Nigeria advance, but Jose Peseiro's 'small squad' strategy may be starting to backfire

AFCON 2023 Nigeria advance, but Jose Peseiro's 'small squad' strategy may be starting to backfire

Solace Chukwu 11:20 - 03.02.2024

The Super Eagles deservedly saw off Angola, but looked physically wrecked by the end of it, putting Jose Peseiro's squad management under the microscope

In purely Expected Goals (xG) terms, Nigeria’s 1-0 win over Angola was their least convincing performance of the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations. No matter, though: this deep into the bowels of a tournament, the outcomes are all that matter.

For all that Angola fashioned two big chances (Jose Peseiro’s side had not given any up since beating Ivory Coast in the Group Stage), there never was the sense of anyone running about with their heads on fire. 

As the game progressed, the Super Eagles retreated somewhat but in terms of the flow of the game, there was little damage taken beyond substitute Zini hitting the upright on the hour mark.

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Where there does now seem to be some casualty is in the physical conditioning of the group. As the ructions escalated, the men in green looked increasingly weary; by the time Alex Iwobi came off in the 80th, he had been blowing for a while already. No one typified the collective fatigue more than Victor Osimhen though: the Napoli man looked drawn, gaunt and in desperate need of a blood transfusion when he was belatedly swapped out for Paul Onuachu in the 95th.

Nigeria advance, but Jose Peseiro's 'small squad' strategy at AFCON 2023 is starting to backfire
Victor Osimhen endured a difficult evening, and was dead on his feet when he was eventually substituted. (Image credit: IMAGO/Samuello Sports Images Gh)

The humidity in the Ivory Coast is, by all accounts, cloying. CAF have mitigated this by instituting mandatory water breaks in every match, 30 minutes into each half of football. However, the effect on matches has been unmissable: there has not been a great deal of pressing, and the loss of physical conditioning during matches has led to a sharp uptick in second-half goals at AFCON 2023 as defenders tire.

In these circumstances, the bill for Peseiro’s strange squad management was bound to come due at some point. That point may well be now. 

It always seemed perverse that, despite the option of selecting 27 players for the tournament, the Portuguese opted for a squad of 25. Major tournaments are difficult enough without self-imposed limitations, but Peseiro apparently believed in his own hustle more than anyone else did because, despite already being two players short of a full deck, he has further hamstrung himself by freezing out a number of options.

Nigeria advance, but Jose Peseiro's 'small squad' strategy at AFCON 2023 is starting to backfire
Jose Peseiro is the darling of the Nigeria public now, but his squad management has left a lot to be desired.

Between them, the quartet of Kelechi Iheanacho, Terem Moffi, Bruno Onyemaechi and Raphael Onyedika have played a cumulative 27 minutes in the Ivory Coast and, as the Super Eagles toiled last night, the latter two were conspicuously missing from the matchday squad. Considering there was no briefing of any injury concerns with them, it is anyone’s guess as to what Peseiro’s thought process is.

While he has always given Onyedika short shrift and Moffi only came into the squad as a late replacement for Umar Sadiq, the cases of Iheanacho and Onyemaechi are particularly difficult to understand. 

The 63-year-old has been adamant when asked that he has no issues with Iheanacho, essentially poo-pooing reports of a rift over disciplinary infractions.His actions have diverged sharply from his words, however. In the five matches so far at AFCON, Iheanacho has played zero minutes despite being available for selection; in the five matches before, the Leicester City man played 252 minutes, scoring three goals and assisting two others.

It is not impossible that Peseiro has decided, as many managers do, to keep internal matters of discipline private. However, if the aforementioned reports are to be believed, their falling-out occurred before the tournament began. So, why was he called up at all?

Onyemaechi, who started four of the five matches before AFCON, has yet to be dressed at all in the Ivory Coast. In fact, Peseiro has gone to great lengths to not play him, including shunting a jaded Ola Aina out to the left for what was essentially a dead rubber against Guinea-Bissau.

All of this may read like carping, especially in the aftermath of a result that confirmed Nigeria’s place in the final four in the Ivory Coast. It is a laudable achievement, unexpected in light of the mood before the tournament, but welcome nonetheless. However – and this is important – the semi-finals are not an end in themselves. If Nigeria are to make continued headway, it is necessary that they arrive at destiny’s door in peak physical condition. 

As is, the wheels may well be starting to come off. Against Angola, his options diminished by nothing but his own choices, Peseiro’s substitutions failed to help the Super Eagles re-establish control. 

Zaidu Sanusi, underwhelming once again on the night, remains a lightning rod for the anxiety of the Nigeria fanbase. However, the possibility of taking him out of the firing line is, by virtue of Onyemaechi’s ostracism, not on the table. And so he must soldier on, charging head-down into every cul-de-sac and blasting the ball without contemplation into galaxies unknown. When he can sort out his feet, that is.

Onuachu is a useful flagpole, but he comes on so late it is clear there is no actual belief in his ability to affect the scoreline. In the absence of the likes of Victor Boniface and Taiwo Awoniyi, it sure would be handy to have a Ligue 1 player who has scored 30 percent of his team’s league goals this season available to relieve Osimhen. Oh, wait… 

Nigeria advance, but Jose Peseiro's 'small squad' strategy at AFCON 2023 is starting to backfire
Terem Moffi lets loose with his goal celebration against PSG at Parc des Princes || Image credit: Imago Terem Moffi has seen no action whatsoever at AFCON 2023 despite Victor Osimhen getting run into the ground every game

Bringing on Joe Aribo, who grossly underperformed in his solitary start against Guinea-Bissau and who lacks defensive rigour, in place of the all-action tackling machine that is Frank Onyeka was the last straw, a masterstroke of dark comedy.

It may well be that, in continued defiance of logic, Peseiro’s decisions are borne out in the end. Only two matches remain, the field of challengers contains no behemoths to strike trepidation into any hearts in the Nigerian camp, and this is a team that seems to have taken a crash course in suffering together. 

It need not be this precarious going into the business end of the tournament, though. The value of peaking late is well documented and evidenced; there would be no worse anticlimax than to find the wick waning when the bride groom is at the gate.