Nigeria and West Brom defender, Semi Ajayi
The last two months have seen the Super Eagles post two of their more impressive performances under coach Gernot Rohr.Nigeria and West Brom defender, Semi Ajayi
Yes, both the matches against Ukraine and Brazil ended in draws, and both saw Nigeria give up an advantage, but the feeling has been largely positive. The plan has been clear: keep a solid shape without the ball, then spring quickly with it. That has been good enough to earn respectable outcomes against two very good sides.
Beyond the game plan and the flow of the matches however, the other constant feature has related to personnel. Neither selection featured Leganes defender Kenneth Omeruo, who in both international windows has been hobbled by injury.
The last 15 months have marked a resurrection for the 26-year-old: he usurped Leon Balogun on the eve of the Africa Cup of Nations for the right to partner William Troost-Ekong and emerged from the purgatory that is the Chelsea loan system to earn plaudits, as well as a permanent deal, at Leganes.
Regular game time at club level was crucial in edging out Balogun, of whom there were already doubts, and not solely over his inactivity at Brighton. Those misgivings came to a head in Egypt when, inexplicably, he dallied and afforded Madagascar the opening goal in the final group game.
It did not matter that the Super Eagles went on to lose 2-0 against a team not exactly famed for its parsimony at the back, or that it was an off-day for pretty much the entire side.
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He was held up, a little unfairly, as the scapegoat, the mascot of a perceived complacency, and ejected from the starting line-up. This despite the fact that, in the previous game, he had been faultless against much stronger opposition in Guinea.
Of course, it was one thing to glimpse opportunity, and quite another to walk through the open door. In a sense, it seemed like Omeruo’s relative match sharpness essentially gave him a longer rope; there were errors at a number of points during his run in the side alongside Ekong: two mistakes led to goals against Cameroon, and a further two went unpunished in the semi-final against Algeria.
Those moments hinted at the partnership at the heart of the Nigeria defence being far from perfect, but Omeruo had taken possession, and it was always going to be harder to justify making a change when the alternative had come into the tournament rusty.
However, his recent absences have left that door ever-so-slightly ajar again, and in the intervening period, West Bromwich Albion’s Semi Ajayi has sauntered through to good effect.
Ajayi, who was included, and then cut from the provisional Afcon squad as a midfield option, has blossomed with the promotion-chasing Baggies in the Championship playing in his more natural position at centre-back. As such, when Omeruo begged off with an injury, it was not club mate Chidozie Awaziem, but the former Arsenal and Rotherham man who won the battle to take his spot.
The result has been two largely assured showings at the heart of the defence for the Super Eagles. Remarkably, his display against Brazil might have seen him altogether gazump Omeruo for a starting role when November’s Afcon 2021 qualifiers against Benin and Lesotho roll around.
He has more going for him that simple possession, however. A trade-off in breaking up the ‘Oyibo Wall’, as the partnership of Ekong and Balogun came to be known, was the synergy between them, and how their strengths and weaknesses melded.
The Udinese man, being younger, played the role of aggressor, stepping out of the defensive line and roughing up opposing strikers. This perfectly masked his struggles with defending in space, and that deficiency was filled in by his naturally more contemplative Brighton partner, who hung back, organized and made clearances.
Ekong and Omeruo simply did not have that same natural flow, as their styles were much too similar. The Leganes man has always done his best work alongside an organizer, and unsurprisingly Nigeria’s most assured defensive performance at the Afcon in the summer came against Guinea when he was paired with Balogun.
Whenever he and Ekong were forced to turn and run toward their own goal, they faced problems: the aforementioned quarter-final against Cameroon was one such scenario, and while South Africa’s lack of runners in behind meant Ekong and Omeruo were largely unbothered, Algeria also exploited that ruthlessly.
What Ajayi’s introduction has brought, interestingly, is precisely that same ability to survey the play, eschewing diving in and rashness in favour of winning the ball cleanly and playing forward with composure. Paired with Ekong’s increasingly vocal bent (developed out of necessity), there is a greater balance to the centre of the Super Eagles defence once more.
It may very well be that, by the time Omeruo is next able to honour an international call-up, he will find the team’s defensive upholstery has once again shifted, and this time not in his favour.