AFCON 2023: Can the Super Eagles' defence deliver a fourth African title?

Can the Super Eagles rely on their defensive strength alone at AFCON 2023? (Credit: IMAGO/Shengolpixs)

AFCON 2023: Can the Super Eagles' defence deliver a fourth African title?

Seye Omidiora 02:30 - 23.01.2024

While Jose Peseiro’s imperfect squad management and his players’ suboptimal final-third execution leave much to be desired, the team’s defensive organisation stands them in good stead at the Africa Cup of Nations.

Much of Nigeria’s Group A performances at the Africa Cup of Nations had Super Eagles supporters pulling their hair out. Jose Peseiro’s team missed a glut of chances against Equatorial Guinea, failed to punish Ivory Coast on several counter-attacking opportunities and were laboured in possession for most of their final group game against Guinea-Bissau.

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The much-maligned Portuguese has not been left out, coming under fire for the team’s broader approach in possession, in-game substitutions and the underutilisation of his squad at the continental showpiece.

However, the Super Eagles boss would have taken seven points from an available nine if they were offered before a ball was kicked. 

Jose Peseiro
Jose Peseiro should be pleased with his side's defensive stability at AFCON 2023 (Credit: IMAGO/Shengolpixs)

Qualification was far from assured given that the three-time African champions were to face an Equatoguinean side that went into the finals undefeated since mid-2022 and the tournament hosts. But they secured four points from both games and added another three in Monday’s 1-0 triumph over Guinea-Bissau.

Nevertheless, progress has not been an upshot of clinical finishing but broadly astute defending.

How defensively assured have the Super Eagles been at AFCON 2023?

Nigeria’s only goal conceded after three games came against Equatorial Guinea in their AFCON 2023 opener, and that was a combination of a defensive mistake and Iban Salvador’s commendable finish.

The statistics in the 1-1 draw showed that Peseiro’s men edged the chances, underscored by the game’s expected goals (xG) — 3.52-0.26 — as the 2013 champions missed six of their seven clear-cut opportunities. Limiting Juan Micha’s men looks more impressive, considering Nzalang Nacional netted four against Guinea-Bissau and Ivory Coast in rounds two and three.

In the 1-0 victory over the Elephants, Jean-Louis Gasset had no solutions to Peseiro’s alteration to a back five, with the host nation resorting to speculative shots from distance when invention or proper attacking patterns failed them.

For context, Seko Fofana and Ibrahim Sangare shot at goal five times in the final 20 minutes, with the total xG value on those shots 0.14. Ivory Coast never looked like scoring unless the Super Eagles made a mistake, and the same was evident in their final group fixture on Monday.

Super Eagles
The Super Eagles never looked like conceding despite Peseiro's personnel changes (Credit: IMAGO/Shengolpixs)

Guinea-Bissau took more shots at goal (12-11), but 10 of their attempts came from outside the 18-yard area, with the two efforts inside the box originating from set-pieces. Strikingly, Baciro Cande’s men had only four touches in Nigeria’s box, significantly fewer than the Super Eagles’ 38.

At the time of writing, Peseiro's team have conceded one big chance in three group-stage matches — Christian Kouame's eighth-minute attempt saved by Stanley Nwabali — and their xG conceded (1.2) is second-lowest, behind Guinea, who take on current African champions Senegal on Tuesday.

The Super Eagles have kept teams at arm’s length, an encouraging sight backed by the data and one that bodes well in tournament football.

Even if they leave themselves at risk of elimination if their profligate finishing persists — Nigeria have had more big chances (13), missing 11, and their expected goals (xG) tally (6.1) outdoes the other 23 nations — they will not be the first team to base progress in cup competitions on defensive solidity and undoubtedly are not the last.

A look at the AFCON winners since the 2010 finals presents striking facts.

How do Peseiro’s Super Eagles compare with recent AFCON winners?

Interestingly, only Senegal’s zero goals conceded in their opening three games at AFCON 2021 betters the Super Eagles’ one, with Egypt (2010) and Algeria (2019) breached once in 270 minutes.

AFCON 2023
Goals conceded by AFCON winners since the 2010 finals.

Zambia let in three group-stage goals in their 2012 triumph, while Nigeria, Ivory Coast and Cameroon conceded twice heading into the knockout rounds at the Cup of Nations.

Notably, the Copper Bullets kept clean sheets throughout the knockouts and were beneficiaries of Didier Drogba’s missed penalty in the final. However, every other recent African champion conceded once at least after the group phase — Egypt (1), Nigeria (2), Ivory Coast (2), Cameroon (2), Algeria (1) and Senegal (2).

What comes next for the Super Eagles at AFCON 2023?

Up next for Peseiro’s men is a round of 16 encounter with runners-up in Group C, a position currently occupied by Guinea, who defeated the Super Eagles 2-0 in a tune-up encounter before the competition.

Exacting revenge at the finals would be just what the doctor ordered for Nigeria, but they risk paying the price for the reliance on their rearguard and profligate finishing at the other end. This is not lost on Peseiro.

“The most important part in this Africa Cup of Nations are the knockout matches,” the Nigeria boss said after Monday’s 1-0 win over Guinea-Bissau.

“We will have to be more clinical in front of goal because the slightest mistake will be fatal.”

Supporters remain unconvinced, and there is exasperation with the Super Eagles’ near rudimentary style, but there will be few complaints if it takes Nigeria close to a fourth African title. However, we are far from such conversations, and they may not be had unless this iteration records a statement win against a side displaying greater coherence.