The announcement from Napoli that Victor Osimhen would be ruled out for three months following surgery to repair cheekbone and eye socket fractures was a punch in the stomach, the ensuing gasp heard from desert to coast.
That swelled the list of confirmed Nigerian Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) absentees to two. However, and this is no disrespect to him, to speak of Oghenekaro Etebo’s unavailability in the same breath simply is not realistic. Whereas the Watford midfielder is willing and tenacious at his best, Osimhen is the entire point of the team, his running giving definition and the illusion of structure to what has largely been an uninspired, abstruse tactical set-up. He is the skeleton on which it all hangs.
His absence poses a weighty tactical problem for the Super Eagles. Whoever leads the team out on January 11 in Garoua–be it Gernot Rohr or an as-yet unnamed stand-in/replacement–will have his work cut out accounting for the Napoli striker’s outsized influence on every facet of the team’s attacking play.
The real question is not so much who, but how to replace Victor Osimhen at the AFCON? The 22-year-old is almost complete in his interpretation of the center-forward role, just as happy providing depth as dropping off to hold the ball up; almost as comfortable with a link-up play on the edge of the box as attacking crosses into the box. He carries and harries in equal measure, providing infinite nuisance factors for opposing defenders. So how to replace someone who, quite simply, does everything that a striker should?
Well, there are two broad approaches, each with its drawback for Nigeria in a tactical sense; however, it is in answering this preliminary question that the more specific issue of personnel becomes clearer.
The qualitative method
This is the least problematic approach tactically, in that it involves getting as close a facsimile as possible.
Nigeria has a deep pool of strikers to choose from, the majority of whom are playing in the major leagues around Europe. However, there is a reason Osimhen stands well clear — none of the other options have as wide a spread in terms of their abilities; at best, each provides one or two attributes in common.
Taiwo Awoniyi thrives off the shoulder of the defense, but there is little else. Emmanuel Dennis, capable of playing across the front, provides the tireless, enthusiastic work rate (and there is an added bonus of superior ball-carrying), and probably would be the most viable option if he could compete aerially and link play reliably.
Terem Moffi has the link-up play, and is arguably a more cultured finisher, but does not have the explosive mobility. Paul Onuachu can hold the ball up and attack it in the air, but is utterly reliant on service. Cyriel Dessers can finish, as can Kelechi Iheanacho who, frustratingly enough, cannot lead the line on his own.
Suddenly, that embarrassment of riches begins to look a little less bounteous.
There is one player currently active in Europe who combines many of the same strengths that Osimhen possesses into one: Umar Sadiq.
The Almeria man has the rangy speed to attack in behind, the power to hold off defenders, the disruptive influence to keep opponents honest, and the aerial presence to challenge in the air and attack deliveries into the box. While not even that encompasses the influence of Osimhen, it is at least a serviceable enough approximation to minimize the loss of the Napoli frontman.
If there is a mark against him, it is that he plays in the Segunda Division; the optics of elevating a second-division player above a clutch of top-flight strikers could be messy.
The quantitative method
If Sadiq is too far a left-field option, then replacing Osimhen will have to happen by, first of all, admitting defeat. The 22-year-old is simply too much to adequately replace with one man.
So why not do it with multiple? Easy peasy, right?
Actually, that is harder. This would require, first of all, a definite front two (which would have repercussions on the team’s overall shape; more on this soon), and then a determination of what pairing(s) would offer the best spread in terms of qualities (in order to avoid multiplying weaknesses). A partnership of, say, Onuachu/Moffi and Dennis would work in terms of covering as wide a stylistic base as possible, as would Awoniyi and Iheanacho (just about); Dessers and Awoniyi, for instance, would not.
The greater concern though would be the effect on the rest of the team. Part of the reason Leicester manager Brendan Rodgers has been reluctant to completely commit to a front two is that it reduces the amount of inherent flexibility the system can have. If you are a manager-minded to prioritize midfield control and possession, then a front two necessitates a back three. If attacking width is your poison instead, then it is usually a flat 4-4-2. There are variations on these schemes, but broadly the imperatives hold.
This cuts right to the heart of the raging discussion, of course: as a result of the uncertainty over Rohr’s job security, it is difficult to fully grasp what this method would entail tactically, or even how likely the qualitative approach is, considering that both Sadiq and Dennis have, for different reasons, not been factors in the current set-up.
Getting some clarity over who helms the Super Eagles in Cameroon would not only be desirable for the sake of preparation, but also in addressing the urgent Osimhen question.