COMMENT By Seye Omidiora Follow on Twitter
There are hardly never questions asked in the aftermath of every Nigeria squad announcement, and it was no different following Gernot Rohr’s latest 23-man group for the upcoming double-header with Libya.
Laden with five center-backs and four full-backs, Rohr’s decision to invite nine defenders in total raised eyebrows in some quarters. The CBs include: Leon Balogun, William Troost-Ekong, Kenneth Omeruo, Chidozie Awaziem and Semi Ajayi. While the full-backs are: Brian Idowu, Abdullahi Shehu, Ola Aina and Jamilu Collins.
Based on the antecedent, you sense that the pair of Balogun and Troost-Ekong will play in central defence, with Idowu and Shehu occupying both full-back roles, if Rohr opts for four at the back. While electing to play with a back five will see the introduction of Leganes loanee Omeruo in central defence to complete the trio.
Given Rohr’s rigid style of not wanting to overly tweak things, irrespective of players’ form, it won’t be hard to think he’d plump for his tried and trusted side against Libya. In all honesty, owing to the fact that few changes (in the South Africa game) led to a 2-0 home defeat, you’d understand the German tactician’s line of thought in sticking with those he trusts. On the other hand, one might ask if those options would be the right choice given their varying levels of form and fitness.
While Troost-Ekong, irrespective of a recent dip in form, has had a bright start to life in Italy with Udinese, Balogun hasn’t had the rub of the green with Brighton & Hove Albion, with Chris Hughton continuing with his preferred pair of Lewis Dunk and Shane Duffy. An injury to Dunk in the Seagulls’ 3-2 win over Manchester United saw Balogun replace the Englishman for the remainder of that encounter, before reprising his role in a 1-0 defeat at Anfield a week later.
But the former Mainz defender hasn’t featured for the Albion in the Premier League since Dunk’s accelerated return, and you fear his lack of fitness could hamper him against the Mediterranean Knights.
In other circumstances, Rohr might, unusually, have had doubts about his other central defensive pick against the North Africans, but the fact that Omeruo and Awaziem are barely getting reasonable game time for Leganes and Porto respectively will probably make his choice an easy one. The former has only seen 61 minutes of football in the Spanish topflight, while the latter hasn’t made a single appearance for the Blue and Whites.
In fact, of the other three center-backs in the squad, only Ajayi – who has just two Super Eagles caps – has gotten ample appearances this term, with Rotherham United in the English Championship. When you take into account the fact his pair of appearances came against Seychelles (where he was introduced for the injured Awaziem for the last quarter of the game) and a watered down friendly with Liberia (a game in which he conceded a penalty), then you probably wouldn’t begrudge Rohr for sticking with the ‘Oyibo wall’ at the expense of the in-form, but inexperienced Ajayi.
It’s a lot less complicated in the full-back positions where the incumbents are unlikely to lose their starting berths in the side. Shehu, who only just returned from a layoff and has impressed with Bursaspor, will occupy the right-back spot, while Idowu should retain his place on the opposite side.
The challengers to the aforementioned incumbents are the wet behind the ears duo of Aina and Collins, and their inexperience will ultimately count against them. Ironically, though, the aforementioned pair have seen more game time than the primary occupants of both full-back roles, and might feel their superior match fitness levels gives them a fighting chance.
A higher case can be made for Torino loanee, Aina, given his beyond impressive performances with the Maroons since his temporary move from Chelsea in the summer. Oddly though, his eye-catching displays for Walter Mazzarri’s side have come at left wing-back, as opposed to his primary position on the right flank – where he strangely delivers below-par performances when played there.
Going by the aforementioned fact; the in-form Aina, as opposed to Collins, then seems to be as a more suitable replacement for Idowu if Rohr elects to switch things up – which is unlikely to happen. It should however be noted that the Blues loanee, like Idowu, is right-footed and the fact that Collins is the only natural left-footed full-back in the squad gives him a slight edge over Aina.
In all honesty, it wouldn’t be so hard to second guess Rohr, but picking a team based solely on form will see him select a back four of Shehu, Troost-Ekong, Ajayi and Aina. However, going by the importance of the Libya fixture, and given the German’s reluctance to make chances if he isn’t backed into a corner, you sense his picks in defence will be Shehu, Troost-Ekong, Balogun and Idowu. Tried and trusted it is then.