An England win is many pundits’ prediction; thus, Monday’s match against Nigeria would be a foregone conclusion. Except for the ever-believing Nigerian fan, who has witnessed football miracles in the past. The 1989 feat by the U-20 team against the defunct Soviet Union and the comeback against Brazil at the 1996 Olympic Games readily spring to mind.
But will it be a miracle if/when the Super Falcons triumph over the English Lionesses on Monday? Not so. The Nigerian team qualified for the round of 16 by outlasting better FIFA-ranked teams, and in none of the matches, have they been lucky; they have shown they have the technical and athletic capacity to give as good as they get.
Just before the last group game against the Republic of Ireland, Coach Randy Waldrum said, “Now we’re here, we have to do what good teams do – we have to learn to finish the job.” While the Falcons have been refreshingly surprising by going through their group without losing, the task against European champions England is undoubtedly an arduous one.
England have scored eight goals and conceded once, and they boast Lauren James, a standout forward who is delivering goals and assists. Do the Falcons stand a chance? They stand a good chance as long as Coach Waldrum prepares his team with the correct strategy.
PREMIUM TIMES has gone through all six matches for Nigeria and England and there is a quiet optimism that the Falcons can shock the world once again.
England are dangerous
Former Falcons forward Mercy Akide says the English are “very technical, and they know how to manipulate the ball a lot”. She added that the Falcons don’t connect well with their passes, which creates a lot of turnovers for our opponents.
Against China, England started out in a 3-4-1-2 formation, which gave Lauren James a roving role and it paid off for Sarina Wiegman as James scored two goals and assisted three of the six goals. Her two goals-from a standing position outside the box from a free-kick and a free run into the box to produce a volley demonstrated her mobility and technical prowess. There was no Chinese defender within five yards of the Chelsea forward on both occasions.
When the England coach explained the reason for the change in formation, she said, “We have played with a three at the back and then did things a little differently. Everyone really believed in the formation straight away, and you could see that on the pitch.
“We got a higher press. The team showed we are really adaptable, and we knew we could press the centre backs of China. This team have shown they are adaptable before and that we can change shape very easily.”
What Waldrum’s response should be
Coach Randy Waldrum can change the Falcons’ formation to a 4-5-1. This ensures an overload of the midfield and guarantees the space between the four defenders and the five midfielders is minimal, and will not be easily exploited.
The Falcons have proved that with 30% ball possession, they can hurt the opposition. In offensive mode, Rasheedat Ajibade should play very close to Asisat Oshoala. If she is leading the line, though, Ajibade would be the best, with Toni Payne playing close behind.
If Deborah Abiodun had been available, the Falcons would have performed admirably in a 4-3-2-1 formation with the 19-year-old functioning as the tyro, but Jennifer Echegini can fill in.
In England’s last two matches, James has been the difference maker, connecting their play in midfield, moving into the final third to join the attack, and scoring three goals and making three assists. On the back of those performances, Coach Waldrum will do well to detail a man-marker on her, and the best candidate will be Halimatu Ayinde. However, Ayinde will have to dampen down her enthusiasm to tackle and rob the player of the ball, which could lead to fouls and cautions.
Play like Haiti
A team that defends in low block frustrates the English, as shown by Haiti, and that should be Nigeria’s plan on Monday. The Haitians defended with nine players and were ready to spring forward at every turnover. With speedy players like Oshoala, Ayinde, and Payne, Coach Waldrum must prime the Falcons to make the turnovers count against England.
England have scored their goals from set pieces, runners from midfield, forcing turnovers, and inverted runs from their wingers. While it is not possible to block all these avenues, the Falcons cannot afford to lose concentration, especially in the last third. They have to be totally switched on and cut out mistakes, especially in their half of the pitch.
They can then be more daring in the final third and commit England’s slow central defenders like Alex Greenwood, Millie Bright, and Jessica Carter.
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