Group D has been about the dramatic failure of 2014 finalists Argentina. It has been about the midfield majesty of Luka Modric and a Croatia side which has stormed into the knockout stages, scoring five and conceding none. It has been about plucky Iceland and their resilience and making defensive tactics fashionable. But maybe it should also be about Nigeria, who broke down the Viking resistance in Volgograd?
Iceland are not all about defending but defending is something they are very good at. Given their status as the smallest nation ever to compete in the World Cup, organisation is key for them and their 4-4-2 formation was reminiscent of Uruguay. However, when the time comes, they can be even more attacking than Oscar Tabarez’s version.
Nigeria had to deal with this and the transitions which come with it as their opponents pumped the ball forward to strikers Jon Dadi Bodvarsson and Alfred Finnbogason. The change in formation to a back three helped them here.
Here are three ways in which Nigeria broke down an Iceland side considered by many to be the surprise package of this tournament.
A Formation Switch
Against teams like Iceland, the space appears out wide. This is where they want you to have the ball and are often happy to allow a man to run free, especially on the opposite side of the pitch to the play.
To give his team the advantage in this area, Gernot Rohr switched from the 4-2-3-1 used against Croatia, to a 3-5-2/3-4-3. This allowed Victor Moses to stay wide rather than acting as an inside-right as he had against Croatia.
At right wing-back, Moses was key to the shape and Nigeria regularly looked for him in attack.
Only anchor-man Wilfred Ndidi came into possession of the ball more than Moses, who was now in a position familiar to him from his club football at Chelsea where Antonio Conte uses a similar system.
Against Iceland, 40% of Nigeria’s attacks came down the right third of the pitch.
One of Nigeria’s top pass combinations was Ndidi to Moses. This helped switch the play from the left-sided midfielder to the wide player on the right, looking to drag the defence out of position.
However, while it’s fine having plenty of possession in wide areas, once the ball returns to the middle in the attacking third, extra quality is required to finish chances in those crowded central areas.
Luckily for Nigeria, they had just the man to provide it...
Musa's Quality Shines Through
Against a well organised defensive side, whether it’s in the Champions League against Atletico Madrid or in the World Cup against Iceland, the team trying to break them down usually need a piece, or pieces, of individual brilliance to do so.
For Nigeria, Ahmed Musa was the man for this task. He scored two outstanding goals and hit the bar with one rasping effort from outside the box. He was the man in the middle with the extra edge to put Iceland to the sword.
His first goal, from Moses’ cross, was a difficult chance. As it came in from the right, it was too far away from him to head, and too high to volley, but he pulled it out of the air with his right boot before striking sweetly on the half-volley.
It was only their second shot of the game and, although a half-time substitution had been made with Tyronne Ebuehi replacing Brian Idowu, their change in attacking intent appeared to be the more effective alteration, with the ball coming inside quicker from those wide areas.
This was the case with Musa’s effort which hit the bar. The ball came back to him quickly from the byline, giving him the time and space to line up a shot.
His second goal was all his own work. It didn’t need a quick pass or a cross to take him inside, as he did it all himself, using his pace to get around Kari Arnason following Kenneth Omeruo’s long ball from the back. Once past the Iceland defender he traversed across the area, composed himself, and put himself in a position from which he couldn’t miss.
It was a moment of class from the man who has scored the majority of his goals in Russia for CSKA Moscow, and it was one of the most entertaining moments of the tournament so far.
Musa and Ndidi were key at either end of the pitch in this game. One the anchor, and the other the difference-maker, but in the middle of the park Oghenekaro Etebo ran the midfield with an all-round display.
The versatile Las Palmas man has played in various positions for his club, from defensive midfielder to striker, and several appearances out wide, and this flexibility allowed Rohr to change things up.
While Moses added the width, it was Etebo who defined the shape in the middle, moving forward from a double pivot with Ndidi, to take on a more attacking role alongside John Obi Mikel.
Etebo's touches of the ball vs Iceland.
He completed 91% of his passes, two of which led to shots, recovered the ball nine times and made five tackles — more than any other player on the pitch — which complimented Ndidi’s aerial ability.
It was his pull-back which set up Musa for his shot which rattled the bar, and overall it was the type of solid midfield display, keeping the ball in traffic in the middle of the pitch, which helped his side win the game.
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