The temptation to completely write off Lagerback’s team will be strong, however this rather insipid performance has to be judged against the fact that it was the Swede’s first game in charge and the comments he’d earlier made indicating he would be using the game more for experimental purposes and to test out some of the more fringe elements of the Nigerian squad.
In his own words, “If you take this first practice match, we have looked for a bit of playing time for the players. It's just as I have done previously with the Swedish team. If we had Swedish players who hadn't been playing that much then we prioritised them, and that will be a factor now as well. But now it's also about to become acquainted with as many players as possible. We have quite a few offensive players in this group, so maybe we can test them a little bit to see if they can cope with both the offensive and defensive."
Viewed against the backdrop of his comments, we probably shouldn’t read too much into the listless performance put up by the Super Eagles. However the game should have provided Lagerback with some insights into what is possible to improve upon and the pitfalls he has to avoid.
So, what were we able to glean? First and foremost, let’s examine the formation. On the evidence of what we saw yesterday, it will be a tall order for the Nigerian side to adjust seamlessly to Lagerback’s preferred 4-4-2 system. The reason for this is simple. The Nigerian team as currently constituted does not have the players to make the most of this system. The absence of Natural wide men in the squad means that insisting on this formation will rid the team of the required balance. Unlike the case with say England who can call upon wide men with varying qualities ( the pace of Walcott, the trickery of Lennon or the work Ethic of Milner) Lagerback would have to rely on players like Odemwingie, Anichebe and Obasi, all good players but players who would basically be square pegs in round holes if they are to play in a traditional 4-4-2 format. Just how uncomfortable they could be was evident from the performances of Obasi and Anichebe yesterday.
While Obasi put in a hardworking shift, regularly supporting the impressive, Terna Suswan at right back, he seemed to find the role somewhat restricting and was unable to break out of his apparent shackles and provide the sort of foraging runs we became accustomed to seeing him make in a more expansive 4-3-3 format. Anichebe too seemed to be caught in two minds about whether his role was predominantly a sort of back up striker, picking up the scraps behind the front two, and making incisive runs through the channels or that of a midfield grafter, simply there to put in the hard work in keeping things tight down the left flank. In the end, he was able to perform neither with any particular distinction even though he showed some good strength and made a couple of decent runs.
The middle of the park didn’t function much better. The gaping chasm between the midfield and the attack continued to be a feature of the Super Eagles as there was very little link up play between the two holding players, Haruna Lukman and Ayila Yusuf and the initial front pairing of Kanu and Kalu Uche. Both front men were particularly disappointing and made no attempts to either drop into midfield to pick up the ball or make runs into the channels. The result was a very pedestrian looking midfield even though Lukman did show some flashes of individual brilliance to suggest that he may very well merit a place on the plane to South Africa.
On the whole, the deploying of a 4-4-2 formation seemed to be borne more out of a desire by Lagerback to keep faith with his footballing principles than out of any motive to play to the strengths of the Nigerian side. Lagerback could not have been pleased with the results and should now know that he has to either revert to the tried and trusted 4-3-3 or utilise a system that will both satisfy his obvious desire to keep things tight in Midfield and allow our midfielders and Forwards play with some freedom.
The second benefit of last Night’s game would have been the opportunity it presented for him to trim down his squad. A few players by their performances indicated that they couldn’t make the grade and should be dropped. The first on my list in this regard would be Kalu Uche. He has turned in some uninspiring performances in recent times for the Eagles but last night’s probably capped the lot. He offered absolutely nothing in attack and it would be a real travesty if he makes the final cut. Another player who didn’t inspire much confidence was right back Chidi Ordia who seemed to put every foot wrong after coming in as a second half substitute. Perhaps he could get one more opportunity but with time running out he had better put in a much improved shift or forget about making the final 23.
On the upside, two players distinguished themselves and showed that they deserve a further look in. Terna Suswan showed no nerves considering this was his National team debut and looked assured and completely at ease at right full back. Haruna Lukman also showed a lot of industry as well as a bit of creativity late on and provided ample evidence that he may indeed prove to the missing piece of the jigsaw that is the Eagles Midfield.
My final Verdict? There’s precious little time left for experimenting and Lagerback has to get back to basics.