Nigeria exploited a wide overload, but had willing cooperation from their hosts, who seemed determined to shoot themselves in the foot all afternoon
Six points, by any name, with any flavouring, are just as sweet.
Put that on a hat, make it into a lapel pin, paste it on a t-shirt. Doing what is necessary has become the mantra under Gernot Rohr’s stewardship; sometimes, even less than that is required. Sometimes, the skill is simply in following Napoleon Bonaparte’s famous war strategy: never interrupt your enemy when he’s making a mistake.
Cape Verde were hospitable hosts in the extreme, not just offering up their porridge and a bed, but tucking their incredulous guests in themselves.
Struggling to create meaningful openings or create danger in and around our penalty area? Why, here’s two own-goal attempts – do as thou wilt.
It would have been rude, negligent even, to have turned down the first, as the hapless Kelvin Pires stitched up his own goalkeeper in the opening half. However, just in case Victor Osimhen got an attack of conscience at seizing upon another gift, Kenny Rocha did the honours himself after the break, again tossing a grenade in Vozinha’s general direction under no pressure whatsoever.
This time, the Napoli man did not even need to be present at the scene.
It was a game defined almost entirely by errors, unsurprisingly as the two teams mostly matched up in midfield.
That left the wide areas as the game’s premier battle zone: on both flanks, Nigeria had a 2v1 advantage against Cape Verde’s 3-5-2, and their measly haul of chances exclusively from that overload.
Early on, Shehu Abdullahi overlapped to take advantage of Dylan Tavares being drawn inside by Moses Simon, and his low cross was turned over the bar by Ahmed Musa.
Then, in the move that led to Osimhen’s equalizer, Jamilu Collins was in acres of space, and had the time to look up and measure a cross. With neither Nigerian full-back having a direct opponent, they were free to get forward and combine quickly with their winger.
Despite the numerical superiority, however, the Super Eagles themselves were not only vulnerable in wide areas, but were unable to break quickly into space.
This was a consequence of Rohr’s approach to tracking the Cape Verde wing-backs. Having the wingers tracking all the way back, even into the defensive line, is a dangerous tactic: forwards, conscientious though they may be, typically lack the defensive fundamentals of body shape and scanning.
This dynamic played out for the opener. Musa, fielded as the side’s No.10, was tasked with pushing up to help Osimhen pressure the hosts’ back three, and so the momentary underload in midfield allowed a quick switch down the Nigeria right.
Tavares arrived on Simon’s blind side and finished inside the near post.
While the Super Eagles largely coped with this for the rest of the match, it affected their own ability to threaten, as it left them without numbers in advanced wide areas following turnovers.
In one second-half notable incident, Kingsley Michael released Osimhen into the left channel, and after cutting inside, the Napoli striker played the ball infield to Musa.
The captain, expecting a run on his outside from Simon, dummied the pass and attacked the penalty area.
The trouble: the Nantes man was a good 35 yards back, having followed Tavares all the way into the defensive third, and was in no position (or state) to support the breakaway. It made for a drab affair on the whole.
Not that Rohr would have minded that, of course. He was, after all, without seven starters, and would likely have landed in Cape Verde considering a draw a good enough result. The replacements all were marked downgrades, as could no doubt have been anticipated—he has done little to integrate them in less critical situations, even when the opportunities have presented themselves.
Count this then as a bit of luck at a time when it was dearly needed.
This has become a bit of a calling card for the German coach: there is frequently some sort of happenstance at work on his side when the chips are down.
During the qualifying series for the 2018 World Cup, a tough group on paper quickly opened up as his opponents succumbed to managerial self-destruction. The same took place ahead of a crucial double-header against a highly impressive Libya side during qualifying for the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations.
Say what you will about the standard of football (there is plenty to pick over there), his aversion to change and unwillingness to evolve the side, or the lack of coherence in his decision-making.
All that is hard to stack up against a record of winning: it is better, as the saying goes, to be lucky than to be good.