The only thing more disappointing about Nigeria’s abject performance against Croatia was the fact that they were wearing their more muted away kit, instead of that stunning home shirt.
Many argue that their home shirt, in fact, looks more like a training top, which would have been quite fitting for Saturday’s defeat given that’s how they seemingly treated the match.
Their display lacked energy, desire or any of the multitude of mental attributes associated with a World Cup performance.
You wouldn’t have been able to guess this was even a competitive game, such was their direness.
Croatia, themselves, weren’t fantastic, but Oghenekaro Etebo made their life easier when he turned Mario Mandzukic’s wayward header into his own net, before William Troost-Ekong compounded their misery in conceding a penalty for grappling Mandzukic at a corner, which Luka Modric converted.
The Super Eagles completely failed to look the part and unless Gernot Rohr alters his selection, Nigeria will be back home before they know it.
Looking the part isn’t enough
Whilst their delightful home shirt certainly looks fit for the World Cup stage, their inexperienced side were nowhere near that level.
Despite impressing in their qualification campaign – finishing top, ahead of Cameroon and Algeria – their World Cup squad contains 18 debutants in the tournament, and they were some way off the pace.
Victor Moses was threatening on the right flank, but he spent more time on the ground than he did on his feet, whilst lone striker Odion Ighalo was completely isolated in the final third and he managed just one effort on target – a header from Brian Idowu’s cross.
Arsenal forward Alex Iwobi failed to make an impact and his influence marginalised playing on the left flank, whilst Kelechi Iheanacho also struggled to inspire a comeback after his introduction in the 73rd minute.
Acting the part is better
Irrespective of a drab performance in their opening game, Nigeria can still qualify with a point against Argentina and a win over Iceland, depending on other results, and there is quality within the squad to enable these results.
Kelechi Iheanacho, for example, is a promising young striker that offers far more than the more one-dimensional Ighalo.
He creates opportunities for himself, such as his phenomenal goal in Leicester’s 5-4 loss to Tottenham on the final day of the Premier League, whilst still offering an aerial threat from set pieces and crosses.
Alex Iwobi is arguably Nigeria’s most creative player and shunting him out to the left flank completely nullifies his influence, denying him the opportunity to use his best attributes, such as his passing, ball retention and vision when it comes to through balls.
KEY STAT: Alex Iwobi had an 86.5% passing accuracy, made 1.5 key passes per game and recorded six assists.
Playing Iwobi in the hole behind Iheanacho provides him the chance to get on the ball more frequently and use his skills to pull the strings from a more central position.
Instead of Iwobi out wide, Rohr can deploy Ahmed Musa, a pacey winger able to take players on and fire in dangerous crosses, as well as posing a goal threat of his own.
KEY STAT: Ahmed Musa completed 1.2 key passes per game and 1.4 dribbles for CSKA Moscow.
With a front three of Musa, Iwobi and Moses, this is already more dangerous looking than that starting against Croatia. Moreover, it allows John Obi Mikel to drop into his more natural position in a deeper midfield role, rather than as a pure number ten.
He may have played in this role for the Super Eagles during the qualification campaign, but it’s not his natural role and his record of one goal in 249 appearances doesn’t bode well for Nigeria’s efforts in the final third.
Thus, Nigeria have more of a creative influence in their middle third to partner the defensive Wilfred Ndidi, with a player now able to progress the ball and create attacking moves from deep. This is a means of getting better and more frequent service into the forwards.
How Nigeria should line up vs Iceland
With this choice of personnel, the Super Eagles already have more players in their natural positions, a greater degree of creativity – a problem against Croatia – and already look stronger than the XI that lost on Saturday.
All of Musa, Moses, Iwobi and Iheanacho are capable finishers, which means Nigeria should be able to get more shots away than the two they managed on target against Croatia.
Iceland are going to be similarly, if not more, frustrating opponents and Iwobi’s vision from central positions, as well as Mikel’s range of passing from the middle third, will provide the creativity needed to break down a packed Icelandic defence.
A better team selection will be the difference between an early exist and a place in the knockout rounds.
Listen to the RealSport football writers discuss Group D in Kremlins in the Basement: RealSport’s daily World Cup podcast.
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