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U-17 World Cup: Golden Eaglets’ late rallies mask deeper issues

The Golden Eaglets are perfect so far in Brazil, but their ability to come back late in games is hardly sustainable.

In football, as in life, everyone loves a comeback. The only thing people love more than a comeback is a late comeback.

It is probably the closest thing to operatic theatre, and is a narrative that can appeal to even the casual observer, not altogether interested in football but able to relate to a triumph against the odds.

The timing of the comeback also heightens the feeling of euphoria, concentrating it right at the end for an eruption of emotion, and thereby mostly erasing the negativity that might have built up during the earlier parts of the game.

It is no surprise, then, that Nigeria’s two come-from-behind victories at the ongoing Fifa Under-17 World Cup in Brazil have been greeted with overwhelming credit and positivity.

Solace Chukwu@TheOddSolace

Here’s an idea for Manu Garba: start Akinkunmi Amoo. Just do it.

Two wins from two, and you have to salute the fighting spirit and superior fitness levels, but how sustainable is having to perpetually haul back deficits late on?

In overcoming first Hungary and then Ecuador, the Golden Eaglets have drawn praise for their fighting spirit and superior fitness levels, and also secured a place in the Round of 16.

However, for all the joy that comes of winning in such exhilarating fashion, the performances themselves have left a lot to be desired.

The theme of both matches so far in Brazil has been an utter lack of control and poor structure, both with and without the ball.

While the former is not a surprise to anyone who has watched a team coached by Manu Garba, the latter is more jarring, and is a newer concern that exacerbates the issues that come from the former.

Garba preaches a weird version of the Dutch total football, where the emphasis is not so much on versatility and interchanging positions as it is on attacking en masse and at all times.

Matches therefore become a series of sprints, first up the pitch, and then down the pitch – at its best, it can seem pretty euphoric, as in 2013 with the likes of Kelechi Iheanacho, Musa Yahaya and Taiwo Awoniyi running riot; at its worst, it takes on a frantic, helter-skelter quality.

This side simply does not have the level of ability to win shoot-outs in every game and blow teams away, even at this level.

Instead, what it has largely relied upon so far is the ability to outlast opponents physically in games, coming on strong when the opposition is floundering.

In that sense, Manu’s insistence on grilling the team physically in camp has borne dividends, and has also dictated his squad selection (talented Arsenal youngster Malcolm Ebiowei was dropped because he lacked the physical rigour to fit in).

It is a gamble, however, that relies on still being within touching distance of opponents when the game enters the latter stages.

What happens if the team enters the final 15 minutes faced with an already insurmountable deficit, their dysfunction having already proven terminal?

It is by no means a sustainable strategy, either in the short or long term.

Even if it were in the short term (in truth, this explains Africa’s dominance at youth level, and why it is difficult to replicate further down the line), there is a reason why so few of the group that took the world apart in 2013 are pulling up trees now.

Iheanacho, the shining light of the tournament, is struggling for games at Leicester City, and yet is still arguably the most distinguished of that crop in terms of his overall career.

That unstructured, harum-scarum football simply won’t cut it at higher levels.

Even the nature of the finishes have been less about incisive associative play than about cracking strikes from distance; for those interested in the Expected Goals metric, the shots Nigeria created were markedly weaker in terms of quality overall than Ecuador’s.

It is not beyond the realms of possibility that Garba and his technical crew find a more stable structure without the ball and advance into the latter stages of the tournament.

However, forging a youth team whose standout quality is physical endurance is hardly a recipe for long-term progress.

Even if they win, Nigeria might ultimately lose in the end.

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