One of the great disappointments of Nigeria’s international break was the peripheral role played by wonderkid Kelechi Nwakali.
The Super Eagles may have won both of their matches, securing a 100 percent record, but Gernot Rohr arguably missed a valuable opportunity to assess some of the peripheral options in his squad, give more gametime to youngsters and cultivate a Plan B for the West African giants.
Nwakali certainly falls into this category.
After his star showing against Atletico Madrid while in action for Nigeria’s B team ahead of the World Cup, he won many admirers and already prompted some calls for his inclusion in the Russia-bound 23.
He’s already proven his qualities at youth level, and there’s a genuine hope that he can be John Obi Mikel’s long-term replacement as the Eagles’ central midfield creator.
The match against Seychelles, with Mikel absent, was the perfect opportunity to allow Nwakali to make his international bow and allow him to express himself.
After all, opponents ranked 188th in the world shouldn’t have troubled the Eagles, and Rohr ought to have jumped at the chance to showcase a more sophisticated, cultured style of football.
The technical, creative Nwakali could be key to ushering in a more attractive style which, beyond the aesthetic, should allow the Eagles to assert themselves and exert their strength over the continent’s lesser sides.
Yet Rohr resorted to pairing Kelechi Iheanacho alongside Odion Ighalo, with the former playing a slightly deeper, withdrawn role.
The result was predictable; Iheanacho isn’t suited to this role, and the duo lack chemistry.
Behind them, the pairing of Ogenyi Onazi and Wilfred Ndidi appeared overly conservative against such limited opponents.
Here's the confirmed @NGSuperEagles Starting XI vs. Seychelles - are people happy with this selection?— Ed Dove (@EddyDove) September 8, 2018
I thought we'd learned already that Iheanacho & Ighalo don't work too well together, while opting not to start Onyekuru feels like a missed opportunity.#Naija #SuperEagles pic.twitter.com/pwwQPE7RBe
Nwakali was eventually given his debut in the match against Liberia, and while the nature of this match only makes for fairly limited assessments, the youngster appeared comfortable and in control.
There were a few enthralling touches, a series of inventive passes, and the kind of quickness of thought that hinted at the potential Nwakali offers.
Beyond being a precocious talent, and one who could be a key figure in the national side for a decade to come, Nwakali is also an example of that regrettably rare African commodity—a creative central midfielder.
This has been one of the great failings of the continent’s game over the last decade and beyond; an inability to generate the kind of cultured central playmakers that allow sides to take control of a contest.
Without them, managers are limited in their tactical approaches, as predictable advantages must be sought.
By contrast, a talented playmaking midfield general can ensure a variety of tempo, possession—therefore tiring opposition—and can change a game with a pinpoint pass.
There’s hope that we’re entering something of a golden era for African central midfielders; few in the history of the game have demonstrated an ability to control a game like Jean Michael Seri did during his penultimate season with OGC Nice.
Mbark Boussoufa fulfils a similar deep-lying role for Morocco, while Hakim Ziyech and Younes Belhanda have the technical quality to influence proceedings higher up the field.
Ghana, Cameroon and Senegal are more limited in their central midfield options, although Tunisia and Algeria do boast the kind of players who can allow them to take control of a contest and create consistently through a match.
In Mikel and Nwakali, so do Nigeria.
The latter may not surpass the former in terms of club honours, but he may in terms of the legacy he leaves with the national side, particularly at the heart of this exciting young generation.
Even before he arrived at Arsenal, Nwakali was revered for his vision, his range of passing, his finishing ability and his understanding of the rhythm and tempo of a clash.
The prospect of a midfield featuring him, Ndidi and Oghenekaro Etebo moving forward represents a tantalising prospect for Eagles fans, with the classic trio of a creator, a destroyer and a runner.
At the time of writing, it remains to be seen whether Rohr appreciates the gem that he has in his ranks.
This international break certainly represents a missed opportunity, and Nwakali may need now to rely on his club form in order to force his way firmly into the German coach’s plans.