At the 2021 AFCON, Wilfred Ndidi was in perhaps one of his greatest elements as a Super Eagles player. His uber-disciplined approach, and desire to keep it simple ensured Nigeria looked balanced in the middle and dominated games.
When he struggled to come to the party against Tunisia in the second round, the team failed to gel or muster any good strings of play in the game and eventually were punished for their lacklustre performance.
If Ndidi’s importance to the Super Eagles was ever doubted, that moment established how vital his presence means to the team. In games he’s not available, Innocent Bonke, Frank Onyeka and sometimes Semi Ajayi have deputised in the holding midfield role but they rarely possess anything close to Ndidi’s innate danger-sniffing qualities.
While Ajayi shows some passing qualities which are fleetingly inconsistent, Bonke on his part still displays some rawness to his game that makes his choice difficult to accept for what the Super Eagles should be capable of. Onyeka is not just a holding midfielder.
In the last one year, Ndidi’s fitness has been of great concern and in the games he doesn’t feature, dominance has been a major problem. How important is the Leicester man to the Super Eagles?
For a player who started out as a central defender, Ndidi has positioned himself as one of the best midfield disruptors in the world. Not a great passer, but his athleticism and ability to sniff danger are some of the best in the modern game.
In previous years, he dared to take on a more creative role with Nigeria, bursting out from the defensive third as often as possible and trying to link teammates. His vaguely impressive passing in those situations lets him down often times but when he chooses to do the basic – win the ball and pass it on, Ndidi is in his most devastating element.
The World Cup qualifiers double-legged fixture against Ghana may have gone the way it did only because of the former Genk midfielder’s absence. His teammates believe in him to do the dirty work behind them on most days but in his absence, the Super Eagles struggled for composure over both legs and eventually missed out on the mundial.
Is Ndidi that fantastic? In the context of what Nigeria currently possesses, yes, he is? Should the Super Eagles struggle in his absence? This is a question that can be answered with the right deployment and system.
The Super Eagles have been happy to use Onyeka in the holding midfield role recently but the Brentford midfielder thrives better when he has to move the ball on. Although he’s probably more skillful than Ndidi, he doesn’t have better qualities fitting for the holding role than the Leicester midfielder.
What are the Super Eagles’ options in Ndidi’s absence?
Ndidi showed great abilities even as a cadet player and played in two U-20 World Cups. His excellence in Belgium ensured he soon moved to the Premier League, a move not commonly seen of players not deemed better than good.
Other than Victor Osimhen, there’s no more marketable Nigerian footballer in the world today than Wilf but that shouldn’t stop Nigeria from coming to the party in his absence.
Samson Tijani, Raphael Onyedika, and Alhassan Yusuf are three midfielders the national team is yet to get the best of. While Tijani has been capped twice, he’s yet to fully be established as a senior national team player. He’s expected to have more game time under his belt this season at Red Bull Salzburg and perhaps break into the Super Eagles fold.
His football education is as good as it gets in Europe and in the course of finding a suitable alternative to Ndidi, Tijani must be seen as a viable option.
Raphael Onyedika had a big season with FC Midjtylland last term and stood out as one of Nigeria’s best performers in Europe. He must currently be on Jose Peseiro’s radar as he seeks to find a quality national team that should not base its strength on individuals. Onyedika, like Tijani is a much younger alternative who still has a big career ahead of him and can make a huge difference if trusted. The midfielder is expected to move to a better club soon and can vie for a national team opportunity.
Yusuf, unlike the midfielders mentioned above isn’t a like-for-like replacement. He’s adept in the box-to-box midfield role but is a fantastic ball winner too, likened to Ngolo Kante by many. Also a very young and exciting prospect, Yusuf’s quality will add the balance that can counteract against the effects of an Ndidi absence.
Peseiro has so far shown a likeness for a midfield two instead of three. Against Sierra Leone, he must have observed the apparent weaknesses and failings of that choice as he plugged the hole in the second half to give the midfield a better balance.
What Oghenekaro Etebo came to add in that game could be mere presence but in the real analysis of it, it’s a large hole getting blocked and a burden lifted on Alex Iwobi and Joe Aribo.
It’s high time the Super Eagles planned for days without its finest elements, whoever that may be. The results on those days matter, regardless and excuses become less tenable with concurrent struggles.