2018 World Cup: Five Lessons Learned From Nigeria’s Loss to Croatia

Nigeria's defender William Troost-Ekong heads the ball over Croatia's forward Mario Mandzukic during the Russia 2018 World Cup Group D football match

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The Super Eagles’ performance against Croatia happened in contrast to the expectations of many, after a 2-0 loss disappointing in their opener of the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia. Iceland is next how will they fare against a team that held Argentina?

Before that day, here are five focal reasons we Nigeria lost against Croatia.

Shaky back four and setpiece conundrum

In the build-up to the World Cup, Nigeria played three games against Dr Congo; one goal conceded, two against England and one against the Czech Republic, all from setpieces. And in their World Cup opener, two goals were conceded from a setpiece, which makes it a total of six goals conceded from setpieces.

This goes to show that the back-line of William Troost-Ekong, Leon Balogun, Sheu Abdullahi and Brian Idowu is yet to learn from past mistakes. They continue conceding goals in the same old manner. Though they looked quite composed in open play, the act of making every setpiece by opponents a potential attempt on goal must stop.

Poor transitional play

Another undoing of the team is the “poor transitional play”. The midfield couldn’t connect play from the middle of the park to the attack, instead, they pass to the back four that often passes to the goalie; Francis Uzhoho to kick it out for opposition to start play. At no time during the game did the personnel in the midfield threaded ten complete passes together, no talk of feeding the attack with the required balls to threaten the Croatian team in defense. Instead, the ball is kicked to no one in particular. Mikel and his cohort should be doing better.

Wrong player positioning

By now, Coach Gernot Rohr should know the most suitable positions each player can fit into according to adopted tactics. An example is playing the captain; John Obi Mikel who naturally shields the back four playing in the “No 10” position. Oghenekaro Etebo, a central midfielder playing the deep role alongside Wilfred Ndidi, while Alex Iwobi who thrives in the creative midfield position was pushed to the flanks.

One would think of the speed and pressure a 31-year-old Mikel would put on the opposition and what he creates for the team would be taken into consideration.

Of course, Mikel is not one of the crafty players anyone would call on to penetrate a defence. He has the passes to do on occasions. But how many times did he do that against Croatia? In the same way, you cannot be playing Etebo in defensive midfield position and expect to see him in his best.

Unresultful setpiece

The Super Eagles had 13 setpieces, including corner kicks taken in the opposition’s half, whereas the Croatian team only managed ten in the Eagle’s half. With fewer setpiece actions, they made the most of it. Victor Moses who’s performance is one to forget in a hurry kept taking unresultful setpiece as he also struggled to deliver a tallying cross all through the game. It is a known fact that the trusted setpiece taken in the team is John Obi Mikel, so why experiment Moses for a role he has not mastered before now at the World Cup?

Delayed substitutions

At the beginning of the game, both teams were cautious and wary of each other. But the Croats changed gear. Unfortunately, Nigeria Gernot Rohr did not realize it until the end of the game. Had Rohr been sensitive to the pace of the game, Mikel would have long been substituted before the 84th minute when Simmy Nwankwo was introduced. Also, Ndidi and Leon Balogun seem not to have recuperated well which should have made him introduce a like-for-like Ogenyi Onazi and Kenneth Omeruo to match.

With Croatia out of the way, Iceland comes next after they got a point off Argentina in their 1-1 draw. Certainly, they are no pushovers, hence the Gernot Rohr led Super Eagles should be prepared for a cracker.
– Dennis Erezi I Guardian