Tactical thoughts on Nigeria v Kenya

Written by Nduka Orjinmo

It was a tale of two coaches as Nigeria played her first game since emerging as champions of Africa.

One coach knew exactly what to do, and the other didn’t react well enough.

With Emmanuel Emenike absent due to injury and Efe Ambrose unavailable because of suspension, returnee Obafemi Martins started upfront while Solomon Kwambe made his second start for the Super Eagles.

Generally, it was a largely unchanged squad that won the Nations cup just last month.

Dennis Oliech led the lines for the Kenyans despite joining the team late, Victor Wanyama took his place in the middle while Nyambura Francis was on the left.

Nigeria started well, not sharp enough to create chances, but played the ball around from side to side with no real intent. For the Kenyans, it was all about keeping their shape and not going behind in the early minutes. The onus was on the Nigerians to control the game and dictate the tempo, so the Kenyans sat back, very deep in their own half and in Francis Nyambura on the left of a 4-4-1-1 formation; they had someone who offered a change of pace when they transitioned quickly.

Onazi kept getting caught in possession and couldn’t play the simple passes; Sunday Mba kept drifting in and out of zones and looked largely uninterested while Victor Moses couldn’t find the space to run into when he had the ball. For Brown Ideye, he looked unhappy playing on the wings, while Obafemi Martins was frustrated upfront on his own. Mba was so far away from him that the Kenyans dominated Martins three to one.

30minutes Kenya creep into game.

All this while, the Kenyans where interested in keeping their shape, defending close to each other and forming two blocks of four as they waited for the Nigerian onslaught-which never came-slowly, slowly they began to see some of the ball, their passes began to find each other. Critical to their game plan was Victor Wanyama, Dennis Oliech and Francis Nyambura. In Wanyama they had a bully who could shield the ball and bring it out of midfield calmly. He was never hasty on the ball and played the perfect pass 8/10. He was the regulator of the team’s play and most of their possession was won by him and the distribution flowed through him. If it was Sunday Mba’s job to mark him as the most forward of the Nigerian trident, he made a very poor job of it, and the sheer disparity in size would have made the job more difficult.

An interesting battle would have been between Mikel Obi and Wanyama, but because both played identical roles for their sides and were shielding their defences-with both unwilling to foray forward in the first half- that confrontation never came.

Dennis Oliech was comfortable receiving the ball with his back to goal when it was played to him, and did a perfect job of holding it for Omolo Johanna who always joined him when the ball was played into Oliech’s feet. When the ball was played out left to Francis, he was willing to take on Solomon Kwambe, but was largely unsuccessful. Generally, the Kenyans were not interested in launching an all out attack on the Nigerian goal, but were more interested in keeping the ball in the Nigerian half when they had it and the strength of Oliech meant they could do that.

Kenyan goal

Though the merit of the foul that led to the Kenyan goal can be argued elsewhere, it came off a sublime free kick by Nyambura Francis. The Nigerians were becoming a little frustrated with sloppy passes and lack of communication, the Harambee stars had grown into the game and spaces were beginning to show in the Nigerian defence which eventually led to a free kick conceded by Echiejile that led to the goal.

First half summary

The deep lying Kenyan defence meant that the pace of Obafemi Martins was going to be of no use, and the key was in stretching the play out on the wings and playing quick shot incisive passes. Sadly, Nigeria lacked the players on the day to do that. Brown Ideye is a striker used to leading the line, and though he may play on the wings, he will not appreciate the importance of staying on the line and trying to drag the full-back out with him, to create a channel for Martins. Victor Moses on the left, better suited to playing on the wings, was always cutting inside onto his stronger right foot and met a noisy zone dominated by Kenyans. Again, the absence of Efe Ambrose and the forward runs he brings was totally missed.

Kwambe was exhibiting jelly feet and was inconsistent with his runs. When he did, he didn’t know whether to go outside of Brown Ideye or inside of him. Ideye was seeing less and less of the ball and it was only a matter of time before he joined the rest of them in the middle-perfectly playing into the hands of the Kenyans. But in all, the biggest culprit had to be Sunday Mba, whose lack of competitive football was apparent. He was short in confidence, stayed too far off Martins and could not muster a decisive pass all through.

Martins upfront was the greatest loser in all the sloppy play around him. He came deeper in search of the ball-which thrust him into the Wanyama deep end- but he was generally brilliant when the ball was played into his feet. Nigeria’s first real shot on target, came when Martins exchanged a quick one two with Victor Moses. There was also the indirect kick suffered by the Kenyan goalkeeper-for bouncing the ball more than thrice-but the move had been another quick one two between Martins and Moses.

Generally, Nigeria suffered because of a lack of width, sloppy passes which meant they could not break quickly and the absence of Emmanuel Emenike and his power upfront. Maybe an Ejike Uzoenyi and Ahmed Musa on either flank would have opened things more for them.

