Nigeria secured a ticket to the Africa Cup of Nations for the first time since 2013 after a 1–1 result away to South Africa. It was a game of two halves, and that in the sense that all of the excitement was crammed into the opening period, with the second half failing to live up to it.
Gernot Rohr was without Francis Uzoho, Odion Ighalo, Wilfred Ndidi and John Obi Mikel here. He reverted to his three at the back system from the World Cup, but with the midfield triangle inverted: with Iwobi acting as a no. 10, it was a 3–4–1–2. Oghenekaro Etebo and John Ogu played in midfield, while Samuel Kalu surprisingly came in at right back due to a late knock to Ola Aina.
South Africa lined up in a 4–2–3–1, with the Thulani Serero as the central playmaker. Thamsanqa Mkhize started at right back, while the midfield pairing of Hlompho Kekana and Tiyani Mabunda stayed solid and disciplined in front of the back four.
THE TACTICAL MATCH-UP
Nigeria needed a draw to secure qualification, and it is quite possible that this informed the change of system. Also, with Ighalo out and Isaac Success yet to properly convince, it was arguably not the right game for him to lead the line alone.
However, the Super Eagles struggled to get to grips with South Africa here. The most obvious problem was on the flanks, where South Africa had 2 on 1 situations. With Nigeria playing with two strikers however, Bafana needed to be brave to take advantage, and they were.
Sifiso Hlanti and Mkhize were very aggressive with their positioning, providing the width on both flanks, and goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune, whose distribution is outstanding, found them constantly. Mkhize got forward dangerously as early as the 2nd minute, and flashed a cross across goal; in the 19th minute, he turned Omeruo inside the area, but his low cross was just behind Mothiba.
Their advanced positioning however meant that there was space to exploit in the channels, and Musa made a brilliant run from out to in which was incorrectly flagged for offside. It was a risk both Bafana were taking: by keeping both Kekana and Mabunda close to the centre-backs, they had 4v3 and could play out, but if there was a turnover, they would be in huge trouble with both strikers pulling wide.
Percy Tau was Bafana’s most influential attacking player, and had the freedom to roam across the front, swapping flanks with Themba Zwane.
He tended to position himself closer to the front, however, and was not always diligent defensively: Nigeria opened the scoring when the ball was switched to Kalu on the right, who ran at Hlanti 1v1, before firing a cross that was diverted into his own goal by Buhle Mkhwanazi.
It was a risk the hosts were willing to take, however, and there was greater security when Tau moved over to play on the right. Here, he formed a good partnership with Mkhize, pinning back Jamilu Collins before then cutting inside to open up the flank for the full-back to charge forward.
If Collins stepped up to shut down Mkhize, Tau could spin behind and draw out Omeruo. This is the problem with having a surplus (in this case, 3v1 in defence): it leaves you short somewhere else.
With South Africa’s full-backs so advanced, the Super Eagles midfield had to shift across whenever the ball was switched to the opposite flank. This left a whole lot of ground to cover for Etebo and Ogu, and they simply could not shuffle across quickly enough to plug the gaps.
The result was that the midfield looked threadbare, a consequence that Serero arguably should have taken advantage of more. He had a bit of a disappointing game, all things considered, although he was involved in the buildup to the Bafana equalizer.
When it came, South Africa’s equalizer was a culmination of all the factors considered above.
Khune sweeps the ball out to Hlanti; the ball is worked over to the other flank, where Tau has dragged Collins narrow, allowing Mkhize to get forward; Etebo is dragged out to engage the full-back, leaving a huge gap between himself and Ogu, which Serero exploits; Serero plays into the feet of Tau but, rather than cut him off, Collins drops off, worried about Mkhize whose run Etebo is already tracking; Omeruo doesn’t get tight enough to Tau, who chops past the defence line and squares for Mothiba to tap home.
As stated earlier, the second half is a bit of a damp squib, for two reasons, which had knock-on effects
1. Bafana lost all patience, and tried to play too directly.
i. Tau was positioned higher, almost level with Mothiba at times, and lost the dynamism that the ambiguity of his role in the first half allowed.
ii. This played into the hands of the back three, who could now consider Tau a direct opponent, and either of Omeruo or Balogun could stick tight to him, safe in the knowledge there was a spare man.
2. A few subtle changes by Rohr.
i. Iwobi dropped deeper and between Ogu and Etebo without the ball once South Africa got past the first line of pressure, and the team looked more like a 5–3–2 without the ball. This made shifting across to cover the wide spaces easier.
ii. Kalu began to press higher up when play was on the left, having been freed from worrying about Zwane by the wider starting position of the midfield, and shut down Hlanti.
iii. When the ball was on the right, Etebo would track Zwane very closely.
However, in spite of these tweaks, South Africa could still have broken through had they been less desperate. One such example was in the 60th minute, with Mothiba dragging out a centre-back and Zwane going in behind on Ogu’s blindside.
However, the Hapoel Be’er Sheva man recovered to prevent the cross. Serero could also have taken advantage of this, but as stated earlier, he had a disappointing game.
The Super Eagles still have easily enough quality to create chances against most African sides, and we saw that here again. Two goals were chalked off, both decisions wrong; the game should have finished 3–1.
And yet, Rohr lost the tactical battle against Baxter, at least in the first half. A shift to a 3–4–3 (collapsing into a 5–4–1 while defending) would have helped stem the tide somewhat in that first half, and yet he did not do it.
That can mean one of two things: he either had a lot of faith in his own good fortune, South Africa’s inability to take advantage, or both; or he did not see the problem.
The bigger problem, however, was the choice of system. Aina’s injury may have changed his plans, but that’s hard to countenance considering he had Idowu on the bench. Three at the back is more likely what he always wanted to do here, and it exposed the team down the flanks.
Interestingly, he faced the same situation at the World Cup against Argentina, whose full-backs caused the Super Eagles a lot of problems: their winner would even come from one full-back crossing to the other. It seems, worryingly, that Rohr has not figured out the issues.
However, all of that is elementary. For all that his failings are obvious, Rohr has delivered qualification to the Cup of Nations one game early, and deserves tremendous credit. You can only beat what’s in front of you, and he has take care of business every step of the way. So perhaps today is not the day to point out his flaws.
Today, we celebrate a return to our rightful place at the top table of African football.