Africa Cup of Nations 2019 Tactical Preview: Nigeria

Africa Cup of Nations 2019 Tactical Analysis Preview: Nigeria
Artwork by @chapulana

Nigeria was drawn in the toughest group in the 2018 FIFA World Cup Qualifiers alongside Zambia, Algeria, and Cameroon. They went on to top the group and became the first African team to qualify for the World Cup. Ending first in a group called the ‘group of death’ in the African Qualifiers is no small feat. That gives the world an idea of just how capable Nigeria are in challenging for the Africa Cup of Nations 2019. In this tactical preview, we shall take a look at the team of Nigeria through a detailed analysis using statistics.

Tactical Preview – Path to AFCON 2019

Nigeria is three-time winners of the Africa Cup of Nations. They were four-time runners-up and came third seven times. As this is the 32nd edition of this tournament, They have been on top three 14 times. This is an impressive record and they are one of the favourites this year.

Gernot Rohr’s team were drawn in Group E along with South Africa, Seychelles, and Lybia where they qualified as group-winners. They scored 14 goals and conceded six winning four games in impressive fashion. Shanghai Shenhua’s Odion Ighalo was the top-scorer of the qualifiers with seven goals.


Goalkeepers: Uzoho, Ezenwa, Akpeyi

Defenders: Aina, Shehu, Awaziem, Ekong, Balogun, Omeruo, Collins

Midfielders: Mikel, Ndidi, Etebo, Ogu

Forwards: Musa, Osimhen, Simon, Onyekuru, Ighalo, Iwobi, Kalu, Onuachu, Chukwueze

Key player: Ahmed Musa

Al-Nassr player Ahmed Musa has been exceptionally good on the big stage. In the FIFA World Cup 2018, he scored two goals against Iceland, one of which was one of the best goals of the tournament.

When playing for Nigeria, Musa has played as a centre-forward and as a left winger. This combination of two positions is exceptionally utilised by the Nigerian. He has a preference to cut inside and take shots. Now we shall take a look at an example that shows us exactly how important this is to their team.

The image below shows how the ball has been passed to the Nigerian centre-forward. The near side area is crowded however, Musa is aware of that and he spots the space created in the middle. He then makes a very quick run into centrally from where he then receives the ball. This unpredictable and unplanned movement from Musa catches the opposition off-guard leaving him space to operate.

Africa Cup of Nations 2019 Tactical Analysis Preview: Nigeria
Musa spots the space created in the middle of the pitch and looks to get into that space and receive the ball.

His first touch is very good and he uses his raw pace to get past the central defenders. He still has players closing in on him along with the goalkeeper advancing. However, he shows great composure and places the shot into the bottom-left corner. This shows us why playing him on the left-wing is a very good choice for Rohr’s team.

Africa Cup of Nations 2019 Tactical Analysis Preview: Nigeria
Musa uses his pace to get away from the defenders and strikes the ball into the bottom-left corner.

Another way he makes use of the left-wing is with his pace. He has great acceleration which means he can outrun most right-backs. To contain him, the opposition would need to create a 2v1 overload, but this would result in leaving another player unmarked.

Nigeria’s attacking style

Nigeria attack in a 4-3-3 with the midfield three in a triangle. The attacking midfielder is heavily involved in the attack and if they stagnate, the midfielders will look to join in where they will be stationed at the edge of the box. Here, they can recycle possession and also take shots from range.

Thanks to speed demons like Musa and stone-cold finishers like Ighalo, we know why Nigeria are lethal on the counter-attack. In the following example, we will see why letting them sustain play is worse than letting them counter. We will also see how stopping Nigeria’s play keeps them nullified.

Africa Cup of Nations 2019 Tactical Analysis Preview: Nigeria
Nigeria looks to get players on the edge of the box to sustain their attack.

Musa, Wilfried Ndidi and Ighalo can take good long ranged shots. This is just one of the possible attacking options they have. Passing the ball around the box can unstabilise the opposition’s defence, playing a ball to the striker can lead to him holding it up and passing it. As a result, Nigeria is able to keep its attack going.

Ighalo is a major threat in and around the box with his goal-scoring instincts. This means that the opposition has to always be aware of his positioning thus keep one to two players on him. In those situations, he makes space for the attacking midfielder to run into.

Another trait of the attacking midfielder is making late runs into the box. The Nigerian wingers are always actively looking for options to pull-back to.

The Super Eagle’s prefer to keep the opposition defenders grounded by positioning a forward player between the centre-back and the full-back. The opposition’s defence is forced to stay low and it is unable to come out and press the attacking players.

Africa Cup of Nations 2019 Tactical Analysis Preview: Nigeria
Nigeria looks to deploy a player between the opposition full-back and central defender which enables the Nigerian attacking midfielders to get more time on the ball.

This, in turn, leads to the attackers having more space around the box. In the example, as we can see the number eight of Nigeria has got a lot of space to move around in. This is because the midfielder of the opposing team has had to move back to make sure there is no open passing lane to the Nigerian attacker behind him. As a result here, we have the forward player keeping the centre-back grounded.

Nigeria’s defensive tactics 

Rohr’s team is defensively stable, most of which they owe to the smooth transitions from attack to defence. The side midfielders in the 4-3-3 will move to towards the wing and the full-backs will move inwards a bit. This results in a flat 4-3-3 with the wingers and side-midfielders double-teaming. They will look to force the attack wide whenever the possible. This is not just a containing strategy as it enables the central defenders to get enough time to position themselves.

Nigeria is vulnerable to low-driven crosses and crosses which are delivered from inside the box. In the following example, we see Nigeria defending in a compact formation. The opposition look to deploy a player between the centre-back and full-back of Nigeria.

Africa Cup of Nations 2019 Tactical Analysis Preview: Nigeria
Nigeria’s compact defensive formation allows for easy one-twos which let the opposition get past the defence.

The ball is passed to that player who is not marked. This is because marking him would mean the opposition can use the wings to get into the box. The opposition player on the edge of the box has spotted the passing option which exposes the defence. That player is now available for a one-two followed by a driven cross.

Nigeria are not usually vulnerable to through balls. This is because they allow the opposition space between the lines. This makes through balls less likely. However, this makes them more vulnerable to long balls. In the following example, we can see Lionel Messi being given space between the defensive and midfield lines of Nigeria.

Africa Cup of Nations 2019 Tactical Analysis Preview: Nigeria
Nigeria allows the opposition players time between the lines to avoid being vulnerable to through balls. Messi drops back which causes the Nigerian defender to try and press him.

He drops back to receive the ball which the Nigerian defender spots. Hence, he looks to close in on him but the ball is played over the top and he is caught off-balance as Messi sprints behind the lines.

Africa Cup of Nations 2019 Tactical Analysis Preview: Nigeria
The defender is caught off-balance which allows Messi to sprint behind the lines.


Nigeria is a very promising team. With individual skill from the likes of Musa, Ighalo, Ndidi Nigeria are a very capable team in the attacking phases. Their defensive structure is also stable with some minor problems which won’t be tough to fix. Their chances of making the semi-finals of the Africa Cup of Nations 2019, looks to be a realistic possibility.

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