Nigeria and Mexico played out a third consecutive stalemate, with neither side hitting the back of the net in Atlanta on Thursday morning. The Mexicans were on top for long periods, but made little of it.El Tri went with the expected 3-5-2. Andres Guardado was given the nod over Miguel Ponce at left wing back, and Javier Hernandez surprisingly partnered Oribe Peralta upfront. Coach Stephen Keshi sprung a surprise, handing Michael Uchebo a debut from the start in an unusual 4-4-1-1 shape. The Cercle Brugge man mountain played just off Emmanuel Emenike, with Ahmed Musa getting the nod on the right. The rest of the side picked itself. The game started at a frantic pace, and immediately highlighted a key problem area. The Super Eagles defence was up against two strikers, and found it impossible to play out from the back as there was no spare man. Whenever the ball was played back, Vincent Enyeama had to hoof it upfield hurriedly; there was no option for a pass. In this sense, Keshi’s decision to play without a designated holder was puzzling. The best way to beat the press from a front two is to have the holding midfielder drop in between the centre backs and push the full backs forward. This ensures that there is a spare man to a. help play around the pressing and b. spread the play to the advanced full backs. Trouble | Michael Uchebo gave El Tri defenders a lot to do It is not like The Big Boss did not know what to expect, so what could have informed his decision? Quite understandably, the full backs Elderson Echiejile and Efe Ambrose were worried about leaving the centre backs 2v2 against Hernandez and Peralta. Consequently, they played very narrow, very defensive roles, seeking to cut out balls into the channels. They succeeded, but the price the team paid was that the one major area of advantage of a 4-4-1-1 over a 3-5-2: numerical superiority on the flanks, was not exploited. The only time Elderson broke forward to overload Paul Aguilar, it resulted in a chance at the front post for Emenike on 34 minutes. The striker fluffed the chance, and immediately the ball went down the other end and nearly resulted in an opener for Mexico. This seemed to justify the initial cautiousness, and Elderson never strayed again. On the other flank, Andres Guardado was very brave with his positioning, and received balls in behind Ambrose on various occasions. He worked promising combinations with central midfielder Luis Montes, who drifted out to the left to double up on the Celtic defender. Montes was nominally Onazi’s man, but was not tracked often enough (more on this later), and Mexico got joy down that side. Of course, the risk of being caught out was ever-present: Musa got a chance to run into the space vacated by Guardado when a move broke down on 25 minutes, but wasted a 3 on 1 counter attack by rushing and over-hitting his cross wildly. Heroic | Ochoa was fearless and made six saves A special mention should go to the debutante Uchebo. He only played 45 minutes, but was excellent. Though his passes were sloppy on occasion, some of his movement was sublime. His biggest contribution to the team was, however, in the defensive phase. He constantly got goal side of Juan Carlos Medina, El Tri’s deepest midfielder, preventing easy passes being played into him. This meant that Mexico found it hard to build moves through the middle, and when they tried to force the issue on a few occasions, the giant was on hand to intercept and launch quick counters. The most notable, on 11 minutes, led to the game’s best chance and drew a fine save from Guillermo Ochoa.
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