Nigeria: Gernot Rohr hasn’t shown he deserves to coach at this World Cup
Gernot Rohr needs to take inspiration from other coaches of African teams at the World Cups to overcome tactical disorder.
“And Nigeria are quite well known to us, we’ve always met in the last World Cups. They’re tough, not just because of their physical power, but because their disorganisation has the effect of disorganising you as a rival. And that’s when teams like ours suffer the most – in disorder.”
Those were Javier Mascherano’s words when he was asked to assess Gernot Rohr’s Nigeria.
Of course, the assertion that sub-Saharan African teams are disorganised and physical has stuck with them since Zaire’s infamous inauguration at the 1974 World Cup.
When such stereotypes are used of African teams or players of African origin, there are clear racial undertones on display, as the technical quality and flair of these teams and players is downplayed.
In Nigeria’s case, Mascherano’s backhanded compliment did spark anger and many Super Eagles fans have shown delight in Argentina’s continuing plight.
Those who have kept a close eye on Nigeria during World Cup qualification knew what Mascherano was alluding to, though, and were wholly in agreement.
For those who hadn’t, the opening game against Croatia revealed all. There was no coherent plan, just chaos, with even the keenest tactical experts unable to figure out what Rohr was trying to do as the team went through the motions and was comfortably beaten.
It was, by quite some distance, the most disappointing performance by an African side in the first round of games with Croatia barely having to break a sweat as they ran out 2-0 winners.
Bucking the trend
While most African national team coaches have a defined idea of how they will play, whatever the downsides, Nigeria’s finer details have always been a mystery.
Tunisia’s Nabil Maaloul and Egypt’s Hector Cuper have gone for a pragmatic approach to give their side the best chances of progressing from the group stages. It hasn’t made for the prettiest of football but they have shown there was a bigger picture, however flawed it was.
In Egypt’s case, it was nearly enough for them to snatch a draw against Uruguay and Tunisia, likewise, versus England.
Morocco, meanwhile, were unlucky not to pick up a point so far but they have also displayed the work that had gone into their system on the training ground.
Not many sides have harassed the opposition as well as Herve Renard’s and they have been hugely impressive, providing everything apart from the finishing touch. They go home with their heads held high despite their early exit and will be celebrated for years to come.
Nigeria, however, may go home wondering whether they gave it their all if their performances don’t quickly improve.
In the first game, Rohr showed he is tactically sub-par. The one player in the squad that is able to dictate the tempo from deep, Jon Obi Mikel, seemed far more advanced than usual, leaving a like-for-like midfield pairing of Wilfred Ndidi and Oghenekaro Etebo stranded on a number of occasions.
Elsewhere, Alex Iwobi was playing on the wing when he should have been playing as an attacking midfielder and Kelechi Iheanacho was once again on the bench despite being Nigeria’s best finisher and mover.
It wasn’t just the tactical disorder that was an issue, though. Rohr’s words after the defeat to Croatia portrayed him as essentially admitting defeat to Croatia on the basis that they have a higher calibre of player.
“[Mikel] couldn’t have done better than he did today, because of the quality of those he was playing against,” Rohr asserted. “He had Ivan Rakitic of FC Barcelona and Luka Modric of Real Madrid playing against him, and they are of good quality and playing for clubs bigger than that of Mikel who plays in China.”
It was the easiest excuse in the book, one that makes you wonder whether Rohr truly belongs at the World Cup or if he should be coaching a nation like Nigeria.
If his next sentence was “We shouldn’t have turned up,” it wouldn’t have been surprising. It was a strange analysis by a coach who, at 64 with a point to prove, should not be so defeatist.
Out of place
On a career level, Rohr needs to prove that he belongs at the World Cup.
At the moment he is in danger of becoming the journeyman coach that African football federations are lambasted for employing who do little to develop teams tactically.
So far in his Nigeria career, he has not shown the tactical mastery to tweak his side to overcome superior opposition as all the sides in Group D are according to the FIFA rankings.
For African teams, this facet of the game is what separates the average coaches from the good ones or, at least, the ones that leave World Cups with positive reputations.
The side perhaps closest to Nigeria is Aliou Cisse’s Senegal and Rohr should seek inspiration from Cisse’s energising soundbites amongst other things.
Although Senegal set up well as a team in a no-frills 4-3-3/4-5-1 system, Cisse’s real strength is how his words can empower not just his team but inspire the whole continent to get behind them.
Something must change
What’s for sure is that the tactical disorder cannot continue if Nigeria are to progress from Group D.
The simple tweaks which have to be made need to be addressed, particularly the issues of players played out of position.
Argentina may suffer amidst tactical disorder, but it will soon be Nigeria and Rohr following their path if he doesn’t address the structural and selection issues in his team.