Ahead of Saturday’s international friendly between Nigeria and England, ex-Zambia assistant coach and Queens Park Rangers opposition analyst Irfan Kawri assesses the Three Lions’ strengths and weaknesses.
When Nigeria’s Gernot Rohr looks at the England World Cup squad, three words will surely spring to mind: youth, potential and talent, and the Super Eagles must be wary when they step onto the turf at Wembley on Saturday.
England coach Gareth Southgate has spoken a lot about his playing philosophy, and has talked a lot about his style of play.
He clearly wants a possession-based team that attacks the opposition playing through the thirds and developing the play from the back.
It’s imperative that Nigeria don’t let England settle into this rhythm and ensure that they break up the home side’s attempts to establish their dominance in the heart of the midfield and control the game.
If he’s passed fit to play – and if he’s risked – Wilfred Ndidi could be key for the Super Eagles.
He was the Premier League’s most effective tackler last term, and he’ll know the opponents well after 18 months with Leicester City.
He’s a master at breaking down opposition attacks and winning the ball back for his side, although playing him so soon after his hamstring injury would be a gamble for Rohr.
England also have a lot of pace and energy, and while they’re exciting, they may lack experience, leaders and real world-class quality.
This means that while Nigeria should be wary of their opponents, they mustn’t be afraid of England, and should feel confident that they have the talent to secure a positive result in front of what should be a sizeable Nigerian fanbase.
In John Obi Mikel, the Eagles also have the most experienced player on the pitch, and his leadership and calming influence will be key if Nigeria are to ride out the inevitable storm, hold their own and then establish themselves in the contest.
Of course, Nigeria must watch out for Harry Kane, who’s a proven goalscorer in the Premier League. The Eagles defenders will be aware of his qualities inside the box, but he’s also a danger in the approach play, although he can be stopped.
Nigerian defenders William Troost-Ekong and Leon Balogun must read the game well and anticipate when the ball is to be played to Kane in order to cut off the supply and isolate the Tottenham Hotspur man.
You don’t want to let Kane get a run at the centre-backs either, so the centre-backs would also do well to get tight to him, close him down quickly, and prevent him from building momentum.
Elsewhere, Raheem Sterling has developed further under the guidance of Pep Guardiola, and can really attack the opposition with pace and dribbling ability.
Nigeria’s full-backs – particularly Ola Aina, Tyronne Ebuehi and Brian Idowu – love to push forward and join the attack, but against England, they must be wary of Sterling’s pace and pick their moments to press forward very carefully.
I really think the exciting talent in this England team is Ruben Loftus-Cheek. He’s a player with excellent natural ability, who has impressed on loan at Crystal Palace from Chelsea, and now has the chance to make an impact at the World Cup.
He has strength, pace, has shown excellent composure on the ball, and he can pick up possession from deep positions and drive forward.
If the 22-year-old gets the opportunity to play against Nigeria, then Rohr would do well to negate him by using a similarly dynamic player – someone like Ogenyi Onazi or Oghenekaro Etebo – who can track Loftus-Cheek’s runs and keep this threat shackled.
In the last two games, Southgate has played a back three with John Stones as the central defender. Could he be a point of weakness that Nigeria can attempt to exploit?
Stones is accomplished as a ball-playing centre-half, but he hasn’t played so much this term and can be got at physically.
Bearing this in mind, Saturday’s game could be a really good opportunity for Odion Ighalo or, ideally, Simeon Nwankwo, to lead the line for the Eagles and give Stones a good physical battle.
The latter, in particular, is a towering prospect and after netting seven times against Serie A’s miserly defences this term, should relish the notion of testing himself against Stones.
It will be intriguing to see how the Manchester City man – and indeed, the rest of the defensive unit – cope when Nigeria’s wealth of attacking talent can exert some pressure on them.
Nigeria should also look to exploit the channels at Wembley, and Ahmed Musa, Alex Iwobi and Victor Moses could be key figures in opening up the hosts.
England’s possession-based approach means they’ll look to commit men forward, and with a back three, there should be spaces in the channels which can be exploited if Nigeria can get the ball forward quickly.
If Nigeria can match England for energy and deny them space and time, this should stymie England’s chief attacking threats.
If Rohr can do this, then he has the forwards who can both exploit space and – in Simy and Ighalo – engage England’s defenders in a physical battle.