Is a three-man defence Nigeria's best bet for glory?

William Troost-Ekong scored the decisive winner for Nigeria against Ivory Coast. (Photo Credit: CAF/X)

AFCON 2023 Is a three-man defence Nigeria's best bet for glory?

Solace Chukwu 11:14 - 25.01.2024

It now seems clear that Peseiro is stuck on playing a three-at-the-back system, but do the pros really outweigh the cons?

Following Nigeria's defeat of host nation Ivory Coast, much of the talk was of Jose Peseiro's use of a back three, and how overdue it was.

One game on, and that fervour has cooled somewhat, shown up by a tragic, turgid performance against group whipping boys Guinea-Bissau. 

It was not just that the Super Eagles prevailed only by virtue of an own goal, it was that a meeting with the Djurtus' second-string was characterised by such toil.

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Peseiro's personnel decisions were difficult to understand too. Whereas his selection for the victory over the Elephants placed most of the team in zones when they were likeliest to positively influence the game, against Guinea-Bissau there was incongruity upon incongruity.

Moses Simon, with the best will in the world, lacks the quick decision-making, vision and ability on the turn to play in traffic as an inside forward. Joe Aribo, already lacking confidence, looked confused as to his role, and is as analogous to Alex Iwobi as ewedu is to ogbono

Ola Aina on the left is a very different sort of player to Zaidu Sanusi, and should have been rested anyway, but was instead tasked with fulfilling the Porto man's brief. Samuel Chukwueze, already the one tenuous selection against Ivory Coast, looked even less useful here than he did against the Ivorians.

For all the world, it had the look of a selection/set-up made by a coach who had no real idea why his original plan had worked to begin with. You smack an unresponsive remote control once and it works, so that becomes the default recourse. It was all plug and play, with little regard to the working under the hood.

In any case, while Nigeria got the win still, it laid bare the reality: there really is no one-size-fits-all structure by which the Super Eagles must be saved. Through no doing of his own, Peseiro has a versatile squad to choose from, with the personnel to interpret not just various shapes, but differing gameplans. To become obstinately wedded to a back three/five would be a grave mistake, and that's before even coming to the squad management aspect of things. 

(We have confirmed Raphael Onyedika is indeed bodily present in Abidjan, but where is Kelechi Iheanacho? Why has neither Terem Moffi nor Bruno Onyemaechi seen any minutes?) 

Super Eagles trio Kelechi Iheanacho, Terem Moffi, and Paul Onuacho
(L-R): Super Eagles trio Kelechi Iheanacho, Terem Moffi, and Paul Onuacho. (Photo Credit: Imago) Beyond Victor Osimhen, Nigeria's corps of strikers has seen disappointingly little game time in Abidjan (Photo credit: IMAGO)

If proof is needed as to this team's ability to thrive – in the loosest sense of the word, given the fundamental messiness of the playing style – playing something other than a back three, consider the numbers, underlying and otherwise. (Note: the numbers below are per 90.)

Nigeria's attacking and defensive output metrics at AFCON 2023
Nigeria's attacking and defensive output metrics at AFCON 2023

What the Super Eagles have gotten out of playing a back three is a marginal defensive improvement in terms of preventing opponent penalty box entries, but a cataclysmic loss of attacking output in both shot volume and quality. (It is amazing, is it not, what can be lost with the reallocation of one individual?) 

Now, maybe that vanishing crumb of fortitude is the point, although it should be noted that, based on how the group played out, even that should be weighted on the basis of strength of opposition. It might indeed be the case that, in knockout football when the stakes are highest and concessions are fatal, it is worth it to be blunter in service of advancement. 

That, though, presumes menace and stability are mutually exclusive. They are not. Consider, as well, the peculiar situation of the three-time African champions. They have the worst scoring underperformance relative to xG in the entire competition, typified by a star striker in Victor Osimhen suffering an inopportune drought. In order to lean into defensive stoutness, it is necessary to have the wherewithal to reliably exploit the diminished quantity and quality of chances at the other end; if anything, having less to work with only ramps up the pressure on an already underperforming front line. 

In the absence of that standard of perfection, it is no surprise that both Nigeria's goals since moving to a back three have been a penalty and an own goal. Neither is it far-fetched to state that, if the status quo persists, things are unlikely to get much better once the knockouts begin.

That is the trade-off of a back three, and it may yet work, so long as Peseiro is himself aware of – and strategically accounts for – the nature of his compromise.