AFCON 2023: How Peseiro’s effective Super Eagles smothered basic Indomitable Lions

Jose Peseiro’s players have bought into the Portuguese manager’s approach, boding well for the Super Eagles’ ambition for a fourth African title.

The hardest sell for managers at any level in this sport is getting players to buy into their ideas. In essence, have the players in the palm of their hand. While it may be hyperbole to go that far with Jose Peseiro and Nigeria, Saturday’s hard-fought 2-0 win over age-old Africa Cup of Nations nemesis Cameroon gives that phrase some credence.

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Nigeria 2-0 Cameroon

When you successfully implement a results-oriented approach, it keeps doubters away — especially in tournament football. The Super Eagles have not looked pretty for the most part at the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations, but it has carried them into the tournament’s last eight. That is already a round better than the previous edition when a Moses Simon-inspired group stage proved unsustainable against a coherent Tunisia in the round of 16.

Two years later, the Super Eagles have eliminated Cameroon with a 2-0 victory. And it was undoubtedly comfortable. Admittedly, that claim may be challenged by observers preferring a more attractive style of football. And that is fine.

However, when the basic idea of football is considered — keeping the opposition away from your goal and fashioning ample chances at the other end — Peseiro’s men are in total control. The argument for and against the Portuguese’s decision to move forward with a three-player backline may rumble on for as long as Nigeria remain at AFCON 2023, but do not expect the 63-year-old to change tack.

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Not after limiting Cote d’Ivoire in the group stage, and certainly not after a superior showing against Rigobert Song’s men on Saturday.

How did Nigeria keep Cameroon out?

If you are into expected goals (xG), both teams’ tallies at full-time were instructive. Unsurprisingly edged by the Super Eagles, the Indomitable Lions’ 0.26 was their lowest in four games at the Cup of Nations.

While Cameroon were far from the model of chance creation in the group stage, Peseiro’s men were keen to limit the Lions from crossing into the box from wide positions. The five-time African champions were wedded to generating danger from those situations, so much so that every goal the Lions had netted originated from set pieces or balls delivered from the flanks.

Nigeria vs Cameroon

Ekong-led backline was solid for Nigeria against Cameroon || Photo Credit

Aware of that approach, there was a concerted effort to frustrate the one-dimensional Central African nation, underscored by closing down the wing-back threats on both flanks — Nicolas Moumie Ngamaleu on the right and Nouhou Tolo on the opposite side.

The effort doubled whenever the inside forwards — Georges-Kevin N’Koudou and Karl Toko Ekambi — pulled wide to force overloads, and the upshot of Nigeria’s approach was evident in the numbers at the interlude: Cameroon had attempted seven crosses in the opening half, completing one, significantly fewer than previous first halves at AFCON 2023 — 10 against Guinea, 11 in their clash with Senegal and 14 in the final group game with The Gambia.

Strikingly, N’Koudou was quiet. Per Opta, the 28-year-old had created a tournament-high 10 chances heading into the round of 16, setting up three goals. However, the Damac FC man could not get the better of Ola Aina in open play, and Nigeria’s concession of zero corners in the opening half meant Cameroon’s main attacking threat could not be decisive from dead balls, notably sending one free-kick out of play for a Super Eagles goal-kick.

Nigeria vs Cameroon

Ola Aina kept Cameroon’s top creator Georges-Kevin N’Koudou quiet in the AFCON 2023 round of 16 encounter between the historic rivals (Credit: IMAGO/Shengolpixs)

N’Koudou had fashioned zero chances at the break, and it stayed that way after the interlude, even if Peseiro’s team conceded needless free-kicks that gifted Cameroon opportunities to send balls into the box from wide positions. Still, the West African nation held firm.

In the end, generating quality crosses from open play was beyond the Indomitable Lions, and not even the introduction of talisman Vincent Aboubakar improved their fortunes.

At the end of the night, Song’s side had their lowest tally of crosses against Nigeria (18), lower than the Lions’ volume against Guinea (36), Senegal (22) and Gambia (28). As for expected goals, 0.26 was worse than 0.70 in their opening fixture, 0.37 against the defending African champions and 1.72 in their only win at AFCON 2023 in the decisive group fixture.

Nigeria vs Cameroon

The Super Eagles eliminated Cameroon at AFCON 2023 to extend their unbeaten run against the Indomitable Lions at the continental showpiece to three games (Credit: IMAGO/Newscom World)

It is another game in which Nigeria have restricted their opponents to minimal opportunities, continuing what they have done all tournament in frustrating sides they battle. While it may be an exaggeration to suggest that this team is under Peseiro’s absolute influence, Simon’s remarks before Saturday’s 2-0 success emphasised how players and manager are united around a common goal.

“We have been so careful, and the coach believes the most important thing is the three points, and the group agreed because we want to go for the trophy,” said the Nantes attacker to Super Eagles icon Daniel Amokachi. 

“We just need a win, and it doesn’t matter who scores or doesn’t.”

Peseiro has prioritised results over performances, and continued progress at AFCON 2023 gives the Portuguese short-term credibility. Extending their undefeated Cup of Nations streak over this unimpressive Indomitable Lions iteration adds to the belief that this could be Nigeria’s year for another title after an 11-year wait since the 2013 triumph.

Up next: free-scoring Angola. That would be this backline’s meanest test yet and the sternest challenge to Peseiro’s results-first modus operandi.


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