Nigerians have much to be optimistic about following Friday’s 1-0 friendly victory over Poland in Wroclaw as they took one more major step towards the World Cup in Russia.
Francis Uzoho grew into the encounter and, in the second half, demonstrated the kind of quality that suggests that the Super Eagles may not need to worry too much about their goalkeeper this summer.
The William Troost-Ekong-Leon Balogun central-defensive partnership was secure and resolute, while Joel Obi returned to international football in some style and avoided injury.
However, Nigeria’s attack remains somewhat dysfunctional, with Gernot Rohr’s decision to step away from his tried and tested 4-3-3 formation not having the desired effect during a stodgy opening 45 minutes.
The new approach – something between a 4-4-1-1 and a 4-2-3-1 – intended both to compensate for the absence of John Obi Mikel in the heart of the park and to give Nigeria more of a goal threat, with both Kelechi Iheanacho and Odion Ighalo starting.
Ogenyi Onazi was sacrificed from the midfield – a decision perhaps made easier by the Trabzonspor man’s testing transit from Turkey to Poland via Frankfurt – while Alex Iwobi and Victor Moses operated in wide areas.
The ploy didn’t work, with Iwobi struggling to influence proceedings and Obi too consumed with defensive duties and crowded out by the Polish midfield to assert himself creatively on the contest.
Ighalo was isolated as the leading man, while Iheanacho, somewhat shoehorned into the side in a role just off the striker, was peripheral. His offensive contribution was negligible, while his unwillingness – or inability – to drop deeper and support the midfield left Obi and Wilfred Ndidi up against it in the heart of the park.
The 21-year-old has the quality to be the figurehead of this exciting new Nigerian generation that’s being cultivated under Rohr.
His goal return in his maiden Premier League season at Manchester City – eight goals in 753 minutes of action – doesn’t get the recognition it deserves, but rather than refining his game under Pep Guardiola, the striker was deemed surplus to requirements.
His move to Leicester City could have been an ideal fit, but like Ahmed Musa before him, he appears to have been brought to the club without a clear plan of how he’d be employed – although both men suffered from Jamie Vardy remaining at the King Power Stadium.
For a player who averaged a goal every 94 minutes two season ago, Iheanacho has netted just once in 15 outings – 458 minutes of action – this season.
Considering this context, it’s perhaps understandable that he’s hardly the threatening presence he once was when he took to the field against Poland on Friday.
However, his ineffective showing as an ersatz No. 10 again raised the question of what kind of player he is, and how Rohr can find a way to get the best out of him in Russia.
He lacks the work rate to chase defenders and track midfielders, the zip to take players on on the outside, and the aerial prowess to operate as a target man alongside Ighalo.
It’s painful to say, but the Iheanacho that emerged at the U-17 World Cup in 2014 – a versatile, inventive, multi-faceted forward – could have excelled in this role, but after being converted into more of a one-dimensional striker in Manchester, he rarely offers a broader contribution beyond goals.
When he’s not even scoring them, it’s hard to see exactly where he fits into this Eagles starting XI – particularly when Rohr inevitably reverts back to a 4-3-3.
What cannot be taken away from Iheanacho, however, is his composure in front of goal.
Since a remarkably young age, the hitman demonstrated the calm and poise of a much more seasoned finisher, and it’s this quality which should ensure he makes the cut for Russia – even if he doesn’t start.
After another frustrating outing – yet another in a frustrating season – Iheanacho’s role within Rohr’s masterplan is becoming less hard to distinguish. However, his ability to snatch a goal from nothing, and his predatory instincts in the six-year box, mean that he could make a mean impact substitute.
It’s not the role that many of us had envisaged for Iheanacho when Rohr’s exciting young generation began to take shape, but the starlet’s performance against Poland simply wasn’t enough for him to secure a starting spot.