Alex Iwobi’s AFCON 2023: Sacrifices, Pain, Love and Heartbreak

The just concluded TotalEnergies 2023 African Cup Of Nations in Côte d’Ivoire was arguably the most talked about and most followed AFCON in history. No scriptwriter could have written a better story with tournament favourites like Ghana, Senegal, Morocco, and Egypt all having to bow out prematurely, and even eventual winners and tournament hosts, Cote D I’voire could only make it to the knockout stages as one of the best losers, relying on Morocco to beat Zambia in their final group game. 


Nigeria as they always do headed into the tournament as one of the favourites. Three AFCON titles, four silver medals and six bronze, the Super Eagles stand shoulder high amongst other African national teams as the most decorated side in AFCON history having won the most medals and their three titles won is a record bettered by only Egypt (7) and Ghana (4), and among these three perennial powerhouses, Nigeria has recorded the most recent success at the AFCON with their last title coming in 2013 and apart from coming second best at this year’s edition, they also had a podium finish in 2019, a bronze medal in Egypt.


Despite Nigeria’s credentials at Africa’s biggest footballing tournament, expectations were low back home. The Super Eagles had kicked off their world cup qualifiers poorly and won only one of  five games following the end of the AFCON qualifiers. Their first game of the tournament, a group A encounter with Equatorial Guinea more or less confirmed the fears of the majority of Nigerian supporters, a 1-1 draw against the less fancied Equatoguinean side left a lot to be desired.



More disturbingly was the defensive frailty showed during the game as it was the team from Central Africa that took the lead following what was their first settled attack of the game. It was popular opinion that the Super Eagles defence was their weakest link and it was not all that surprising the formation change that followed the first game.


Coach Jose Peseiro capitalized on the perfect opportunity to try out a new system; Royal Antwerp midfielder, Alhassan Yusuf got injured in what was a very impressive debut for the national team in the first group game and with the Super Eagles being bereft of  enough quality options in midfield, it made sense that Peseiro switched to a back three with Fulham defender, Calvin Bassey coming in to partner William Troos-Ekong and Semi Ajayi as a third centre-back for the second group game against Cote d’Ivoire, and it then meant Alex Iwobi had to partner Frank Onyeka as a midfield pivot, a tactical move that ultimately proved to be a masterstroke but not without its consequences. 


Of course when it comes to system changes, there are always casualties; it is either one or two players drop to the bench or they play outside their favourite positions. Sacrifices must be made. After all, it is for the overriding interest of the team. Fulham midfielder, Alex Iwobi was obviously one of the players who ended up benefitting less from a system change. Having played across various positions right from his days at Arsenal, Everton and now Fulham, the 27-year old’s versatility was put to test yet again as he had to play as a central midfielder in a two-man midfield pivot.


Playing in a two-man midfield meant restricted license for a midfielder whose major strength lies in playmaking. Little wonder the only big chance created by Iwobi throughout the AFCON came in the game against Equatorial Guinea where he played as the most advanced midfielder shielded by a solid base of Alhassan Yusuf  and Frank Onyeka and it’s no coincidence that a Sofascore rating of 7.3 in the opening group game was followed by a 6.9 rating in the next match against Cote d’Ivoire.


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Averaging a possession of 43.1% throughout the tournament, it was very clear that Jose Peseiro’s side were not all that about the ball possession as they adopted a very direct approach in all seven games played, ranking 21st out of 24 teams in that regard, only better than Ghana, Gambia and Mauritania, and only Mauritania out of the three teams managed to make it past the group stages. The Nigerian game plan relied on winning a lot of duels in both boxes and also winning a lot of second balls, an aspect of the game a player of Iwobi’s profile would not particularly excel in.


It’s no longer news that Alex Iwobi was a target of cyber bullies as Nigeria failed to clinch a fourth AFCON trophy following a 2-1 defeat in the final against Cote d’Ivoire. The objective mind would definitely wonder why Iwobi was singled out for criticism in a game the whole team performed poorly in. More so, the player wasn’t even on the pitch when Sebastian Haller scored the winning goal for the Ivorians.


