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Oshoala, Cristiano Ronaldo: Are Super Falcons, Manchester United better off without their star forwards?

The Super Falcons’ improved performance without their star striker raises the same philosophical question that has dogged Cristiano Ronaldo’s return to Manchester United

As soon as Asisat Oshoala went in for a tackle in the first half of Nigeria’s Women’s Africa Cup of Nations (WAFCON) opener against South Africa, it was obvious she had done herself a mischief.

Her knee appeared to twist the wrong way before buckling, and despite the fact she stayed on the pitch until the latter stages of the match, her mobility was visibly impaired from then on. The announcement afterwards – that she had injured her medial cruciate ligament and would miss the rest of the tournament – came as no real surprise.

Randy Waldrum’s ill-advised reluctance to withdraw her was easy to understand: Oshoala is comfortably the best player in the Nigeria team, and arguably in the entire tournament. In his mind then, her presence on the pitch gave the team its best shot at success.

The irony, however, is that while Nigeria fell 2-1 to South Africa with the Barcelona striker barely ambulatory, they have won the following two matches by a 6-0 aggregate scoreline in her absence. Of course, Botswana and Burundi – both debuting at WAFCON – are nowhere near the level of Banyana Banyana; nevertheless, it cannot be denied that, without their former captain, the Super Falcons have looked (and been) a far more cohesive side.

This has inevitably led to the question: does Nigeria play better without Oshoala?

This is far from an unfamiliar line of inquiry, of course.

It is one that has come to define the appraisal of Cristiano Ronaldo’s return to Manchester United. Despite being the third-highest scorer in the Premier League and averaging a goal a game in the Champions League, there is a prevailing narrative that his presence at Old Trafford has made the Red Devils a worse team.

Is it logical that the best individual component of a collective can actually impair its greater function? It may seem counterintuitive, but it is a question worth exploring.

The place to start would be to try to understand what a team is and what it is set up to do, and even here there is no conclusive answer. While, in a general sense, the objective of a football team is to win football matches, there are many different ways this can be achieved.

To win matches, one needs to score goals. This is a truism every school of footballing expression can agree upon. Therefore, a team can be defined by its approach to goal scoring: is it about the system holistically, or about the individual talent available? In other words, which is supreme: the structure or the players?

If the latter, then you likely have a team that is geared toward the output of one or two star individuals. If the former, then goals are more often than not spread around. Both approaches are valid, but the former is considered more sustainable over a long period because it accounts for human fallibility, takes some of the mental and emotional rigour out of chance creation and democratises productivity. (The talent-focused approach also has a unique advantage, which is its latent dynamism and ability to create something out of nothing, even in the midst of dysfunction.)

While neither is inherently superior, increasingly the most successful teams favour the system-focused approach for the reasons above.

However, certain players, simply by virtue of their relative status within a team, have a certain gravity that can become compulsive for their teammates. Players of this ilk fit more readily into a talent-focused ideology, one in which the rest of the team is tooled in such a way as to unleash them. They can be made to work within a system-focused set-up though, as long as the manager has such an implacable commitment to that system that the star individual is required to adapt.

This is where the problem lies: for both Oshoala and Ronaldo. Both are far and away the best players in their teams: Nigeria and Manchester United respectively. However, both play(ed) under managers who lacked the gravitas to insist upon a system.

Before Ronaldo’s arrival, United had a cache of young, adaptable, mobile forwards who were not only strong finishers, but could combine and drift all across the front. A system-focus, in other words. His injection into that petri dish altered the culture significantly, in that it changed the team’s focus almost overnight, and erstwhile manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer did not possess the rigid attachment to his earlier idea that would have forced Ronaldo to become a cog as opposed to the entire wheel. The same was true of his successor Ralf Rangnick.

Caught between two stools, chaos reigned. Of course, even with the overall framework crumbling, Ronaldo still was able to hit strong numbers. Because he is that good of a player. However, as his arrival had a direct causal link to the abandonment of the system-focused ethos, his presence – through no overt action or fault of his own – made the team a worse-functioning one. He did not dictate the abandonment (Solskjaer and Rangnick’s lack of gravitas and tactical certitude did), but had he not been there, it would not have happened.

The same is true of Oshoala. It is instructive that, despite her standing in the team and the severity of her injury, there was no mass despair at her loss. That is because, even before the tournament began, it had been clear that, unburdened by the need to hit their best player as quickly as possible, the Super Falcons often looked more fluent and considered.

In full flow, few can match Oshoala for speed, and she does like to receive the ball in space. A strength, leaned upon too much, can just as easily become a crutch though. Against South Africa, especially in the first half, it seemed that Nigeria did not even have a midfield; so eager were they to get the ball into the final third.

Of course, it is not as simple as saying that it’s suddenly clicked without her in the team. There have been other alterations as well, most importantly Waldrum’s decision to change the shape of the team and play with three midfielders instead of two. In that sense, he has evinced greater nous than either Solskjaer or Rangnick, who found it difficult to (re)attain any coherence whenever Ronaldo was unavailable.

He has also proved the failing was not Oshoala’s, to begin with, but his own.

That said, how likely is it that he would have figured it out otherwise? That is hard to tell, especially considering that some of the selection choices in midfield have been dictated by fitness.

Whatever the case though, and even allowing for the fact of tougher opposition to come, it is clear that the Super Falcons are a better collective without their star striker. Because it is not necessarily about the player’s abilities or merits, but about their effect on the decision-making hierarchy of their teammates and, most importantly, of their coach.


Content contributor at AFAL [African Alert]. Sarah is a passionate copywriter who stalks celebrities all day.

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