Africa Cup of Nations 2019: Nigeria vs South Africa – Tactical Analysis

Africa Cup of Nations 2019: Nigeria vs South Africa - Tactical Analysis tactics
Artwork by @chapulana

Following South Africa‘s shock victory over tournament hosts Egypt, Bafana Bafana looked to repeat their heroics. This time they were up against yet another one of the tournament favourites in Nigeria. The Super Eagles progressed to the quarter-finals after they defeated Cameroon in an entertaining match, beating Les Lions Indomptables 3-2.

In this tactical analysis, we’ll take a look at the tactics of how Nigeria progressed to the Africa Cup of Nations 2019 semi-finals by beating South Africa in an intense tactical chess match.


Africa Cup of Nations 2019: Nigeria vs South Africa - Tactical Analysis tactics

South Africa lined up in the same 4-3-3 shape that knocked out Egypt. Coach Stuart Baxter fieldied the same XI. Ronwen Williams remained in between the sticks. The defensive line was comprised of Thamsanqa Mkhize and Sifiso Hlanti at full back. They played either side of Buhle Mkhwanazi and Thulani Hlatshwayo. Dean Furman, Kamohelo Mokotjo, and Bongani Zungu played as a midfield trio behind Lebo Mothiba, who was flanked by Percy Tau and Thembinkosi Lorch.

Africa Cup of Nations 2019: Nigeria vs South Africa - Tactical Analysis tactics
Typical player movements

Furman was the deepest of the midfield three with Makotjo and Zungu positioning themselves more centrally, creating a midfield triangle with Furman at the base.

Like their opponents, Nigeria also retained their formation, keeping the 4-2-3-1, unlike his counterpart, German coach Gernot Rohr made two changes from their previous win, with Collins replacing Ola Aina at left back, and Chukwueze replacing Moses Simon on the wing. A backline of Jamilu Collins, Kenneth Omeruo, William Troost-Ekong, and Chidozie Awaziem protected Daniel Akpeyi in goal. Oghenekaro Etebo and Wilfried Ndidi acted as a double pivot in front of the backline. Alex Iwobi played in the central hole behind Ahmed Musa, Samuel Chukwueze, and Odion Ighalo.

Neither pair of full backs found themselves high on the pitch often, as both sides’ wingers’ were a threat, and the full backs prioritised defensive solidity rather than supporting their wingers on the overlap.

Nigeria play differently on each wing in offense

When the ball was on Musa’s side (left wing), Iwobi would position himself in the right half space. Iwobi’s position in the half-space allowed him to pin Hlanti, not letting him aid in the defence. Nigeria would look to stretch the South African defence when the ball was on the right by overloading the right half space while still occupying the left wing. Musa would be the wide player, while Iwobi would drift wide from his no 10. position, alongside Chukwueze moving centrally with Ighalo also moving into the half space.

This overload would drag the South African defensive line across, giving Mkhize a decision to make, to stay tight with Musa, leaving a defensive gap, or shift alongside the rest of the defence, leaving the Al-Nassr winger in space. When Mkhize stayed tight, Furman was the man to plug the hole, this was the better situation from a Bafana Bafana point of view. With Furman missing in the midfield, they still had a 2v2 in that area against Nigeria’s double pivot of Ndidi and Otebo, so plugging the defensive hole did not create numerical inferiority.

Africa Cup of Nations 2019: Nigeria vs South Africa - Tactical Analysis tactics
Furman fills in the defensive gap created by the stretched defensive line


Africa Cup of Nations 2019: Nigeria vs South Africa - Tactical Analysis tactics
Nigeria stretching the South African defense

South Africa’s defensive phases

South Africa had two defensive phases during the match, they would either fall into a deep low block or would press. What they did was dependant on where the Nigerian play was. In their own half, they would fall into the block. In the Nigerian half, they would press the first phase of build up. Their main objective when pressing was to force a long ball, which worked out for them as South African won a staggering two-thirds of their aerial duels. Nigeria’s initial game plan was not to circulate the ball anyway, with them having 38% possession in this game as well as in their last, so they did not try to play through the first wave of pressure. When South Africa were in a low block, Ighalo positioned himself in the centre of the compact shape. This gave his teammates space to move around the block, as his position pinned the immediate South African players around him.

Ighalo in the block, Iwobi in the half space

Nigeria’s defensive shape

Nigeria did not press South Africa’s first phase of build-up. Instead, they would cut out central passing lanes and mark the ball-sided full back, thus forcing the play to the opposite flank. This shape made it easier for Nigeria to defend, as South Africa’s play was forced into exactly where Nigeria wanted them.

Africa Cup of Nations 2019: Nigeria vs South Africa - Tactical Analysis tactics
Nigeria preferring to cut out passing lanes rather than press the first phase of build-up.

South Africa’s attacking play

South Africa usually did not try to play through Nigeria’s defensive shape. Instead, they would circulate the ball around the backline. They would wait until Mothiba’s horizontal movements created a 2v1 against the Nigerian full-back alongside one of Tau or Lorch. This allowed them to be targeted directly instead of risking going through the congested central area.

Africa Cup of Nations 2019: Nigeria vs South Africa - Tactical Analysis tactics
South Africa create a 2v1 overload on the Nigeria full back

This movement usually took place on the right wing, with the majority (41% percent) of their attacks on that side.

Nigeria’s defensive shape in the latter stages of the game became less rigid. The vertical space between the lines as well as the horizontal spaces between players increased. This allowed South Africa to position players in between the lines on the rare occasion their attacks were central (only 23% of the time).

Africa Cup of Nations 2019: Nigeria vs South Africa - Tactical Analysis tactics
South Africa position two players in between the Nigerian midfield and defensive lines, and the passing lane is not cut out

Musa did not contribute to the defence. Instead, he formed a front two alongside Ighalo to maintain a threat on the counter-attack. This left Tau open on the wings, as Collins did not want to create a gap in the defensive line by moving to mark him.

Africa Cup of Nations 2019: Nigeria vs South Africa - Tactical Analysis tactics
Musa is not contributing to the defence. This allows Tau to be left free because Collins does not want to leave his position. Once again, we see South Africa with players in between the lines

Highlighted Player: Samuel Chukwueze

The 2018/19 season was very much a breakthrough season for Chukwueze, and he was one of the star performers in this match. He was an attacking outlet on the right wing, and besides scoring his first international goal, he was a creative force. The Villareal man made 2 key passes, and completed 4 dribbles, while only being dispossessed on one occasion. He caused havoc for the South African defence whether it was drifting centrally into the half space, or staying out wide, taking his man on. The 20-year-old winger made an impact on just his seventh appearance and was arguably man of the match.


Gernot Rohr will be happy to pick up the win, but the 66-year-old will be hoping for a more convincing win against Algeria, whom they face in the semi-finals. They will face either Senegal or Tunisia in the final should they beat Algeria.

South Africa will travel back home with a bittersweet taste in their mouths. They did their country proud by producing a shock result, knocking out tournament hosts Egypt. They responded well by equalizing after Chukwueze found himself through on goal giving Nigeria the lead. However, they will be disappointed to concede such a late, heartbreaking goal. Williams failed to collect a corner, leaving unlikely hero Troost-Ekong with an open net to win the game.

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