With the Super Eagles set to slug it out with Gareth Southgate’s men today Saturday, what factors will decide events at the Home of Football?
The meeting of England and Nigeria at Wembley Stadium is important for both sides for various reasons.
Besides being the penultimate fixture for the pair before the startt of the World Cup, both Gareth Southgate and Gernot Rohr will have a valuable opportunity to assess how their team stack up against another of the tournament’s fancied sides.
How do both sides match up to each other when placed side-by-side?
Southgate’s decision to omit Joe Hart from the 23-man England squad may have been met with a few raised eyebrows in some quarters, but it probably was the right decision to leave out the Manchester City loanee.
It leaves the former Middlesbrough manager with a big choice on his hands on who to plump for in goal.
Will it be the assured Jordan Pickford, who’s kept clean sheets in his two games for the Three Lions, the unlucky Jack Butland, who suffered the ignominy of being relegated with Stoke City having shipped a league-high 68 goals, or the uncapped Nick Pope, whose ascent in the last few months from being Tom Heaton’s understudy at Burnley to making his nation’s World Cup squad has been amazing?
The potential uncertainty in goal – brought by Hart’s absence – could be exploited by the West Africans, as whoever is selected in goal could be weighed down by the pressure to turn out an impressive display.
For Nigeria, going by Rohr’s goalkeeper selection in recent friendlies, there seems to be a bit more clarity, as Francis Uzoho seems to be in the good graces of the German tactician.
Having had a few disconcerting moments in friendlies against Poland and Serbia in March, the youngster rewarded Rohr’s faith to stick with him with an impressive outing against the Democratic Republic of Congo.
However, it didn’t come without another unnerving situation; with the Deportivo La Coruna stopper getting saved by the referee’s bad call not to award a penalty to the Leopards.
The youngster’s relative inexperience tends to rear its head intermittently, and knowing full well he struggles with balls into the box, it won’t be a surprise to see the English test his handling and command of area from time to time.
In defence, there is expected to be a difference in how the sides line up.
Southgate’s team have conceded just a single goal in five since their permanent switch to a back three against Lithuania in October 2017. Having let in three goals in four before the alteration, you sense the Three Lions have benefitted from the change in tactic and have also adapted nicely since the poor showing against France (as they let in three in a 3-2 defeat).
The Nigeria attack, therefore, have it all to do in breaching a watertight defence that’s been cracked just twice in five games at Wembley.
Rohr is expected to continue with his preferred four-at-the-back tactic, resisting the temptation to match England.
Matching the Three Lions could make sense, but when you consider the fact that the wily old manager’s decision to play a three-man defence in the first-half of the 4-2 win over Argentina in November last year proved ill-advised (with the three-time African champions trailing 2-1 at the break), it’s unlikely to make another appearance anytime soon.
Rohr’s selection against the English is expected to bear a striking resemblance to how he’ll set the team up in Russia, so it won’t be out of place to expect a back four of Abdullahi Shehu and Brian Idowu – at right and left-back respectively – with Leon Balogun and William Troost-Ekong in central defence.
If Southgate’s switch to a back three was prompted by Chelsea and Antonio Conte’s success with the tactic in 2016/2017, the tactician’s insistence on a patient possession style certainly mirrors Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City side.
Combining features from the last two title winners in England is admirable in itself, and you can therefore expect the hosts to have more of the ball against the Super Eagles as they seek to pick their right moment to penetrate, rather than go direct.
England’s possession-based style will mean that Wilfred Ndidi and his ability to regain possession will be sorely missed for the West Africans.
John Ogu and Ogenyi Onazi will act as a foil in front of the defence, with Mikel John Obi likely to drop deep from his advanced position to make sure the Eagles aren’t out-matched in midfield against England’s central three.
In attack, Nigeria are expected to go for a front three of Victor Moses, Alex Iwobi and Odion Ighalo – with Mikel picking his moments to advance from deep as well.
With England likely to control possession, the Nigeria widemen will seek to break at pace once the ball is regained and attack the spaces vacated by the home side’s wing-backs.
By contrast, while Southgate’s team have evidently benefitted from the switch to a 3-5-2, the forwards haven’t, and they’ve scored just three in their last five.
Three of those games have been draws – with two ending goalless – so it clear to see where their biggest challenge lies.