I’ve been feeling rather nonplussed since yesterday. Reason, I’ve had to do a lot of agonizing as to how to calibrate Nigeria’s performance against Argentina.
Should I give Lagerback kudo’s for setting out his troops in a much more organized fashion and improving on the work ethic of the players (which had been a perennial source of concern with past Eagles teams), or address his tactical errors which contributed in ensuring that this was a game where we failed to snatch Victory from the jaws of defeat? Right now, I’m still at a loss, but let’s see how it goes.
I should start by saying there were some positives to be taken out of this game, the team worked hard and functioned as a unit. The players played for each other and there was less of the kind of egoistic individualism that has so cost us in the past. Vincent Enyeama was quite simply incredible in goal, almost single handedly ensuring that the score line remained respectable, and deservedly, came away with the man of the match award, instructive of proceedings considering he was on the losing side.
However, painful as it is for me to admit this, this was a game that was there for the taking and Lagerback has to come away with some responsibility for the fact that we failed to come away with at least a point. A bit harsh, I can hear you say? I don’t think so. There were a few tactical errors that clearly contributed to us losing this game. I’m not referring to the individual error that led to the goal. We’ve always been hopeless at defending set pieces and this soft underbelly was again exposed yesterday in the Heinze’s goal, but this wasn’t the major reason for our defeat.
The primary cause for our defeat has to lie in the way the team was set out. Yes, Angel Di Maria was a threat down the left side, but I’m very sure Lagerback had to realize that the major threat was always going to come from giving Lionel Messi too much room to operate down the middle. Given that Messi operates from a deeper position with the Argentine team than he does at Barcelona, it was always going to be easier to nullify or at least reduce the threat he posed by cutting of the supply of the ball from Veron and Masherano. This the Eagles simply failed to do and the reasoning behind Lagerbacks deploying Sani Kaita in the wide position at the right of midfield instead of more centrally where he could have been more effective in providing a wall between our Defence and Midfield has left me scratching my head. In the circumstance, Kaita was wasted on the right as Argentina simply placed less emphasis on attacking from the flanks since they were getting so much joy in finding spaces between our Midfield and Defence. Only a combination of superb goalkeeping from Enyeama and uncharacteristic profligacy from Messi, Higuain and Tevez prevented the scoreline from being a much more embarrassing one.
Lagerback’s tactical rigidity has ensured that he has failed to strike the right balance between allowing players function in roles in which they are much more comfortable and negating the tactics of the opposition. I can’t help but think how much more effective a 4-2-3-1 system, could have been using the same personnel, but shifting Kaita into a more central role while allowing Nsofor to operate from the wider position to which he is more accustomed with the National side.
As it was, we were unable to take advantage of the glaring shortcomings of the Argentines. Like I predicted before the game, Jonas Guiterrez operating as a right back was always going to provide ample room to exploit. Lagerback seemed to have realized this as he decided to use Chinedu Obasi to harass the Argentines down that flank. He did a good job of constantly marauding down the left flank, especially in the first half but was wasteful in taking his chances.
It wasn’t all doom and gloom, however. I have to say I was encouraged by some of the performances put in by the Eagles. The defence generally held firm, Yakubu Aiyegbeni put in a workmanlike if not completely inspiring display. Martins was explosive upon coming in as a substitute and the greater attacking thrust shown by the Eagles following Lagerback’s substitutions portends favourably for the Eagles subsequent matches.
However, I can’t escape the gnawing feeling that we showed the Argentines too much respect in this game. We didn’t ask enough questions of a Maradona side who showed that the whole is still less than the sum of the parts and we weren’t compact enough and sufficiently difficult to break down for the rampaging Argentines midfield.
My verdict ? Still enormous room for improvement, and there’s no more margin for error. The South Korean team I saw play Greece will provide very stiff opposition and will require all the Eagles reserves of Resilience, invention and aggression to break down. Most crucially perhaps, Lagerback has to call it spot on in that game. Anything other than that will spell a premature end to the Super Eagles dream of advancing to the knockout stages of this, the first World Cup to be staged on African soil.