Russia 2018: African teams and set piece albatross

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Until Tuesday evening, I have been saddened by events in Russia as African teams capitulated under similar fashion. Last Friday, Morocco lost 0-1 to an Iran side that had no shot on target all through the match. You may ask how a team with no shot on target managed to win; well the goal recorded for Iran was diverted by a Moroccan into his own net from a corner kick.

Some hours later, a Sallah-less Egypt lost by the same margin to Uruguay, also from set piece and as if that was not enough, the Super Eagles suffered 0-2 defeat against Croatia on Thursday. Interestingly, the two goals conceded by Nigeria were from set pieces, including the schoolboy error by William Troost-Ekong. That foul committed by the defender on Mario Mandzukic is apparently one of the reasons he was sent out of Tottenham Hotspur academy.

48 hours after the Eagles’ defeat, Tunisia also suffered similar fate losing 1-2 to England with both goals of the Three Lions scored by Harry Kane from set pieces.

So far, this tournament can be described as a competition of set pieces. After the Senegal match, 23 out of the 38 goals (61%) scored are from set pieces compared to 2014 where only 48 out of 171 goals were scored through set pieces.

Most guilty of set pieces goals are the African teams as all the goals (seven) scored against them have been through set pieces, even Senegal that gave the continent its first win (2-1 Poland) conceded through a corner kick.

As it stands, the other teams at the World Cup will rather devote their time practicing set pieces anytime they are to play an African team. As it stands, at least three African teams risk exit from the World Cup at the group stage. Anything short of a win for Nigeria, Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia in their second round match is suicidal.

For Nigeria to get the three points against Iceland on Friday, Coach Gernot Rohr will need to reshuffle his squad by deploying either Oghenekaro Etebo or Alex Iwobi in the attacking midfield role. Aside that he may need to try out Tyronne Ebuehi in place of the underperforming Shehu Abdullahi on the right side of defence. John Obi Mikel may be allowed to play in his natural defensive midfield role but the coach may take a bold step by playing John Ogu ahead of Mikel as the defensive midfield partner of Wilfred Ndidi. Mikel had a below par outing in the first match and it will not be a bad idea if he comes off the substitutes’ bench in the second match which is now the most important to the Super Eagles.

Should Rohr stick to his central defence partnership of Troost-Ekong and Balogun, he will need to school them in set piece defending otherwise we are likely to concede the same manner as we did against Croatia.

For the Eagles to avoid conceding goals from set pieces, they must stay cool and alert. They need to be strong physically and mentally and should be ready to quickly clear the ball with their heads or foot. Focus is the name to defend set pieces and our players must keep moving their feet and stay on their toes.

They must stay close to their mark, be aware of the space around and most importantly, they must not be afraid to sacrifice their body just to clear the ball. Staying close to the opponent being marked makes it tougher for them to get a chance on goal.

They also need to communicate and if any of them needs help, they must let their teammates know. Good communication leads to lesser goals, this is important for all defenders and also the goalkeeper.

Similarly, our goalkeeper, Francis Uzoho must take control as soon as possible, build a wall, physically and place his defenders at post. He must verbally tell the outfield players who to mark as one slip up could cost the team in a big way.

Our players must keep this at the back of their mind as they play Iceland tomorrow (Friday); execute set piece and you will be rewarded, fall asleep and you will be punished.

So far, there have been some surprise results starting from Argentina’s 1-1 draw with Iceland, Brazil’s 1-1 draw with Switzerland, Germany’s 0-1 loss to Mexico, Morocco’s 0-1 defeat by Iran and Colombia’s 1-2 loss to Japan. For the first time, as many as four South American nations failed to win their opening game at a World Cup tournament since 1974.

Carlos Sanchez’s red card after 2:56 secs is the second fastest in World Cup history after Jose Alberto Batista for Uruguay vs Scotland in 1986 after 54 secs.

Also, following their victory over Colombia, Japan also became the first Asian side to defeat a South American country at the World Cup (P 18 W1 D3 L14). Interestingly, Keisuke Honda became the first player from Asia to provide an assist in three different World Cup tournaments since 1966.

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