Second half

Surprisingly, Keshi stuck to the same side as both teams appeared for the second half. Only a fusion of energy or a tactical switch would have led to a different output from the same set of players. Many had expected Sunday Mba to give way, others wanted Obafemi Martins.

But it was clear that the Nigerians were going to have a very long day in breaking down the Kenyans in search of the equalizer. They were still playing exactly the same way as they did in the first half. The Kenyans had grown into the match, and were much more assured in their passes. Coach Amrouche was on the touchline-overtly agitated-and made sure they did not lose concentration.

Kenya reacts

By now, the Kenyans must have noticed the nervousness of Solomon Kwambe on the Nigerian right of the back four, and either by design or instruction, Dennis Oliech drifted to that side of the pitch and had acres of space behind the full-back. Francis Nyambura moved backward a little bit and both of them created an overload in that region. Kenneth Omeruo who had an outstanding game, was attracted naturally to the Kenyan centre forward and followed him out right, creating a chasm between himself and Oboabona. Though he did an excellent job tracking Oliech, a neat exchange between Oliech and Francis should have led to a second goal for the winger and a second for the Harambee stars. But he skewed his shot with just Enyeama to beat and Nigeria was granted a lifeline.

At this point it was clear what the Kenyan strategy was. Win the ball-give it to Wanyama-pass to Oliech on the left-run with the ball. And it was working for them. Still there was no reaction from the Nigerian bench as Stephen Keshi watched on as Wanyama bossed the midfield and regulated the play. Suffice to say the game was at this point played the way the Celtic man wanted it, if he wanted it fast he did so, if he wanted it slow he stepped on the brake.

The Kenyans were still playing deep and compact at the back, so the natural thing to do was to introduce a midfielder who would be willing to stand on the flank, reach for the byline and put a cross in. So in came Ahmed Musa for the dejected Obafemi Martins and so Brown Ideye moved to the centre while Musa was on the right. Very little was to be achieved with his pace with the Kenyan deep line, so the trick was in him getting the ball quickly and releasing a cross for the target man Ideye. But neither Victor Moses on the left flank or Sunday Mba in the hole, were willing to provide more heads to target in the box. Musa lasted for about five minutes on the right flank before he too drifted inwards to join Ideye. Once this happened, that initiative of using him as a winger to stretch the play was lost.
The second alternative was to take off one of the three midfielders and refresh things a little in that zone. Mikel was the most likely of all three to create a scoring chance with his variety of passes, but his deeper position meant he could only try the long ball option which couldn’t work because the Kenyans were sitting deep. And again, only a Mikel would have been able to battle Wanyama for the control of the midfield, and then regulate the game.

The option would have been to take off Sunday Mba, and throw in a forward thinking midfielder-a Nosa Igiebor for instance-but the choice of Nnamdi Odumadi was also the reasonable one to make. Since the Kenyans were not attacking through the middle, there was no need being too cautious since the home side was chasing the game. At this point, Nigeria had switched to a 4-1-2-3 formation but was still missing the composure of short incisive passes.

Two critical things happened that might have resulted in the goal conceded by the Kenyans. Coach Amrouche substituted Dennis Oliech and thereafter had himself sent off for what was the millionth protest of the referee’s decision. The fourth official had had enough of his backlash and he was sent to the stands. The coach was gone, and so were his consistent calls for concentration. Dennis Oliech that would have provided some leadership on the field had also been removed. They kept losing the ball upfront, and with Mikel and Oduamadi now in the Wanyama zone, the Kenyans were outnumbered and were just playing for the time. Five minutes was added on.

Keshi made one last throw of the dice, casting John Ogu into the mix in place of Victor Moses. Seeing that Moses was the most likely to deliver a perfect cross and the most likely to create a chance, I found this quite strange. But again, what other options were available to be made? Maybe Solomon Kwambe at right back, since the Kenyans were by this time pegged full back and Omeruo was anyways doing the job of the full back.

In the end, Nigeria was able to get the equalizer in the third minute of added time, but the goal was not a result of a tactical play, but of a player in the right position when fortune beckoned.


It was always going to be difficult in their first game after the Nations Cup, but Nigeria was tactically inferior to the much superior Kenyans that came with a game plan and stuck to it.
More of the game was determined at the tactical level, and it was surprising that Keshi failed to react before or during the game, seeing that he was missing Efe Ambrose and Emmanuel Emenike, two key components of the of the title winning side. While Efe provides the width on the right, Emenike provides a target man upfront who can hold onto the ball.

The introduction of Oduamadi for Sunday Mba thus releasing Mikel forward to challenge Wanyama, is one that should have happened long before it did.
The return fixture in Nairobi would be far more interesting, and it would be fascinating to see how both coaches react. For the Kenyans, two key moments shaped the game. The withdrawal of Dennis Oliech and the sending off of coach Amrouche. That both incidents happened close to each other meant that they lost two leaders, one on the field and one on the touch line.

You can follow Nduka Orjinmo on twitter via www.twitter.com/orjinmonduka or simply @orjinmonduka

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