A loss to Iceland will seal Nigeria’s status as the third African side to end its journey in the group stages.
After the game against Croatia, the prevailing criticism of the side was its passiveness in the final third, heavily blamed on John Obi Mikel’s ‘unnatural’ positioning as a ‘10’. Jose Mourinho, who would know about the re-education of the once brilliant attacking midfielder into a stalwart human shield at defensive midfield, noted that “Nigeria lost a good No.6 to get a bad No.10.”
Nigeria legend Jay Jay Okocha was candid in his analysis of the game saying the team didn’t have a creative player.
“Mikel has been a good servant to the national team. His best position is playing in front of the defence. We saw what he did playing for Chelsea where he had a glorious career.”
However, Gernot Rohr responded that he couldn't have played with three number 6 before pointing out the successes of the team with Mikel playing the role. He cited the 4-0 victory over Cameroon in the World Cup qualifiers.
While all parties are with valid points, it is important to note the nature of the victory referenced. Nigeria had 46% of possession from the game and scored half of the goals from purely counter-attacking play. Mikel’s goal on the day was from a set-piece while the final goal had a crafty build-up to it after Cameroon had been soundly pummelled.
In that sense, Mikel thrives as a ‘10’ funneling balls into the attack for pacy Victor Moses and Moses Simon to run onto. But when there isn't space for the wingers and play has to be delicately crafted and infused with creativity, Mikel’s limitations become more prominent. The Super Eagles captain is incapable of incision against a packed or organised defence system.
After his extensive defense of Mikel, it is unlikely that Rohr will change Mikel’s role for the game against Iceland.
Argentina's embarrassing 3-0 loss to Croatia heaps more pressure on the Super Eagles to win or draw at the least. It means Nigeria need to take the initiative in the game against a compact and industrious Iceland side. Mikel’s interpretation of the role also impacts on Odion Ighalo, who is mostly isolated in games. The Tianjin Teda midfielder stuck closer to Oghenekaro Etebo and Wilfred Ndidi than playing between the lines behind the striker.
Against Heimir Hallgrímsson's side, Rohr has to fix the flawed set up or hope that Mikel's interpretation of his role miraculously betters.
Nigeria: Francis Uzoho; Abdullahi Shehu, William Troost-Ekong, Leon Balogun, Brian Idowu; Wilfred Ndidi, John Obi Mikel, Oghenekaro Etebo; Victor Moses, Odion Ighalo, Alex Iwobi.
Iceland: Hannes Halldorsson; Birkir Saevarsson, Kari Arnason, Ragnar Sigurdsson, Hordor Magnusson; Emil Hallfredsson, Aron Gunnarsson; Gylfi Sigurdsson, Birkir Bjarnason, Rurik Gislason; Alfred Finnbogason