In a final where Iwobi completed 20 out of 23 passes with an 87% pass completion rate, Nigerians seemed to have wanted more but it is always way difficult to get more than that from any of your midfield duo when control was never in the game plan of the gaffer. Direct balls from either the goalkeeper or any of the centre-backs to the centre-forward who is most often amidst two or three opposition defenders is not the safest bet especially where the plan B is winning second balls against a dominant midfield trio like Jean Michael Seri, Seko Fofana, and Franck Kessie.


There was a clear numerical advantage at the centre of the pack. Physically and technically, the Elephants of Cote d’Ivoire had the better blend of personnel and were overall the better side on the 11th of February, 2024. Take nothing away from Jose Peseiro’s game plan though, it had worked right from the group stages until the final but a game plan that relied majorly on covering  large distances off the ball would surely have its breaking point at some point especially when the squad is not managed appropriately in that regard. 


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Being a nephew of the legendary Jay Jay Okocha has not particularly helped Iwobi as so many of his critics have held him to the standard of the once-revered football magician. The Hale End academy product is obviously not as talented as his uncle, and while being a brilliant player in his own right, it can also be argued that he was set up to fail at the AFCON by being played in a bit of an unfamiliar role that did not fully utilise his strengths as a playmaker.


Playing deeper meant he had to defend a lot more than usual for the team, and to his credit, he was part of the shield that prevented the Super Eagles from conceding so many clear-cut  chances at this year’s AFCON. Four clean sheets and just four goals conceded in the seven games played was quite remarkable. “I and Frank (Onyeka) have been told to control the game as much as we can, and first of all, to defend as a team. I’m trying to do my job for the team.” Iwobi told journalists.


The 27-year-old had only played as a central midfielder for Fuham just thrice this season and was alongside João Palhinha and Andreas Pereira on all three occasions with most of his game time coming at attacking midfield, left wing or right wing. Adjusting to a deeper role in a midfield pivot without an extra midfielder was more like taking one for the team and he definitely did hold his own for six to seven games at the AFCON finishing with an average Sofascore rating of 6.9.


His highest rating, 7.3 was in the first game against Equatorial Guinea where he played as the furthest midfielder in a midfield trio. In the English Premier League, however, the playmaker has averaged a rating of 7.04 this season. There’s no gainsaying that he’s at his best when given the license and freedom to express himself in the opposition half. Averaging 1.2 dribbles per game, Iwobi is the highest ranked Fulham player in that category in the premier league this season with a 58% completion rate. 



Alex Iwobi being the most accurate passer in a Nigerian team that got to the final of the AFCON is another thing critics have chosen to turn a blind eye against. His 81% pass completion rate was the highest of any Super Eagles player at the AFCON and he also had the highest accurate long balls, averaging 3.7 per game while also being in the mix for key passes alongside Jose Peseiro’s front three and attacking wing-backs.


And despite the Super Eagles’ lack of control in games being majorly attributed to Iwobi, nine different players lost possession more frequently per game than the Fulham midfielder (7.6). Amongst the regular starters, only William Troost-Ekong (7.0) and Frank Onyeka (6.9) lost possession less frequently than Iwobi. It is therefore a bit surprising that the 27-year-old is being picked on as he wasn’t even the worst player out of the 21 that featured at the AFCON. His average Sofascore rating of 6.91 was better than 11 other players while being played out of position and anyone objective enough will cut him some slack and give him the credit that he deserves. 


With 74 caps for the Nigerian national team, Alex Iwobi is already attaining legendary status for the Eagles. His number of appearances for the three-time African champions is only bettered by longtime captain and all time record holder Ahmed Musa (108) amongst active players.


On the all-time list, Iwobi is number six surpassing his uncle Jay Jay Okocha who had 73 caps. The former Arsenal midfielder was just 21-years old in October 2017 when his goal against Zambia sent Nigeria to the 2018 World Cup in Russia, an event that history kindly remembers. Rumours of quitting the Super Eagles after failure to win the AFCON have been dismissed, and at just 27 years old there’s a lot more to achieve for Alex Iwobi in green and white. 


By: Moses Onyilo Adikwu / @Moe_Adikwu

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Emma Simpson – Everton FC