2019 FIFA U17 WC: Golden Eaglets And Manu Garba’s Failed Experiment

Two wins, two defeats, eye-catching displays, energetic whenever they arrive at the opposing box but totally bereft of ideas anytime they are trying to prevent an opponent from scoring. Those were major talking points in Nigeria’s short-lived participation at this year’s FIFA U-17 World Cup.

Usually, the Golden Eaglets go into this tournament as overwhelming favourites – and why not when they’ve conquered the world at this level on 5 different occasions, most recently when current Super Eagles (the nation’s senior national team) regulars Samuel Chukwueze and Victor Osimhen led them to glory in 2015.

Offensively, arguably one of the best teams featuring in Brazil, the passes in the final third, the connection between the offensive players, their hunger for success and their focus on the prize (goals) on game day is unmatched. And though many football pundits and fans [even on social media] have often tagged their display “selfish”, they’ve always looked good on the eye.

Oluwatimileyin Adeniyi, Peter Olawale, Ibrahim Said are a few names who caught the eye for the Golden Eaglets offensively with Akinkunmi Amoo who was famed with coming off the bench with his burst of energy, pace and trickery to destabilize opposing defenders in the second half also thrown into the mix. Team captain, Samson Tijani who plays in midfield also showed signs of a bright future ahead putting in an impressive shift most times including a well taken brace in the opening day victory against Hungary.

Where Nigeria’s coach Manu Garba who coached the 2013 set of champions with Isaac Success and Leicester City striker Kelechi Iheancho failed to get it right was at the back, his insistence on playing three at the back was widely criticised by football fans after Nigeria’s first two games in the tournament which saw the Golden Eaglets ship in four goals, with a comedy of errors most times as the young defenders seemingly failed to understand the demands of having three men combining with each other at the back.

Nigeria’s shocking defensive displays were usually wiped out by outstanding performances in attack. So even if the side concedes say two, three in a game, Garba’s team can count on the strikers to convert three, four as Nigeria scored 7 in their first two games.

But truth be told and as we have seen countless times in football tournaments over the years, you can’t consistently count on your strikers to bail you out in every game, chances are some days they’ll miss more than they should or the opposing defence will be well motivated to handle whatever is thrown at them.

That confidence of “comeback kings” is what possibly led to Nigeria’s early exit as the signs evinced when the Australians in the final group game shocked the Nigerian side who despite having over 40 minutes were unable to get a second goal to draw level and a third to win it. A similar fate befell the young Nigerians who were down 2-1 as early as the 15th minute but failed to stage a comeback, conceded a third in the 80th minute and eventually bowed out to a tactically astute young Dutch side.

Despite being dumped out so early by Nigeria’s high standards at the U-17 World Cup, one thing is sure; we will see many of these youngsters again hopefully soon dazzling the world at some point in their careers.

They’ve got so much to learn in the game and can be pardoned for the errors they made in Brazil but these questions are some of the many things that have been kept followers of the game in Lagos, Abuja, Kano, Ibadan, Aba and Port Harcourt up all night:

  • Was playing 3 men at the back the best for this young side?
  • How long did they practice this formation building up to the tournament and could the coach have switched to 4 at the back after seeing Nigeria’s defensive frailty in the first few games.
  • Did Manu Garba even take the best set of U-17 footballers with him to Brazil?
  • Did he also field his strongest team on match days?
  • Was his young side made to believe that defending doesn’t matter because they’ve got the firepower up front to cancel out whatever number they concede in a game?