direct against Benin otherwise they will be frustrated and we will all be gnashing our teeth again.

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