Overabundance of strikers harms Nigeria's AFCON 2023 chances

OPINION Overabundance of strikers harms Nigeria's AFCON 2023 chances

Solace Chukwu 16:50 - 10.02.2023

Senegal and Morocco are the strongest sides in Africa, but the biggest obstacle to a 4th Cup of Nations title for Nigeria in 2024 is, interestingly, its own talent surplus

Many a tear was shed on account of Nigeria’s failure to qualify for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. 

Sure, losing out to Ghana was a wrench, but the main source of regret stemmed from the sheer preponderance of attacking talent available to the Super Eagles. The prospect of Victor Osimhen, Terem Moffi, Kelechi Iheanacho, Paul Onuachu and Taiwo Awoniyi, to name a few, running riot in the Middle East was a tantalising one that ultimately never materialised. 

There is some comfort in the fact that the age profiles of these hitmen mean they will still be in prime condition when festivities move to North America in just over three years, but 2022 was a moment for African football that may never come around again.

Victor Osimhen is shaping up to be one of the defining strikers of the 2020s. (IMAGO/Antonio Balasco)

Attention turns, then, to the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON), which is slated to take place in January 2024. The Super Eagles are sitting pretty ahead of their March double-header with Guinea Bissau, and should make it through to Cote d’Ivoire fairly comfortably—famous last words. However, when it comes to the prospect of going all the way and actually winning the thing (which my colleague Tunde Young argues should not be a priority anyway), Nigeria’s depth in the striking position may actually be more of hindrance than a blessing.

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Consider historical precedent. Nigeria’s AFCON successes (defined against pre-tournament expectation) have tended to come in the absence of a glut of attacking options. 

In 1980, Ifeanyi Onyedika led the line for much of the tournament, but in the final coach Otto Gloria started Muda Lawal, a midfielder upfront. While that was, in part, a tactical gambit, and Lawal was famously versatile, it also handily illustrated the paucity of striking options. 

The ascension of Rashidi Yekini saw him lead the line for Nigeria in second-place finishes in 1984, 1988 and 1990, but in all these instances, there was little on the bench besides – Mike Obiku, who deputised in Morocco, and Bala Ali, who started the final in his stead in 1984, were the only other proper centre-forwards.

Yekini was undisputed top dog upfront for a decade, but Westerhof kept the striker pool around him streamlined. (IMAGO/Norbert Schmidt)

Come 1994, the Super Eagles were at the height of their powers, sweeping all before them to lift the title in Tunisia. However, even at the apogee of the Clemens Westerhof era, it still was four strikers into two positions, with a clear hierarchy: Efan Ekoku deputising for Yekini and Samson Siasia – who was being used in midfield as well – spotting Daniel Amokachi. (The individual who could have upset this balance, Ricky Owubokiri, was frozen out of the national team.)

By 2000, however, the situation upfront had ballooned out of control. Even with Victor Ikpeba’s mid-tournament falling-out with Jo Bonfrere, Nigeria still had the benefit of five other centre-forwards, all of whom, bar Jonathan Akpoborie, got minutes. 

That tournament ended in disappointment: widely hailed as pre-tournament favourites, the Super Eagles lost on home soil against arch rivals Cameroon in the final. Two years later, in a tournament that culminated in a crushing semi-final exit that would prove terminal for the country’s football, Nigeria named five centre-forwards.

2004 saw a reversion to something approaching common sense, but even then it was entirely by accident. The expulsions of Yakubu Aiyegbeni and Victor Agali on grounds of indiscipline streamlined Christian Chukwu’s bloated initial selection (injury to Julius Aghahowa further trimmed the available options upfront to three) and forced a rethink that took an inexperienced Nigeria side to within penalty kicks of a place in the final. 

The theme of too many strikers returned for the next edition, and continued on through to the end of the 2000s: Austine Eguavoen named seven centre-forwards in 2006, Berti Vogts eight in 2008 (culminating in Nigeria’s earliest AFCON exit for 26 years), and Shaibu Amodu seven in 2010.

When Stephen Keshi’s side unexpectedly triumphed in 2013, it was with only three centre-forwards, in a shape that flitted between 4-4-2 and 4-2-3-1. In 2019, following a two-edition absence, Nigeria finished third with only three centre-forwards named in the squad.

Keshi only named three centre-forwards in his AFCON 2013 winning squad, and one of them. Emmanuel Emenike, actually played wide.

Now, it would be reading too much into it to state categorically that having too many options directly led to disappointment. Neither is it the case that the correlation is total: after all, in 2021, Nigeria only had two proper strikers to call upon, same as in 1982 and 1992. Still, the correlation is strong, and there does appear to be a sweet spot depending on the team’s preferred shape: for a two-striker system, a pool of no more than four; from a lone-striker system, a pool of no more than three. This provides more than enough cover, while minimising bloat.

To be clear, it is far from the case that strikers are inherently bad. They are, after all, tasked with the most important responsibility in football: that of scoring goals. The problem is the opportunity cost: squad sizes, especially to tournaments, are finite, so the greater the lean into strikers, the fewer places there are available for other positions.

In recent times, it is in midfield that Nigeria has most suffered. Super Eagles team announcements have become something of a meme by this point, with a meagre allocation of midfielders flanked by bounty in both the defensive and attacking bands. (The upshot of this is that the team’s play has, increasingly, become abstruse and unattractive – to quote Pep Guardiola, “you can win the games with good defenders and good strikers, but to play good, you need midfield players.”)

The rationalisation for this appears to be the relative unavailability of midfielders, but in truth that is a cop-out: the real issue is an unwillingness (or maybe even lack of gumption) on the part of successive coaching crews to bite the bullet and make difficult decisions on who to leave out. In order to dodge difficult questions, everyone gets on the plane, to the detriment of team chemistry and tactical clarity.

In the present day, added to the aforementioned, one could also include Ademola Lookman, Cyriel Dessers and, when fit, Umar Sadiq. Improbably, every member of this corps of eight has made an appearance for Nigeria under current boss Jose Peseiro, who has only managed six matches since taking charge of the Super Eagles in May.

Perhaps that can be read as him wanting to run the rule over his options before deciding. However, if Peseiro insists upon a two-striker system, as he has fielded for all but one of his matches in the post, then it is imperative that he make his choice of four and stick with it.

There is a diverse enough mix of profiles that it should be quickly apparent who fits his idea and who does not, and when he makes that choice, he needs to back it to the hilt.

Nigeria’s success in Cote d’Ivoire could very well depend on it. 

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