Super Eagles’ losing strikers to injury is a blessing in disguise

AFCON 2023 Super Eagles’ losing strikers to injury is a blessing in disguise

Solace Chukwu 10:37 - 13.01.2024

While less than ideal, Nigeria's injury crisis ahead of the AFCON might actually be to their benefit

Like a plague, a wave of injuries seems to have crashed into the Nigeria camp ahead of the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON).

Although it claimed midfield stalwart Wilfred Ndidi, it seems engineered, almost like a bioweapon, to target the Super Eagles’ enviable striking department.

Umar Sadiq and Victor Boniface are presently infirm, while Kelechi Iheanacho has barely trained with the group and is a doubt for the Group Stage at the very least. Suddenly, an area of abundance has taken on a threadbare quality, and even though Terem Moffi and, latterly, Paul Onuachu have been called up as replacements, Nigeria coach Jose Peseiro is now dealing with a qualitative deficit. (At least relative to his personnel preferences.)

It need not be the end of the world, however. Historically, Nigeria have tended to perform better with fewer options to choose from; if anything, over the course of Peseiro’s tenure, he has seemed beholden to his attacking riches to the team’s detriment. Fielding as many as five forwards at a time is useful for mauling the likes of Sao Tome, but against less overmatched opposition, the Super Eagles have looked top-heavy and jumbled. 

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The present circumstances somewhat recall the 2004 AFCON. In Nigeria’s opening match of that edition against Morocco, coach Christian Chukwu lined up all of Yakubu Aiyegbeni, Nwankwo Kanu, Julius Aghahowa and John Utaka at the same time, with Jay-Jay Okocha in midfield. Needless to say, the play was completely muddled, and the Super Eagles were edged out by the Atlas Lions. 

The Super Eagles would subsequently come within penalty kicks of the final, but only after a mixture of indiscipline and injury had slashed the team’s attacking corps almost in half. Aiyegbeni and Victor Agali were evicted for flouting camp rules, and Aghahowa got hobbled during Nigeria’s final group match against Benin.

At the 2004 AFCON, erstwhile Super Eagles coach Christian Chukwu was greatly aided by the depletion of his forward options.
In 2004, Christian Chukwu was greatly aided by the depletion of his forward options.

That streamlining of options actually seemed to help Chukwu’s decision-making, and the team settled into a proper rhythm with a complementary front three that played narrow and combined with one another. Scarcity did for that group what abundance could not. 

While the current crop does not yet have to concern itself with transgressions of camp discipline (yet), the chipping away of options may prove a blessing in the same way. For all their attacking talent, Nigeria go into AFCON 2023 with just one win in their last five matches, an abysmal recent run of form for a nation of their standing. 

What’s worse, they have conceded in every one of those matches, which is concerning considering the average FIFA ranking of those five opponents (at the times of the matches) was 104.6. Not only is loading up on strikers doing little to actually win matches, but it is simultaneously making the Super Eagles less airtight.

Super Eagles coach Jose Peseiro must recognise his current injury crisis as an opportunity
Super Eagle head coach Jose Peseiro || Credit: Imago Super Eagles coach Jose Peseiro must recognise his current injury crisis as an opportunity

The solution is – and indeed has been – obvious, but perhaps out of a need to make the most of the riches available to him, Peseiro has been reluctant to bite the bullet. Now, with the decision taken out of his hands somewhat following injuries to his preferred cadre of forwards, the Portuguese finally has the perfect conditions (or excuse, if you like) to do the “right” thing, and properly balance the team.

What that would mean, in concrete terms, is entirely up to the 68-year-old’s imagination. But he cannot go wrong with adding a bit more steel and positional discipline to the midfield (be that by beefing up the middle with numbers or by embracing different profiles), and fostering organic connections upfront and in the wide areas. It would not be brute force, but it need not be quantum physics either. 

Out of scarcity, prudence. Out of chaos, order.