Just under 90 days to the start of the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations, Nigeria remain a team with little tactical coherence and myriad personnel uncertainties
Jose Peseiro’s declaration, before September’s routine demolition of Sao Tome, that his Super Eagles squad selections are part of a preparatory continuum with the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) in view, meant that every choice from then on would assume grave significance.
So it is that, even with qualifying for the 2026 World Cup set to kick off in November, one is constrained to view January’s ructions in Cote d’Ivoire as the overarching goal in the short-term.
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Nigeria's Super Eagles defeated Mozambique to record their first friendly win since 2019.
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Some Nigerians believe Uzoho is making mistakes on purpose after another disaster in Super Eagles 3-2 win against Mozambique.
Besides, with ten matches to play en route to North America, there is some margin for error; Peseiro knows this, and it is also not lost on him that he is unlikely to be in the post beyond February anyway. There will be ample opportunity for his replacement, once appointed, to worry about the big one in three years.
In that case, T minus three months, there remains a critical mass of uncertainty surrounding both personnel and structure where the Nigeria men’s national team is concerned.
A few truths are self-evident and unimpeachable: the identity of the Super Eagles’ group stage opponents, Peseiro’s fixation on a 4-4-2 shape, and the fact that Victor Osimhen will – barring misfortune – lead an all-star cast of striking talent in Abidjan.
Beyond these, all else is in the air, and October’s friendlies against Saudi Arabia and Mozambique only served to highlight the many points of concern.
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There has been plenty said about the viability of his preferred structure, especially in the modern game with its fixation on midfield control. The truth, however, is that any formation is workable in the right circumstances, with the correct profiles and assignments (especially out of possession), and with repetitions (i.e. minutes).
This is where things get a little murky for the senhor: not only have his selections yet to hit on the balance and cohesion necessary for a tournament of the magnitude of the AFCON, but he seems oblivious altogether to the necessity of said balance.
If he was not, why would Peseiro persist in selecting four strikers in attack, another forward in midfield and attacking full-backs to boot? Why is the optimal composition of the centre-back pairing a mystery still? What profile in particular does he have in mind as the apposite complement for Wilfred Ndidi in the heart of midfield? Why, in contravention of one of the 4-4-2’s key selling points, are there no clear, natural partnerships yet?
Unless he has been anointed Nigeria’s no.1 already, why has Francis Uzoho been afforded 270 consecutive minutes of playing time spanning one dead-rubber AFCON qualifier and two friendlies with which to build match fitness and rehabilitate his arthritic confidence? And, pursuant to that, why was Adebayo Adeleye jettisoned after a creditable showing in the 3-2 victory over Sierra Leone in Monrovia in June?
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The Super Eagles debutant goalkeeper had a good outing in Monrovia, and deserves better than to be reduced to his physical dimensions.
With so many tactical and personnel issues still unresolved, it is no surprise that public opinion concerning Peseiro is now firmly negative. After all, the former Sporting manager has been in the post for over a year, and will have been in charge for 18 months by the time hostilities begin in Cote d’Ivoire.
Yet, while the foremost contenders – Senegal, Morocco, Egypt – have settled XIs and identifiable, sustainable frameworks for build-up, chance creation and defensive transition, Nigeria remain in a bobbing limbo, neither fish nor, as their sobriquet would suggest, fowl.
There were some positives to glean over the weekend, to be sure. Improved compactness from front to back, for one thing. The beginnings of a much-vaunted partnership between the Victors Osimhen and Boniface showed promise against Saudi Arabia, as did the performances of Raphael Onyedika and Jordan Torunarigha against Mozambique.
However, these were parts rather than a whole. When Roberto Mancini’s Falcons upped the tempo after the break, the Super Eagles found it rather more difficult to compete; Mozambique, more coherent and assured in their identity, were undone only by the latent technical superiority of Peseiro’s men.
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Nigeria secured a comfortable victory over Mozambique in their second friendly game in preparation for next year's AFCON tournament.
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Super Eagles and Hilda Baci: NFF links up with Guniness World Record holder to cook Nigeria's 4th AFCON title
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Against a certain calibre of opponent, the blunt force approach may well suffice, as it did against the Mambas. However, one would hope that is not the sum of the expertise Peseiro has been tasked with providing.
To still have so many questions and so few concrete answers is far from ideal; despite a wealth of attacking talent to rival any team in the world, Nigeria has never looked so far from contending on the African stage.