Boniface, Iheanacho injuries dictate a transitional approach for Jose Peseiro's Super Eagles

AFCON 2023 Boniface, Iheanacho injuries dictate a transitional approach for Jose Peseiro's Super Eagles

Solace Chukwu 15:54 - 09.01.2024

Injuries to Nigeria's most flexible attackers may mean even greater flexibility is required of Jose Peseiro if the Super Eagles are to succeed at AFCON 2023

In ‘Arrow of God’, Chinua Achebe memorably wrote that in the homesteads of all great men, it is necessary to have people of varying constitutions, to the end that “whatever tune you play… there is always someone to dance to it.”

Jose Peseiro is not a great man. His beginnings – a UEFA Cup Final with Sporting CP, a stint coaching at Real Madrid – may have suggested he was on the path thereto, but his career since has been an amble through the mundane, a trudge through mediocrity. And yet, by dint of providence, he presides over possibly the finest assortment of forwards Africa can lay claim to in the present day.

Tournaments, with all they entail, are very much like a great tune, winding and unpredictable in their ebbs and cadence, pitching rhythms that are impossible to anticipate. It is the pleasure of championship teams to submit themselves to this examination, becoming as water in order to surf the wave and thereby be elevated by it. 

So it is that, even though Peseiro has since fallen short of the standard it demands, the 63-year-old may yet achieve greatness in the coda, if only by going where the music leads.

With Monday came confirmation that Victor Boniface, whose role in Nigeria’s preparation had been sparing to that point, will be absent from the Super Eagles’ quest for a fourth Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) title. 

In addition to the lack of clarity surrounding Kelechi Iheanacho’s physical condition, this presents a peculiar problem: bar Ademola Lookman (and even he is a more direct profile) and Alex Iwobi (a strong carrier and progressive passer who Peseiro clearly envisions in a deeper role), all of the forwards capable of synthesising attacking interplay in the final third have now been stripped from the team.

The trade-off with lacking true imagination and deftness in midfield has always been getting it elsewhere, and this is what made Iheanacho and Boniface valuable assets: both are capable, by movement and technique, of opening a match up in a way few others in the squad are. 

In addition to this, their ability to both retain the ball in the final third and offer goal scoring threat adds up to significant game-changing potential; while the latter has only started twice for Nigeria and the former can be mercurial, they were both central to Nigeria’s ambitions in the Ivory Coast.

Though inconsistent, Kelechi Iheanacho's unique skillset is valuable for Nigeria

This is precisely the sort of change in tempo that a tournament can offer, upsetting best-laid plans and requiring the ability to think on one’s feet.

What this means for the Super Eagles is simple enough. All designs – real or potential – on fluidity or imaginative expression in the final third are all but dead in the water. In football, there is no one means to attack, but without the personnel to both sustain attacks and penetrate opposing defensive battlements, there simply is no means by which Peseiro can consistently play through the adversary within his ball-dominant ideology. And still, the Portuguese’s mandate remains the same: victory.

Unable to go through, it is therefore necessary to go over, above and around; unable to pen the opponent in, it is imperative to focus on provoking and maximising transitional situations.

Thankfully, on account of the aforementioned surfeit of talent, Nigeria does not lack the tools for this alternative approach either, even without transgressing the bounds of Peseiro’s structural preference. Moses Simon, unexpected star of the last AFCON, is one of the finest crossers around based out of Ligue 1 Nantes, and seems to come into his own when his remit is uncomplicated. 

Iwobi, whose gifts do not extend to reliably solving puzzles, is nevertheless uniquely adept at delivering the ball into dangerous areas consistently, both from central or wide zones.

Similarly, the Super Eagles midfield corps is staffed by athletic runners in Frank Onyeka, Alhassan Yusuf and Joe Aribo, all of whom would excel in a transitional battle. A game model based on direct play, second balls and set-pieces is arguably the best way to maximise the profiles left, without requiring Peseiro to, in his dotage, learn any new steps.

As earlier mentioned, the football will be functional rather than exquisite. It will look, to the watching eye, something of a chore to sit through. And that is fine: there are different quantities of human dances, for each person has several, even to the same rhythm. 

Besides, when it comes to tournament play, the prize does not always go to the most skilled, but to the one who perseveres; undaunted, swaying still as the music swells to a glorious crescendo.