Lessons from Super Eagles’ 2019 AFCON performance

AFCON 2019

The Super Eagles of Nigeria wrapped up their 2019 African Cup of Nations (AFCON) campaign with a 1-0 victory over the Carthage Eagles of Tunisia in the third-place playoff in Cairo on Wednesday to claim bronze.

No doubt, Nigeria went into the continental football showpiece as one of the top favourites to win the coveted trophy.

However, a last-gasp free kick by Riyad Mahrez in the semi-finals dashed the hopes of the Super Eagles reaching their eighth final.

Wednesday’s losers’ final made it eight times the Super Eagles have been involved in an AFCON third-place match and they have won all eight.

Nigeria has now participated in 18 AFCON tournaments, reaching the semi-finals 15 times and seven finals. The Super Eagles have now lost eight semi-final matches and won seven.

They have also lost four of their seven finals.

So, what have we learnt from the Super Eagles’ participation and performance at the 2019 AFCON in Egypt?

All-round performance

The Super Eagles arrived Egypt for the 2019 AFCON with one goal: to win the tournament for the fourth time, having won it on home soil in 1980, in Tunisia in 1994 and in South Africa in 2013.

The Super Eagles opened their account with a 1-0 defeat of Burundi before seeing off Guinea with the same result in their second match to book a second round qualification.

Nigeria, however succumbed to a 0-2 defeat by tournament debutants and surprise package, Madagascar and surrendered the leadership of Group B in the process.

Perhaps the Super Eagles best performance at the 2019 AFCON, was the defeat of title holders Cameroon 3-2 in the Round of 16.

They went on to book a semi-final place by defeating South Africa 2-1 in the quarter-finals before tournament’s high-flyers Algeria stopped them from reaching the final with a 1-2 defeat.

The Super Eagles scored a total of nine goals and conceded seven in the process, with Shanghai Greenland Shenhua striker Odion Ighalo grabbing 5 of the nine goals.

Although Nigeria conceded too many goals compared to how many they scored in the tournament and were unable to reach the final, many believe that it wasn’t such a bad tournament after all.

AFCON inexperience was a factor

One of the strongest arguments in defence of the Super Eagles’ overall performance at the 2019 AFCON is the squad’s relative inexperience going into the tournament.

In terms of players’ experience in AFCON, the Nigerian side went into the tournament as one of the most inexperienced, having missed out on participating in the last two editions (2015 and 2017) of the competition.

Nigeria was in company of countries making their debuts at the tournament (Burundi, Madagascar and Mauritania) and others returning after a long spell out such as Tanzania, Namibia and Guinea-Bissau, in terms of players’ experience.

Only captain Mikel Obi, forward Ahmed Musa and defender Kenneth Omeruo made it to the 2019 AFCON from the 2013 team that won the tournament in South Africa.

Age wise, the Super Eagles took the joint-third youngest team to the 2019 AFCON. Along with Guinea-Bissau, the average age of the Super Eagles was 24.8 years old.

Only Tunisia (average of 24 years old) and Mali (average of 24.3 years old) took younger squads to Egypt.

While nothing suggests a direct correlation between inexperience and performance, experience can be an advantage, and the Super Eagles coach Gernot Rohr admitted it.

“I think this team has come a long way after making a good World Cup. We can be proud of our performances,” said Rohr in the course of the tournament.

“We have to work more and we have to learn with this young team.

“I think sometimes a little bit of experience cost us in the game especially because our midfielders Etebo and Ndidi are very young.

“They need to learn better in terms of communicating and pressing the game. These are lessons that we take home and I am sure we will be better.

“I started this journey when I was appointed to rebuild with young players and we have come from a long way,” he said.

Nigeria needs a new No. 1

Nigeria’s three goalkeepers at the 2019 AFCON – Daniel Akpeyi, Francis Uzoho and Okechukwu Ezenwa – would rightly feel hard done if Nigerians single out their department for blame.

However, one of Nigeria’s weakest points going into AFCON was the goalkeeping department.

Since Vincent Enyeama retired from the team and Carl Ikeme was diagnosed with cancer, the Super Eagles have struggled for consistency in the goalkeeping section.

Uzoho seemed to have laid claim to that spot as Eagles’ No. 1 during the 2018 World Cup but lost form at club level, which saw him loaned by Deportivo de La Coruña of Spain to Omonia, Cyprus.

Such was the Super Eagles’ goalkeeper dilemma that Rohr used all three in the course of the 2019 AFCON.

Indeed, Akpeyi recorded some memorable saves as Rohr’s first choice in goal, but he was fingered for some costly mistakes, especially the last-gasp freekick converted by Mahrez in the semi-final match.

Going forward, the Super Eagles need a goalkeeper with a commanding presence and consistent performance. The current crop of goalkeepers does not seem to match that description.

Gernot Rohr deserves to keep his job

The Super Eagles coach could sometimes be too rigid in terms of his tactical approach to games but Rohr has shown more than once that he is the right man for the job.

Under the Franco-German, the Super Eagles look comfortable in qualifying for major tournaments without the usual nail-biting permutations.

He has also instilled discipline into the team and more than anything else, team spirit in the Super Eagles has been very formidable.

At the 2019 AFCON, it could be argued that Rohr made some wrong calls. But the coach wasn’t afraid to make those difficult calls if need be.

For instance, having started Obi as a No. 10 in the opening game against Burundi, Rohr was criticised because the captain obviously struggled, Rohr heeded.

He also rightly gave Omeruo a regular start at the expense of Leon Balogun, who had been a long-time partner of William Troost-Ekong in the defence. Omeruo more than justified that decision.

Many stakeholders, including Segun Odegbami, Peterside Idah and Segun Agbede, have called for Rohr’s sack for being too laid back and lacking in motivation.

When carefully considered, sacking Rohr, who has one-year left on his current contract and has a $1m payment clause, could amount to throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

The Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) President Amaju Pinnick said of Rohr’s performance: “Gernot has taken us to the semi-final, the target we set for him.

“There are some people that have been calling on me and the federation to sack Gernot, but I am not going to do that.

“In fact, Gernot is going on a refresher training period with Bayern Munich after the Nations Cup. We have a long-term plan with him.

“We have had rocky and difficult moments in our relationship, but this is normal in any relationship between two people,” he said.

Even if there are no plans to renew Rohr’s contract, he should at least be allowed to see the present one through.

The future of Super Eagles is bright

Definitely, AFCON 2019 was the last for Mikel Obi. Also, some of the players in their 30s could be gradually eased out of the team.

But largely, the core of the Super Eagles is young and versatile, and it needs to be kept together.

Wilfred Ndidi and Oghenekaro Etebo have forged an impressive partnership in the midfield, while Simon Moses and Samuel Chukwueze flourished on the flanks.

Ola Aina and Chidozie Awaziem had a tournament to remember as fullbacks, and will improve with more games under their belts. None of these players is 25 yet.

The focus now should be on how to keep these players together and feature them together during the World Cup qualifiers for Qatar 2020 and next AFCON qualifiers.

Come 2021 AFCON in Cameroon, the Super Eagles will be strong favourites to go one better than their performance in Egypt.

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