Were Ivory Coast poor against Nigeria, or were they made to look so?

AFCON 2023 Were Ivory Coast poor against Nigeria, or were they made to look so?

Solace Chukwu 12:22 - 19.01.2024

The Super Eagles were good value for their win, but the real story of the game was just how poor the hosts were at finding solutions

Already engrossing by itself, (a) sport ascends to a whole other level when both primary competitors perform to their highest level at the same time. This is the apogee of athletic contest; the blissful eternal state, if you will, and it is an extremely rare occurrence. 

It is important to emphasise that last bit because, for all that Nigeria were composed and lucid (uncharacteristically so) in their 1-0 victory over Ivory Coast at the ongoing Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON), the game was conditioned more by the inability of the host nation to think their way through the contest. 

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In the tournament opener against Guinea-Bissau, the Elephants’ attacking approach hinged almost entirely on creating space for left-back Ghislain Konan on the overlap. The key to this was numerical superiority in the left half-space, with Seko Fofana, Jeremie Boga and, all the way from the opposite flank, Jonathan Bamba all combining in that zone to pull the Djurtus’ defence out of shape.

This, allied with Fofana’s almost free role, proved too much for a Guinea-Bissau side that, in keeping with their history in this competition, seemed completely overawed by the occasion. It’s like Groundhog Day with Baciro Cande’s men: they relive the wonder afresh every time.

In spite of the easy win – facilitated by Fofana’s early strike – there were concerns. That unfettered rein afforded the former Lens man left the Ivory Coast open in midfield. The left-side bias meant the plan for the right flank was abstruse and mostly ad-hoc. At the back, the pairing of Ousmane Diomande and Evan N'Dicka were jittery, as one might expect considering that, coming into the competition, they have played less than 10 matches between them for the national team.

With these issues, the utility of deploying a back three/five against Jean-Louis Gasset’s side was apparent. Not only would it be more difficult to pull apart than a four, but aggressive wing-backs would both push Konan back and make hay down the Ivory Coast right, and a reinforced midfield would compete favourably against the trio of Fofana, Franck Kessie and Ibrahim Sangare.

So while the decision of Nigeria coach Jose Peseiro to shift to precisely that scheme came as a surprise, it was only so because, to that point, the former Sporting boss had only ever previously rolled out a back three/five twice, and neither was a competitive fixture. Instead, the real surprise on the night was how little Gasset responded to the change.

Ivory Coast coach Jean-Louis Gasset
Ivory Coast coach Jean-Louis Gasset expects a tough AFCON clash against the Super Eagles of Nigeria. Credit - Pooja/Imago Ivory Coast coach Jean-Louis Gasset did not cover himself in glory against Nigeria

Beyond a mirror inversion of their attacking emphasis to now favour the right flank (probably in an attempt to target Zaidu Sanusi, who is the more attacking full-back and has the odd defensive lapse in him), there was little of a cerebral nature from the hosts. 

The concerns from the first match remained unaddressed: one flank – this time their left – understaffed; the lack of compactness in midfield, which allowed Nigeria to repeatedly play direct balls into the final third against at best middling pressure; the inexperienced centre-back pairing unclear on responsibilities and therefore struggling whenever the Super Eagles’ front three won the first ball in the final third.

Nigeria striker Victor Osimhen
Victor Osimhen endured personal frustration against Ivory Coast, but he was crucial in getting Nigeria up the pitch

Make no mistake, Nigeria executed at a very high level, especially in the circumstances: an almost full stadium with a largely partisan crowd. Following injury to Alhassan Yusuf and his apparent lack of trust in Club Brugge’s Raphael Onyedika, Peseiro’s mind was more or less made up for him, but still the 63-year-old deserves credit for seeing the vision just the same. Scarcity, really, can be the bringer of clarity.

Right through the team, there were definitive performances as well: Ola Aina and William Ekong stood out, but Calvin Bassey, Ademola Lookman and Frank Onyeka were not far behind. The approach, too, was rooted in commonsense: the realisation of the futility of a midfield battle on equal footing informed the Super Eagles’ directness on the night, and when the time came to batten down, there was tenacity and aggression in the right areas.

Nigeria captain William Troost Ekong
William Troost Ekong William Troost Ekong led the Super Eagles rearguard with a mix of calm and aggression (Image Credit: IMAGO/Shengolpix/AMADA MASARU)

And yet, when it comes right down to it, Ivory Coast mustered negligible threat. For all their discipline, it was never backs-to-the-wall for Nigeria because it never had to be. Some credit is due to the Super Eagles’ set-up, but the Elephants looked shorn of ideas as the game wore on, resorting to speculation where innovation was required. 

Their second-clearest chance of the game – N’Dicka’s shot from around the penalty spot in the first half – may have fallen to the wrong player, but it offered a blueprint worth following: with no specialist defensive midfielder on, cut-backs to the edge of the penalty box were potential kryptonite for Nigeria. Instead, the hosts seldom sought to exploit that loophole, and as the match progressed became less clear and more frantic in their decision-making. By the end, the biggest threat to Peseiro’s side was the possibility of an unforced error, rather than the waning menace of Ivory Coast.

For that to be the lot of a side with the hosts’ depth of talent was damning. Already faced with significant doubt from the Ivorian sporting press and public, Gasset did little to burnish his reputation or convince anyone of his ability to lead this team to glory.