Friday 14 June 2019

/ by Colin Udoh

Captain Desire Oparanozie celebrates a first win for Nigeria at the IFA Women's world Cup since 2011

On Wednesday, Nigeria’s Super Falcons gave themselves a lifeline in their quest to break free of the first round of the FIFA Women’s World Cup for the first time in 20 years with a 2-0 victory over South Korea.

The win revived flagging spirits, and there is now more positivity about the final group game against France.

As always, there were a few things to unpack from the victory, so here goes 

By the end of the game, the Super Falcons had three 18-year-olds and one 21-year old on the pitch, and they all came to the party. In their own big ways.
Goalkeeper Chiamaka Nnadozie started ahead of the more experienced Tochi Oluehi and one would have been hard-pressed to believe it was her first World Cup. Confident, nimble, aware and boasting reflexes sharp as a razor, not to mention her good hands. She made save after save al game, including on 87 minutes when Yeo Minji turned inside three Nigeria defenders and shot low and hard. Nnadozie was quick to get down and smother the shot.
Her one mistake was parrying the ball into the path of Lee Geummin to slot home. Thankfully, the Korean was offside and the goal was chalked off.
Chidinma Okeke, the other starting 18 year old, has turned heads since coming in as replacement for the injured Faith Michael. She was solid against Norway, and took it up a notch against Korea, battling hard, bombing forward and providing the perfect weighted pass for Asisat Oshoala to round the keeper and give Nigeria a second goal. There are still rough edges around her game, but the tools are there and improvements will come with more games and more exposure.
Substitue Anam Imo replaced Francesca Ordega and brought all the energy of an 18 year old to the pitch, chasing lost causes and tracking like her life depended on it.
The oldest of the young guns was 21-year-old Uchenna Kanu, on for Oshoala late in the game and her contribution to keeping the Koreans honest quelled any ambitions the Asians had of mounting a late siege.

It was a win, right? Yes. We take it and move on to the next. But to watch the game the first time and then again gives cause for pause as all the troubling old errors continue to peek out.
When Thomas Dennerby reviews the game tape, his first thought has definitely go to be “Where the h**l do I start from??!!”
However, reading his quotes (see below) from the post match conference has got to be cause for worry. Serious worry.
The mistakes were so many that they need to be broken down into different subheadings

Panicked clearances
In defence, continuous panicked clearances and a shocking reluctance, or just plain inability to play the ball out of defence led to the Koreans winning the ball back almost instantly each time. 
That the Falcons did not concede was mostly down to Nnadozie’s heroics and desperate, last ditch body-on-the-line blocks. After all those shots, these ladies need to go check up on their wombs post tournament. 
There are times when it is just safer to make a short pass away from danger rather than trying to blast it, straight into the body of an opposition player. There needs to be more intelligence about the defending. Seriously.

Passing breakdowns
There is nothing more painful to watch than a team that cannot pass the football. And the super Falcons cannot. For most of the game, they could not string three passes together. I kid you not.
By the time they got to the third pass, the play either broke down, or they launched a long ball forward to the strikers which ended up with the opposition. It was pathetic. And that is being charitable.

Blind shooting
Time after time, the players kept shooting without looking, especially the midfielders. The moment they got anywhere around the box, the first instinct was always to shoot, even if there was forest of bodies in front and teammates in space. Credit to Oshoala and Desire Oparanozie, they always peeled wide whenever the other players got into those positions but hardly ever got service. One particular moment stood out. Ngozi Okobi arrived at the top of the box around the hour mark, the two forwards immediately drifted wide and unmarked. But rather than pass to them, she shot into a posse of Korean defenders. Naturally, the shots either ended up blocked or off on a trip to Mars.

Uncoordinated pressing
Pressing is as much a skill as any other in football. And if a team must press, they have to do so well and as a unit. The Super Falcons did not do either. They pressed on the wrong side, timed their approach wrong, and allowed the Koreans to simply pass their way around them, leaving the Nigerian girls chasing after them and expending more energy than they should. And they did not do it as a team, which made life a tin easier for the opposition. 
Thomas Dennerby has got to sort this side out out, and quickly.

