Ed Dove offers tactical insight into why he believes the Super Eagles should change formation following Elderson Echiejile’s injury…
Normally, it would be unwise to advocate a change of formation and approach on the eve of a major tournament, particularly not the World Cup, but circumstances may well dictate that Stephen Keshi alters his Plan A.
The injury to Elderson Echiejile has thrown the Super Eagles’ preparations into disarray. While he may have had his faults, Elderson has grown to become a key figure in the national team setup under Keshi. Before his injury, he had started 21 of Nigeria’s last 22 full internationals—testament to his influence in the current side.
Most other sides that lose a full-back at this point would simply replace him with a like-for-like alternative. When Mathieu Debuchy went down injured for France, for example, in their recent friendly against Jamaica, Bacary Sagna was standing in wait to replace him.
Similarly, when Marcel Schmelzer encountered fitness problems for Germany, Joachim Loew merely shrugged and replaced him with his Dortmund teammate Erik Durm.
Keshi, due to an inability to cultivate left-back options over the last 18 months, and his continued ignoring of Taye Taiwo, has no such convenient solution.
When the squad was named, Juwon Oshaniwa was identified as the reserve left-back. The Ashdod man was unconvincing during a brief cameo at the Cup of Nations, however, and again looked unsteady against the United States, where he was arguably at fault for the Americans’ opening goal.
Oshaniwa is strong and can occasionally play the ball well out of defence. He lacks poise and composure, however, and has done little to suggest he can cope with the threats that lie in store, namely Edin Dzeko and Argentina’s myriad of offensive options.
Keshi’s bizarre decision to replace Oshaniwa with the diminutive winger Ejike Uzoenyi means that the Super Eagles are heading to Brazil with him as their only left-back option.
Over on the other flank, Efe Ambrose is a manful and committed performer, but many Super Eagles fans remain unconvinced by him in this role and would prefer to see him moved to the centre, where he plays at club level for Celtic.
Could a switch to 3-5-2 help Nigeria and Keshi avoid the problems that may arise from two uncomfortable full-backs?
This formation helps teams to pack the midfield, places an emphasis on energy and muscle, and, as Jonathan Wilson points out in Inverting the Pyramid, “allows changes of tone to be made without the gut wrenches of shape.”
From the 3-5-2, a side can easily modify themselves to become a 3-4-1-2, a 3-4-3 or a 3-3-2-2 … any of these formations would give the Super Eagles strength in midfield and would allow them to take control (and the initiative) in their opening games against Iran and Bosnia.
The Asians’ main strength is their central midfield, where Javad Nekounam and Andranik Teymourian are an efficient and well-organised pair. The duo are both the wrong side of 30 though, and may well struggle to get a handle on the game should the Super Eagles pack the midfield.
The 3-5-2 would allow Efe Ambrose to step into a role in the centre of defence alongside Godfrey Oboabona. Ideally, Kenneth Omeruo would join the other two in a pretty talented back three, but his injury concerns may well mean that Joseph Yobo needs to start.
The captain struggled badly against the United States, where his decision-making, positional play and anticipation was poor. On top of this, he is palpably lacking in pace and was exposed by the ‘lethal’ forward play of Jozy Altidore.
Should Nigeria opt for a 3-5-2 then Yobo could sit between Oboabona and Ambrose and be well-protected by the greater mobility of the pair. Similarly, Yobo could step forward into the midfield and offer authority further forward, as he did to much distinction at the Cup of Nations.
If the switch in formation protects Nigeria’s defence, however, and ensures the backline is more secure, then it may leave Nigeria vulnerable in other areas.