Super Eagles AFCON midfield: Let us focus on their strengths

There is a genuine concern about the Super Eagles team to the AFCON and each time that concern is voiced, it makes more and more sense considering the spate of poor results and performances of the team.

There is a core five-man midfield of Raphael Onyedika, Frank Onyeka, Joe Aribo, Alex Iwobi, and Alhassan Yusuf that replaced the injured Wilfred Ndidi.

One of the first things you learn as a chess player is to control the center. The man who controls the center most likely wins the game. This principle applies in life too. Guard your heart, for out of it flows the issues of life, the heart being the center of the thinking, and thoughts of man, or biologically, the heart pumping blood to all parts of the body. This applies in the military too, and of course in football.

The key components of a good midfield are a hard and neat tackling defensive midfielder, a smooth and impeccable grafter in Central Midfield and a top PlayMaker who makes things happen up front. It is obvious that some of these things have changed with modern-day football, but these positions never lose their essence.

The hole called Wilfred Ndidi

Wilfred Ndidi

The absence of Wilfred Ndidi has no doubt created a big hole in the center of the Super Eagles’ midfield. When Wilfred plays for the Eagles, you expect good defensive play, a box-to-box operator, forward movement, 360 vision and all those other attributes of a modern-day DM/CM which he really is. Alhassan Yusuf, his replacement will be expected to cover this hole left open by the absence of Wilfred.

“Ndidi will be a huge miss for Nigeria, but it is not the end of the world for the country. Our players work hard and use the ball in safe sensible areas, but that real playmaker is what the team lacks,” Solace Chukwu, a football writer based in Lagos, Nigeria, told

“Alhassan has had a great season in Belgium, played in the Champions League and his performances merit an inclusion in the squad, so it is a good thing he is back to replace Wilfred.”

Who will help the Super Eagles’ midfield?

Alhassan Yusuf Abdullahi of Royal Antwerp FC runs with the ball during the Jupiler Pro League match between Sint-Truidense VV and Royal Antwerp FC at Stayen on November 21, 2021 in Sint-Truiden, Belgium (Photo by Joris Verwijst/Orange Pictures)

Yema Olarenwaju, Enyimba assistant coach told that the team can do well without a mercurial playmaker.

According to Yema, modern-day football has ensured a few things have changed in personnel and the way coaches set up their teams.

“The midfield is not as bad as the media and other pundits are making it look. We must play to the strengths of these players,” Olarenwaju said.

“I hear people say that there is little creativity in the team, but in modern-day football, you hardly ever see a regular number ten.”

Nigerians have been used to classic number tens, especially since Pele made that number the most sought-after in a football team. In the 70s we had Haruna Ileirika and in the 80s, it was Henry Nwosu. Etim Esim wore it before Austin Jay Jay Okocha entertained for the long haul in that jersey.

Ever since Okocha, the Eagles have not had a classic number ten, which may be lacking in this team, an observation, Solace Chukwu agrees with.

“What is lacking is that none of these guys is comfortable receiving the ball in the opposition block. If we have an opposition team well set up, you need someone who will act as a disruption between the lines of the opposing midfield and defence.”

“Someone that can move players out of position. Someone to show some uncertainty on the opposition side. That is where you need a classic number ten. That is where I think the selection falls short.” Chukwu said.

“But you cannot continue to appraise with what the selection is not good at. We need Peseiro to work with the strengths of the team.

Strengths of the Eagles midfield

Alex Iwobi

What works best for a team that lost perhaps its best player in midfield to injury less than two weeks to the AFCON? How best can Jose Peseiro fashion out his team to finally win a game, something that has not happened in their last three games?

“I do not think the 4-4-2 will work for us because we do not have the regular type of wingers,” Olarenwaju said.

“The likes of Chukwueze hardly support the midfield and defence. We certainly need to maximise what we have.”

“They are all hard-working players in the midfield,” Chukwu says.

“Raphael has not played enough but offers a great bit of control,. He can anchor the midfield in a way that nobody has done for a while but has not really had the trust of Peseiro. Onyeka is a box-to-box dynamo, a straight-line runner. That is what he offers to the team. Iwobi distributes very well and gets the ball into the final third consistently. He is very economical with his touchers too. Aribo has a physical profile. Has strength too,” Chukwu adds.

“We need to maximise what we have,” Olarenwaju adds to the debate.

“If Frank Onyeka plays in central midfield, and Raphael Onyedika is there as DM, we could have Alez Iwobi behind the front three as number ten. Aside from this, I do not see what else will work for us,” Yema says.

“We need to play a 4-3-3 so Iwobi is the link between the midfield and attack. Our midfield is not bad if we play to their potential. Onyedika, Onyeka and Iwobi will get the job done for us. That is a good midfield.”

Can they get the job done?

Frank Onyeka

This depends on what the job is. Whether the job is to win the AFCON, get to the semi-finals, or make it past the group stage will be a tall order for the current Super Eagles team, because a group of Ivory Coast, Equatorial Guinea and Guinea Bissau is more difficult than what Nigerians think.

Joe Aribo started well with the Super Eagles, especially in that friendly match against Brazil where he scored, but he seems to have fallen short since then. Also, Aribo does not seem to do well without the cover of Wilfred Ndidi in the team.

He also does not give us the pace we need in midfield. The team needs to play with a bit of intensity which has been lacking with the Eagles for a while.

Nigeria has a unique record at the AFCON, and I hope the current bunch of Super Eagles know it.

At the AFCON, Nigeria more often than not, gets to the semi-finals. It is almost our birthright. Apart from 1963 which was our first time and we lost both games, then 1982 where a motley crew of players went on a circus show, there was 2008 when Berti Vogts and his stand-up comedians lost to Ghana in the quarter-finals, then 2021 when we were out in the Round of 16. Every other time we played the AFCON we got to the semi-finals and that is why Nigeria has won the Cup three times, lost in the final four times and gotten the bronze medal eight times. Nigeria has had fifteen podium finishes. This team should know that the country does not take anything less than a semi-final place.

Nigeria’s first opponents, Equatorial Guinea will determine how far this team goes.

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