Failed Tackles
One can almost count the number of successful tackles the Falcons made on one hand. A leprous hand, that is. It was worse for second balls. Because they were always so badly positioned and missed their timings, getting to the ball was always a problem. The Koreans were quicker to those balls, judged them better and moved them around faster. No surprise that the match stats weighed heavily in favour of the losers. They had 58 percent ball possession, 82 percent pass accuracy in their favour and 518 total passes to the Nigerians 271!

Constructing plays
There was no evidence that the Nigerians were constructing plays that would lead to goalscoring opportunities. The idea seemed to be to simply launch it forward and allow Asisat and Oparanozie to use their strength and pace to get in behind and shoot. It worked twice. They won. So there’s that.
However, this team is much too talented for such basic, easily countered tactics. They need to move the ball around, spread the play, cut back, whip in crosses, heck, even try to play combinations in the box!
Route one worked against an inferior opposition. Won’t be quite so successful against top sides.

“Today our discipline was better than against Norway – no mistakes at all. If we can be as compact as we were today, don’t let teams overplay us in midfield and find passes through, we know we’ll get opportunities for players like Asisat. The players followed our match plan and that’s all you can really ask. Now we go to play France, a really good team. If we can come out with a point everyone would be extremely happy. But you can’t just go to defend – you need to know what to do when you win the ball back. And hopefully we can have a little bit of success.” - Thomas Dennerby, Nigeria coach

It was not all bad. Honest.
There were many good thing the ladies did. 
For all the problems with the defence, one of the major reasons for the clean sheet was the centre backs’ positional play. Onome Ebi and Osinachi Ohale were always quick to read the play and get in position to make key blocks and interceptions. They will need some serious massage to get through the pain of taking all those shots to the body.
Then there was the aforementioned Okeke. For a youngster, her ability and reading of the play are excellent as are her defensive strengths. Only minus would be her distribution but the kid is 18, so she gets a pass. Especially after that perfect weighted ball for Oshoala.
The breakaways were also - for the most part - executed quite well. If not for a heavy second touch from Oshoala (and the way she covered her face after, says it all) Nigeria would have had a third goal after Halimatu Ayinde picked her out with another perfect ball, this time on the opposite channel.

Holding midfielders must “hold”
First things first. Someone needs to take responsibility for keeping the ball, even if the tactic is to cede possession. At least when they have the ball. Not giving it away cheaply.
The major reason for those embarrassing possession and passing (in)accuracy numbers was because the two holding midfielders (Rita Chikwelu and Chinaza Uchendu) were not exactly “holding”.
They constantly strayed too far away from the play and kept trying ambitious balls upfront.
This has to stop. One or both of them need to play the Mikel Obi role, maintaining ball circulation by dropping back to pick it up, and very importantly, be constantly available as an outlet for every player who has the ball. The other should also be close by in support on the other side.
An example of this gap was around the 80th minute, just before she was subbed when Oshoala intercepted a ball in the middle, held it up waiting for support. When none came, she passed blindly and it went straight to a Korean.
When the midfielders get the ball, they also need to keep it simple with short passes to the nearest person and leave the ambitious balls to the more advanced midfielder, Ngozi Okobi.
At 31, Chikwelu may not quite have the legs to do all that running, but she can pass a football. It might be a good idea for Dennerby to switch her up with Okobi.

Construct plays upfront that play to the strengths of the forwards
Play to the strengths of our forwards! 
Oparanozie is a great attacker of crossed balls. Deliver good, whipped crosses to the box for her to get her head onto. She is clinically accurate and also has the strength and skill to hold up defenders and link up play.  

Asisat Oshoala scores for Nigeria

Oshoala is quick and strong. She showed it in scoring that second goal. Play good balls in behind the defence for her to chase. But not all the time. Mostly when she can isolate a defender or two. Or play her balls out wide where she can deliver whipped balls to Oparanozie.

Tackle and win second balls
Players need to learn how to tackle, improve their timing and get goal side of the opposition. Running after balls when the players have turned and long gone is mostly expending energy.

To be clear, while he still has a lot to answer for, these issues go beyond Dennerby. Some of these are things that need to be taught over and over from a young age until they become ingrained muscle memory.
These were the same issues with u20 and u17. Even the Super Eagles are no exception and are sometimes guilty of the same troubles, but theirs is masked by the combination of outstanding individual talent and years of playing at a high level in Europe.
In the meantime, enjoy a first World Cup victory since 2011.

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