It was the general consensus amongst many Nigerian football fans that Super Eagles captain, Mikel Obi, did not deliver against Burundi. It attests to the fact that the Eagles played better and were more offensive after Ahmed Musa came on for Mikel in the second half.
As the Eagles get fitter and healthier after the virus that affected a majority of the players in the buildup to the Burundi encounter, Gernot Rohr must rethink his strategy and lineup as they get set to face Guinea on Wednesday.
Should he start Mikel or should he bench his most experienced player?
Many theories suggest the 88-times capped midfielder should start from the bench but would the Eagles will play better if Rohr just realigns Mikel’s position?
Eagles still need Mikel brigade
Ojeikhere Aikhoje, who talks football on SuperSport says we should give the captain another match. “I’ll like to see him a second time and decide if he should start the third game,” though he added a caveat about wanting to see a Mikel, who plays “simply and is more creative with passes to build the attack from wherever he plays.”
Chijioke Ezeali, Senior Correspondent at The Nation and Sporting Life believes Rohr should start Mikel but ‘tweak’ his positioning. He [Mikel] should play for 60 minutes in central midfield alongside Wilfred Ndidi while [Oghenekaro] Etebo should be handed a free role – through the left side of midfield like he did at the Olympics or [Ahmed] Musa can start from the left while Iwobi plays as the no.10.
“Mikel should start and anchor the defensive midfield role with Ndidi,” said Dumnodi Okonta. This will “allow [Alex] Iwobi do the creative role but Rohr should drop [Oghenekaro] Etebo and bring him on later to replace Mikel when the team is leading.”
The Yobo Antecedent from 2013
The year 2013 was the last time the Eagles qualified for the AFCON, and they won. The captain of the team then, Joseph Yobo, started the first match against Burkina Faso and played all 90 minutes in the 1-1 draw but that was the last time the captain saw 90 minutes. Stephen Keshi dropped Yobo for the second match against Zambia and he saw just two minutes in the last must-win group game against Ethiopia.
The quarter-final against Cote d’Ivoire was another miss as Yobo came on in the 90th minute to help see out the 2-1 victory. Against Mali in the semi-final, where the Eagles ran out comfortable 4-1 winners, Yobo only came on for the last nine minutes and in the final against Burkina Faso, he saw three minutes of action.
He was then on hand to lift the trophy though he had participated in just one of the six matches the Eagles played on the road to being crowned as African champions for the third time.
Playing to Mikel’s strengths
Mikel has never been the most fleet-footed, dynamic, or box-to-box midfielder – his strengths are elsewhere. When he anchored the Eagles midfield to victory in 2013, he played as part of a defensive midfield duo in front of the Nigerian defence with Ogenyi Onazi.
He was able to break up plays and set Nigeria on an offensive footing with many pundits declaring him Man of the tournament, ahead of Jonathan Pitroipa of Burkina Faso as he was named MVP for two of the six matches the Eagles played.
Against Burundi, the 32-year-old was required to play in the hole and make runs into the opposition box, which never happened. The only scoring chance he got was straight from a corner kick in the first half. And even though he was largely unmarked when the ball arrived, his header was an abysmal attempt, though it must be added that this has never been Mikel’s strength.
Drop Mikel Now brigade!
But there are those who believe the captain has served his time and will better serve the team on the bench. One of them is Tayo Adetunji, a football enthusiast. “I believe Mikel should be dropped for the next game. It is a pleasure to have him in the team for the experience and mentoring.
“However, the nexus of the team should be built around Ndidi and Etebo. The duo is more agile, they are swifter and have eyes for those crispy passes. Since the team is very young and are likely fearless than an older team.
“Mikel has lost some of these attributes due to his growing years. The experience garnered over 13 years playing for the Eagles would be put to better use from the bench, from where he can come on in tactical switches when a strategic substitution is needed,” Adetunji added.
Sports journalist Jide Olaniran is of the view that having played better with Mikel off the pitch, the captain should start the Guinea match on the bench. “I think Mikel’s substitution in the first game opened up the game for Nigeria, trying it again won’t be a bad idea. Let him be on the bench.
Mikel has played in 21 AFCON matches for the Super Eagles since his debut in 2006, and he has only ever lost five, which is the major reason why Nnamdi Okosieme says a fully fit Mikel can still contribute a lot to the Eagles. “Mikel seems to be slowing down,” explained Okosieme but “whatever his challenges, I think we still need him. A mentally alert and fit Mikel is an asset to the Eagles any day.”