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Could it be the charming Emenike smile?

There is much to be gleaned about the personality of a team from the identity of its centre forward. Since the conventional strike partnership went out of fashion, the responsibilities of the role have significantly swelled—scoring remains the most important, naturally. However, now more harbinger than avenging angel, more the mortar than the gleaming roof, a striker’s better qualities are judged ever-increasingly by the effect on the rest of the team.

It has been interesting to watch Sunday Oliseh’s striking decisions since taking charge of the Super Eagles. Emmanuel Emenike has started three of four, Ujah the other, while Watford’s Odion Ighalo has started one and played a bit partin another off the bench. It is hard to argue with the evidence: Emenike is the clear first-choice, and will bear the team’s standard into battle from the front.

It is somewhat surprising that it is the Al-Ain forward that has captured the imagination of the new management. Emenike’s most effective spell in the national team came in that unforgettable three-week span at the 2013 AFCON, culminating in the Golden Boot and a third African title. It bears remembering though that he played essentially on the right of a front three, with Brown Ideye taking the hits and putting in hard yards at centre-forward.

Stephen Keshi would eventually tire of the somewhat-limited Olympiakos striker – while a great facilitator, he failed to pull his weight upfront – dropping him in early 2014 and moving Emenike permanently into the middle. The results have been, to put it mildly, unsatisfactory: the comparisons with burly, prolific Nigerian strikers of the past are now only recalled with rueful smiles.

So, what is the wisdom behind Oliseh persisting with him, goalless in almost two years in the national team shirt?Perhaps, like his predecessor, there has been some faulty approximation of what exactly Emenike is useful at. It perpetuates the cliché about the African game and its amenability to swarthy no.9s; toss in his ability to score (glimpsed in a different position, incongruously enough), and it is hard not to envision him as the perfect striker.

It ignores both precedent – see his record since the move, as well as the fact many of his best displays for Fenerbahce came from the right, with Moussa Sow often in the middle – and the player’s attributes: Emenike does not move like a striker, neither does he possess the quick reactions around the box of one.

At 5’11, he is hardly the ideal target-man either; and while of stocky build, he does tend to avoid physical confrontation with centre-backs, instead relying on accelerating powerfully into space.

Perhaps this is where the answer leaps out and claws you in the eyes: powerful, aggressive running.

Of the three strikers who have auditioned, Emenike is neither the most prolific (that would be Ighalo) nor does he possessthe best movement (Ujah). However, for a side lacking a true creator, Ujah, all whippet movement and arcing runs, is basically wasted; and I noted a while ago Ighalo’s lack of visceral aggression—in my opinion, the sole reason he may never be quite world-class.

Emenike is not either, by any stretch. However, the combination of his speed and energy serves to weary opposing defenders: it is in this that Oliseh’s glimpses an advantage to his team, as well as an opportunity to internalize an ethos based on graft. The Al-Ain striker has completed the curve from finisher to unselfish facilitator.

Ighalo’s cameo against a leggy and flagging Cameroon saw him close out the result with a glancing header, albeit against 10 men. However, this offers some insight into how the forward line could work under the new management: the days of strike partnerships, like tandem bikes, are gone; but Emenike and Ighalo might just be the perfect tag team.


By Solace Chukwu

@theOddSolace

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  1. Now that Emenike has retired, what next ? I've also never regarded him as a prolific striker but I enjoyed his partnership with Ideye in 2013

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