From feast to famine: suddenly, the German coach has a number of excellent options to choose from in a long-time problem position
That old saying about ketchup – tap and tap, and then it all comes out in one plop – encapsulates perfectly the sudden boom in option for Nigeria at right-back.
It was not very long ago that Gernot Rohr was forced to use Abdullahi Shehu (a defensive midfielder) and Chidozie Awaziem (a hard-tackling centre-back) in that position, ostensibly as a function of scarcity. Both contributed solid but unspectacular performances: undermined by their varying levels of discomfort at playing away from their preferred stations, but steady enough that they did not constitute liabilities.
However, if modern football teaches anything, it is the necessity of utilizing space and time when you can get it, and invariably full-backs are key in this regard, both during build-up and in attack.
Without natural options, the Super Eagles have lacked proper width and overloads when it has most mattered: in their Africa Cup of Nations semi-final defeat to Algeria, for instance, when their North African rivals efficiently shut down Nigeria’s attack by simply manacling Ahmed Musa and Samuel Chukwueze.
It is a need that is made even more urgent when one considers that, for the most part, Nigeria lacks reliable ball progression through the middle of the pitch.
Wilfred Ndidi is many things (some might even say he is many people), but he cannot be tasked with moving the ball into the final third, and neither can the likes of Oghenekaro Etebo, Semi Ajayi and Frank Onyeka, all of whom have at various times been utilized at the heart of the midfield.
In the absence of a player in that mould, the unexpected proliferation of options – not just fit but in form – is a very welcome surprise. All of Ola Aina, Tyronne Ebuehi and Kingsley Ehizibue are playing at solid levels in terms of performance, and all bring different strengths to the table.
Of the lot, Aina is the most versatile, capable of playing not just at right-back, but at left-back and in midfield as well. Technically, he is also the most accomplished, and has displayed an impressive range of passing at Fulham, where he is on loan from Torino.
The Chelsea youth product has mostly been used on the right of a back three at Craven Cottage, however.
From that position, he progresses the ball cleanly, either out to the wing-back on his side, or by playing extravagant switches to the opposite flank. Aina also carries the ball forward when in space, and is often encouraged to make off-the-ball runs into the channel inside the right wing-back, either to offer support to the man in possession or to whip in angled deliveries.
Unlike the other two, Aina has consistently been a part of Super Eagles squads for the past two years. He has, however, struggled to win Rohr’s trust definitively, in part due to his occasional levity and lapses in concentration.
Ebuehi inhabits the other side of that coin: there is evidence that Rohr trusts him, but a nightmare two-year period, during which he was held back by injury, has kept him out of the national team picture for much of the German’s time at the helm.
The Dutch-born full-back burst onto the scene on the eve of the 2018 World Cup, and made such a profound impact that he made the squad to Russia. On loan at Twente this season, he finally appears to have put his injury hell behind him, and has been one of the more impressive performers for the European chasers.
Ebuehi’s goal at the weekend – his first of the season – helped the Enschede-based club to a deserved draw against Feyenoord. The performance as a whole though perfectly summed him up as a player: he is tidy in possession (his 83 percent pass-completion rate for the season eclipses the other two), clean in his process and decision-making, and capable of getting forward when the occasion requires. In a word: balanced.
He is less explosive than the other two, but is the most positionally astute and can most handle himself defensively. He will overlap, but will not do so willy-nilly.
Ehizibue is very much of an attacking slant, and is minded to bomb forward.
The Koln man seemed to have fallen out of favour with the Billy Goats between mid-October and early January, but has reasserted himself to aid the club’s fight against relegation.
A notable plus for the 25-year-old is his elite-level speed – back in May 2020, he was clocked at 35.85km/hr, the third-fastest sprint time in Bundesliga history.
Perhaps as a consequence of having played as a winger earlier in his career, his defensive instincts are not quite as sharp as Ebuehi’s or Aina’s: he is an attacking threat first and foremost, and the best crosser of the three with 0.5 crosses attempted per 90 and a 29 percent success rate, both higher than the other two have managed this term.
Not to say he is a poor defender, of course; just that he is perhaps not as positionally reliable, and spends less time mucking about with defensive duties.
Which of the three Rohr elects to go with would depend a great deal on who is playing ahead of them on the right of the attack.
If, as has been the case in recent times, Chukwueze remains first-choice, that would seem to favour either Ebuehi or Ehizibue more. The Villarreal man is not the most conscientious when it comes to fulfilling his defensive responsibilities, and so it would be important to select a right-back who can hold his own without needing support.
However, who he picks is perhaps of secondary importance. More pertinently, for the first time since he took charge of the national team, Rohr has enough options to choose from that he can afford to think in tactical terms. That, in itself, is a clear win.