The jersey number 10 and the position number 10 are very significant in football. Regardless of the type of formation, the number 10 is always a creative player. In most teams, the number 10 jersey is usually worn by the best player. When you come across an unfamiliar team, you readily want to look out for the player wearing the number 10 jersey. In Nigerian football, the position number 10 and the jersey number 10 are very important. In the traditional 4-4-2 system Nigerian teams used to play, there was always an orchestrator in the middle playing the number 10 position. Even in the more contemporary 4-2-3-1, there’s a place for the number 10. The Super Eagles however seems to be seriously lacking a proper number 10, what could have led to the dearth of number 10s?
In the world over, traditional number 10s are beginning to become old-fashioned. The game is faster and more technical. There’s little or no room for a player to orchestrate play from the middle. Common practice now is for teams to get the ball to the forward players as fast as possible and also to try win it back as quick as possible when they lose it. Hence more emphasis on goalkeepers that can play, ball-playing center-backs, flying full-backs and deep-lying playmakers. Players that should normally be number tens are either able to play as deep-lying playmakers if they are physically strong or as wing-forwards if they are very mobile. Reason why the likes of Mesut Ozil, Mario Gotze, Christian Eriksen and some others seems useless these days like the ‘P’ in psychology.
In the Super Eagles, Austin Okocha was probably the last proper and most prominent number 10. Mikel Obi was expected to step into his shoes but he became a different type of player based on how he was deemed useful at Chelsea. Despite becoming more defensive at Chelsea, he was still Nigeria’s most creative and best passer of the ball and could still pass as a ten. He became a deep-lying playmaker in a 4-2-3-1 formation. However, there was still a yearning for a number 10 that could run in-between the lines and pick pockets of spaces behind the center-forward. At the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations, Nigeria stumbled on a rare number 10 – Sunday Mba. It looked more like a trial and error. Nosa Igiebor was the first choice number 10 at the competition, starting the first two matches. He struggled because he was more like a type of Mikel too, the duplicity of roles meant he appeared redundant. Mba came in and his direct runnings came in handy. He was able to run into spaces to huge effect. Mba couldn’t sustain the form and the problem resumed in the Super Eagles.
In his quest to have a number 10, Gernot Rohr decided to push an aging Mikel forward. He favoured a double 4 of Wilfred Ndidi and Oghenekaro Etebo, but it was usually a flat midfield with little movement. None of Etebo and Ndidi were creative from deep and Mikel did not have the legs to run into channels and pick pockets of spaces. The saving grace most of the times were the wing-forwards, their abilities to beat their markers and come in to dangerous areas. Then came Alex Iwobi, usually a wing forward at his club sides. But he is still more comfortable holding the ball and threading passes, and is best at it in the Super Eagles. He was also a number 10 when coming up at Arsenal but the trend of using number 10s as wing-forwards swallowed him and also gave him a chance to emerge at Arsenal. The system there is also different to the system in the national team. However with an Iwobi running between the lines, it is still important to have someone orchestrate play from deep. Hence, he doesn’t appear to have solved the problem.
In the Super Eagles right now, there seems to be a general shortage of midfielders. In the latest squad released by Rohr, there were only three central midfielders and one of them has withdrawn due to injury, and has been strangely replaced by someone more of a defender. The skills sets of the midfielders are also similar, more grit than creativity. Joe Aribo seems to have come in with something different but he is more of a box-to-box midfielder than a creative midfielder. With Iwobi occupying the space in the hole and Ndidi being the more defensive midfielder, Aribo looks like a perfect fit. But Rohr has not had the trio of Ndidi, Etebo and Aribo in the team at once, this will give an insight to his preference. However it still doesn’t cover for a lack of number 10. Is it a coincidence that the players trained abroad are the once with some ounce of creativity? Strangely it trickles down to the other men national teams. It is also one of the reasons Nigerian teams have struggled with set plays, it is most times a natural attribute of number 10s.
Okocha once kept the likes of Wilson Oruma and Christian Obodo out of the team or to other positions, the latter two will comfortably walk into the present Super Eagles starting XI.
When the U-17 won the World Cup in 2007, they had a Rabiu Ibrahim pulling strings in the middle. The last two successful U-17 teams of 2013 and 2015 did not really have number 10s. They played more with defensive midfielders and box-to-box midfielders, bar Kelechi Nwakali, who is still trying to find his feet.
Even down to the NPFL, the skills sets of Nigeria’s emerging players are similar. Lots of pace, energy and raw dribbling skills, very little in terms of technical abilities. As stated earlier, the Super Eagles might have been affected by the change of system world over but Nigeria is not even producing those sort of players again. Many times, fans complain about Rohr’s style and the team’s inability to play entertaining football. Players with the natural abilities to entertain will entertain. Maybe there has to be a concise attempt to develop players from the grassroots, it can not be a coincidence that the talents the country is churning out have similar skills sets.
Written by Babatomiwa Ojo