The only thing more disappointing about the Super Eagles’ abject performance against Croatia was the fact that their display lacked energy, desire or any of the huge number of mental attributes associated with a World Cup performance.
Croatia wasn’t fantastic but Oghenekaro Etebo made their life easier when he mistakenly turned Mario Mandzukic’s wayward header into his own net before William Troost-Ekong compounded their problem in conceding a penalty for unnecessarily grappling Mandzukic at a corner, which Luka Modric converted.
Nigeria completely failed to look the part and unless Gernot Rohr alters his selection, the Super Eagles will be back in Nigeria before they know it.
Though Victor Moses was threatening on the right flank, he spent more time on the ground than he did on his feet, even as lone striker Odion Ighalo was completely isolated and managed just a single effort on target when he headed a cross from Brian Idowu.
Arsenal forward Alex Iwobi failed to make an impact and his influence marginalized when Rohr deployed him to the left flank, even as Kelechi Iheanacho also struggled to inspire a comeback after being introduced in the 73rd minute.
Even with a poor performance in their opening game, the Eagles can still qualify with a point against Argentina and a win over Iceland, depending on other results, and I believe this squad has what it takes to enable these results.
Kelechi Iheanacho, for instance, is a promising young striker that offers far more than Odion Ighalo.
He creates opportunities for himself, such as his exceptional goal in Leicester’s 5-4 loss to Tottenham on the final day of the Premier League, and he does still offer an aerial threat from set pieces and crosses.
Alex Iwobi is perhaps Super Eagles’ most creative player and playing him out to the left flank totally nullifies his influence, denying him the chance to use his best attributes, such as his passing, ball retention and vision when it comes to through balls.
Putting Iwobi in the hole behind Iheanacho provides him the opportunity to get on the ball more often and use his skills to pull the strings from a more central position.
Instead of playing Iwobi out wide, Rohr should deploy Ahmed Musa, who is a pacey winger that is able to take players on and fire in treacherous crosses, including posing a goal threat of his own.
With a lineup of Musa, Iwobi, and Moses in front, this is already more dangerous looking than that starting lineup against Croatia. Additionally, it allows Mikel to drop into his more natural position in a deeper midfield role, instead of a pure number ten.
He might have played in this role for Nigeria during the qualification campaign, but it’s not his natural role and his record of just a goal in 249 appearances doesn’t portend well for the Super Eagles’ efforts in the final third.
Consequently, the Eagles 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 to the attackers.
How Nigeria should line up Against Iceland
With this choice of personnel, Nigeria already have more players in their natural positions, which will bring a greater degree of creativity and so cause a problem against Croatia while looking stronger than the XI that lost on Saturday.
Musa, Moses, Iwobi, and Iheanacho are capable finishers, which means the Super Eagles should be able to get more shots away than the two they managed on target against Croatia.
Iceland are going to be in the same way, if not more, wearisome opponents and Iwobi’s vision from central positions, plus Mikel’s range of passing from the middle third, will provide the creativity needed to tear apart a packed Icelandic defense.
This kind of team selection will be the difference between an early World Cup exit and a place in the knockout rounds.