THE Super Eagles matches in recent times have been riddled with lateral passing, sterile possession, hopeful long-balls, lack of verticality, incision and integrated movement, bizarre substitutions and tactical naiveté.
The drab, goalless affair of the first leg of the 2018 World Cup qualifier against Swaziland was arguably the nadir of coach Sunday Oliseh’s tenure.
The identity and pattern of play of the Super Eagles under Oliseh has been vague or incipient at best. Six games into the coach’s managerial reign does not seem too early to demand a semblance of a playing style, Oliseh’s charges have sometimes looked like strangers intent on winning a hoofball competition, pelting the forwards with as many long balls as possible.
Odion Ighalo, the striker who has been deployed mostly as the focal point of the Super Eagles’ attack since Oliseh’s appointment, has been isolated, marginalised and underutilised in most games he has played. Statistically, two goals in five appearances doesn’t make for bad reading, but a more detailed look evinces that the goals include a penalty against Chad and a header against a hapless and depleted Cameroon side.
The Watford player has not quite taken international football by storm, as his club form suggested he would, but this disappointment is no fault of his. He was as isolated as a leprous pariah and looked alienated by the lack of support from his teammates they preferred poking him with the ball.
The forward looked more involved in the second leg against the King’s Shield of Swaziland, dropping deep and drifting laterally, it was a much improved performance from him because he received more service and wasn’t constrained to the central areas in and around the box.
He created chances, won a tackle and should probably consider himself a tad unlucky for not getting on the scoring sheet. Lively from the start, he took the ball at the left side of the box took on a defender, turned him inside out, and shot a goal-bound effort that was deflected for a corner kick.
He started the game with vim and vigour, hoping to banish the demons of the previous game and prevent the reoccurrence of insipid performances.
It was not the perfect performance, as Ighalo spurned some gilt-edged chances, but it was heartening to see those chances created at all. There was the pass from Obafemi Martins that the 26-year-old hit at the goalkeeper, and the volley he skewed wide from Paul Onobi’s long-range pass.
The movement and numbers in the box at some points also aided chance creation. Ighalo combined with Musa in the front of the box to fashion a chance, but it was well defended by the southern Africans, threaded a fine pass to Moses Simon and a cut back to Sylvester Igbonu after a good work down the right.
The Hornets’ striker was good in the game but not great; with the team still learning to play to his strengths.
It was befuddling that the tack of the Super Eagles before the second leg was to almost exclusively hit long balls to the forward who, with his deceitful 6’1 frame, doesn’t offer much in the air. Ighalo’s weakness is evidenced by the fact that he has won same amount of aerial duels per game0.5 as Jermaine Defoe who is 17cm shorter.
His aerial limitations are not a result of a lack of long passes played by his team. Ahead of this weekend, Watford had played 925 long passes, the highest amount in the Premier League, and 414 of the passes were accurate. They are the third most accurate long passers in the league, and it is perhaps telling that his teammate Troy Deeney wins more aerial battles per match on average than all but two EPL players, and more than any other player to have played eight games or more.
The 26-year-old does his business in and around the box, scarcely shooting from outside the box, and it’s little surprise that he’s yet to net from outside the area so far this season.
With eight goals and two assists in the Premier League, his intelligent positioning, his exemplary movement, and his predatory instincts in the box is hardly exploited. The hard-running and bustling Igbonu, who has played behind Ighalo, has been uninventive and lacking in the interpretation of his role in the hole.
He hardly availed himself for a passing interchange with the forward, and has arguably offered zilch going forward from open play. Deeney, who plays the position at Watford, has struck a cozy understanding with Ighalo, providing three of his seven goals. Deeney offers intense work rate and bustle as well, but is more inventive, and physically more imposing than Sly.
Perhaps, a strike partner or a central attacking midfielder who can spot a run, pick a pass and interpret the role more astutely than Igbonu could release the beast in Ighalo.
Name: Odion Jude Ighalo
Age: June 16, 1989 (Age 26)
Place of Birth: Lagos
Squad Number: 11
Goals (This Season): 9