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Super Eagles Midfield Conundrum And The 2010 World Cup
By Tony Onugu
Published June 06, 2010

Until the retirement of JJ Okocha, Nigeria has always been blessed with dynamic attacking midfielders who dominate play from the center of midfield, and able to release quick-fire wide-men into space on either flanks. From Henry Nwosu, to Segun Olukanmi, the late Osaro Obabaifo, Christopher Nwosu to Friday Ekpo, an unbroken string has remain until recently.

Many had thought the young Jon Mikel Obi a natural successor to this role, until the ersthwile Chelsea coach, Jose Mourinho intervened, to instead employ his ball holding abilities and quick decision-making, as a defensive tool in controlling games from deep positions. The result is a Super Eagles midfield dominated by defensive players or at best central midfielders- Mikel, Yusuf Ayila, Etuhu, Sanni Kaita, Haruna and Ajilore .

Attempts by successive coaches to employ Mikel in an advanced position has had limited success, with Eguavoen, IMO having the most success, perhaps because the player was still at the early stage of his conversion at Chelsea. However, it should be noted that at his creative best for Nigeria's 2005 U-20 team, Siasia rather employed him in a deep-lying playmaking role and not as a 'trequartista'.

For the most part, Siasia's tactical organization of the U-20 team in 2005 has largely remained the template on which Nigerian national team football has been based since then, with creative play designed around wide forwards, who begin play from midfield, provide cover for the fullbacks, and break into attacking positions as the game develops upfield.

Of the five midfielders available for selection in the recently named SE squad, a major concern must be the lack of pace in open play, either on the offensive and or on the defensive side of the ball. This weakness puts great stress on the tactical organization and positional discipline of the team.

With his experience at Chelsea, Mikel Obi obviously stands out as the fulcrum around which our organization in MF must be based. Although overshadowed by his role definition at Chelsea, his long range passing skills which provided a major cutting edge for the 2005 WYC team, remain. For the SE, they have been IMO constrained by the poor tactical organization of Amodu's team in the last two years, with a clear lack of clarity in the roles and the pattern of movement of the wide forward/midfielders, fullbacks and the second wave players from central midfield.

Among the five players, Sanni Kaita IMO stands out as the most effective player in a pressing system in midfield. Although his lack of first team football might appear at first sight to be a constraint, his performances for Nigeria have often been in stark contrast to his showings at club level. Tenacious on the tackle, with the stamina of a horse, his relentless pressing in midfield was the platform on which Nigeria built her game in the non-possession phase in Beijing.

Yusuf Ayila brings great versatility with his ability to find a pass as well as his aerial strength. But he lacks pace and does not employ himself adequately in making lateral movements on the defensive side, appearing languid, with understated physical presence. IMO however, if he is able to hit peak physical conditioning and his best form, he might be the best foil for Mikel Obi in central midfield. I am however doubtful...

Two plays in the Europa Cup final underlined for me the weakness of Dickson Etuhu in defensive midfield. The first one led to a goal by Atletico Madrid as Etuhu was badly exposed for pace out wide vs Antonio Reyes, who in all fairness will expose anyone for pace...The 2nd was against Aguero in central MF whose quick turn resulted in one of the many fouls Etuhu committed in giving up dangerous free kicks. He brings athleticism and power and very little else. But this may well put him in good stead, if Ayila does not reach peak fitness.

Lukman Haruna comes into the team as the most versatile of the selection in midfield, able to play as a right-sided, defensive, attacking or central midfielder. Two key challenges remain in effective use of this player and they all revolve around his mentality: (1) tendency to lose focus and drift out of games or his assignments; and (2) temprament. There is also the issue of his poor tackling ability. In open play however, he brings very good awareness for the run and the pass, and has great instincts for the second ball or the late run...He certainly is an interesting choice and I believe the primary reason Femi Ajilore was surplus to requirements.

What to do with the wide forwards/midfielders will probably be the most interesting part of watchers of Lars Lagerback. Thus far, the use of wide forwards in wide midfield has been the most defining change in tactics in Nigerian national team football since Clemens Westerhof. In full flight, the play out wide of Osaze, Uche or Obasi has repeatedly provided a cutting edge to the attacking game of the Eagles.

However, this role has come with little definition by Amodu. Perhaps as a result, Osaze has been the most undisciplined of performers, repeatedly giving up possession, with little definition of movement pattern or timeliness of delivery of the cross, and when and where to pick out the pass as opposed to the dribble.

In my considered opinion, what Lagerback does with the wide forwards/midfielders will ultimately decide the effectiveness of our attacking game, especially against Argentina, with its vulnerabilities in lateral defence.

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