Sunday, August 12, 2018

Post-World Cup: Assessing Super Eagles. . .

The World Cup is over and done. What's next? Time to think about the 2019 African Cup of Nations (AFCON) and the long journey to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. Yes, I realize that there would be another Cup of Nations before 2022 but that isn't really as important now as the 2019 version.

There are things that we learned from the recent World Cup in Russia that come in handy as we take a look to what's next. For one, Nigeria's midfield commander in the last few years, Mikel Obi, is on a downward trajectory and while we expect him to be at the AFCON in 2019, that may not be the case in Qatar 2022. But this blog piece is not about Mikel but a position-by-position review about the team. The team, in terms of its character and then in terms of its personnel, bears another review. That is what this blog piece is about. So let's get started.

The Team: Character
As long as Coach Gernot Rohr remains coach it seems Nigeria is married to his much loved 4-2-3-1 as the base formation. Changes come slowly for the man. Yes, one should give him credit for trying the 3-5-2 and seeing some success with it but he continues to hesitate and continues to stick to his 4-2-3-1. Nevertheless, it is becoming clear that Nigeria has a load of international level midfielders than it does with international class defensive personnel. That should nudge Rohr towards using the 3-5-2 as the base formation. It provides him with better attacking width and then provides assistance defensively better than his current base does. However, old dogs rarely learn new tricks or atleast remember new tricks when in a live battle.

Nonetheless, one must acknowledge that even in the 3-5-2, Nigeria is yet to show that among its plethora of midfielders there is one with the pedigree to dominate at the most advanced position of that middle line. Oghenekaro Etebo does not appear to be that guy. Yes, he shows ability to hold the ball, to distribute it in limited spaces, and at times to take a crack at goal but how many goals has he assisted yet? The fact is that he has yet to show the ability to make a goalscoring pass, whether it is once in a while or consistently. The media have put forward Alex Iwobi and some have even mentioned his bloodlines to the great JJ Okocha. The fact, however, is that this is a mere wish. Alex has not shown that he can do this at his club- -- Arsenal -- and it is only speculative to claim that he can do so with Nigeria. However, one thing is clear -- he has better passing vision than Etebo. What is questioned is his ability to protect the ball in crowded areas and his ability to command the middle with confidence and consistency.

Are there new names at that position? Well some have called for Eberechi Eze on loan at Wycombe Wanderers from QPR in England. The ultimate question is will Rohr care enough to give him a chance? Same goes for Kelechi Nwakali who is still struggling playing lower league football. Ultimately, it does speak volumes that these are names that Nigeria is throwing up as heirs to the Okocha legacy. The fact is that Nigeria lacks, and have lacked for sometime, in developing a midfielder with the ball skills to dominate in advanced midfield spaces. It is a shame considering that this is a position that Nigeria had routinely churned out superior talents until the post-Okocha era.

The Team: Personnel
Goalkeeping: Although it seems Francis Uzoho will be the solid choice at goal after a good World Cup, this position is far from being a solid one for Nigeria. In the last couple of years, since Ikeme's diagnoses, this has been a weak spot until Uzoho's World Cup outing but with Ikeme now retired Nigeria needs to find at least one other goalkeeper that is sure to be with the team for the long haul. Even then, with Uzoho likely to spend a long time on his club's bench, his confidence and fitness is likely to erode.

Defense: Whether Nigeria plays four or three at the back, it seems that only Balogun and Ekong have demonstrated any consistency over a long period of time. Far more is needed here and that is going to be based on what Rohr thinks his base formation will be going forward. Perhaps, it is much simpler to use three at the back with Omeruo and Awaziem battling for the third spot. 

Midfield: This is Nigeria's deepest position with multiple players able to play confidently in this position. Obviously, the likes of Mikel Obi are short term considerations, which means that Rohr has to be looking for his replacement in the coming months and definitely after the AFCON in 2019. There are also a plethora of choices from players that did not participate at the World Cup including Mikel Agu, Nwakali, Joel Obi, and Eze. The challenges here are developing a highly skilled advanced midfielder for the future and re-stocking with other capable players.

Forward: Ahmed Musa's play, in both the Iceland and Argentina games at the World Cup, puts him in contention for one of the forward positions. Prior to the World Cup, I had speculated here that Musa may be considered for this position instead of the usual wide midfield position and Rohr did try him out as a forward against Serbia. However, Rohr appeared to have changed his mind after that game and then suddenly Nwankwo was listed as the third forward instead of Musa for the World Cup proper. However, adverse conditions, based on the poor opening result against Croatia, forced a Rohr change of heart and Musa's subsequent display must now put him as the key starter at this position. But the continued use of Nwankwo and Ighalo must now be open to questions when the likes of Sadiq, Onyekuru, and Awoniyi are knocking on the door. Furthermore, it seems that Iheanacho's future as a national team forward is going to be under serious evaluation in the coming months.

Gernot Rohr was dubbed a difference maker when he was appointed. After 19 games in-charge, Rohr's record is middling (see Table 1). One of Rohr's widely publicized statements was about the relative young age of the team. That was indeed a cop-out used at the World Cup but he cannot now use it at the AFCON nor can he use it at the 2022 World Cup if Rohr leads the team to Qatar. First, the team will be experienced going into the 2019 AFCON following its participation at the World Cup and in 2022, if most of the team remains intact, it should be one of the most experienced. Thus, as the saying goes: Mr. Rohr, it is time to put up or shut up.


Monday, July 16, 2018

Swag vs Everything Else My reflection on Nigeria vs Argentina.

By Aham Onyike (GUEST)

From Russia --- Crazy, but somehow by pure random chance, Nigeria and Argentina are in the same World Cup opening round group five times including the last four World Cups. The group seeding is by public lottery so there’s no easy collusion. It is more likely that it is divine intervention, particularly considering that one of our main attributes has become prayer warrior-ing. Along those suggestions of celestial influence, the question arises. Why even with prayers asking for blessings we keep getting Argentina in our group? Which kin blessing be dat? Maybe it’s because we have had belief in praying to win the World Cup since our 1985 U-17 World Cup triumph in China. That victory made us believers , which is the first step in the response from the Almighty. Those boys were supposed to graduate to the senior team and repeat their accomplishments at subsequent levels. Heaven is maybe telling us that we should focus on beating Argentina. And when we can overtake Argentina, hey. It’s wide open from there. We have had five chances to study them and defeat them. But we have lost all five times. I have been at four of the games. Hung out and kicked it with Argentinian fans, journalists, aspiring players, former players, among others. It provides insight on how they do it. Of course, same insight with our own Naija FA peeps and how we don't. 

So Swag vs Everything else?

Of course the Swag is Nigeria.
Among other attributes, Nigerians are self believers, love to be entertained and are aggressive. Mostly good qualities when properly harnessed as has been done at youth level. The best Nigerian junior teams have showcased a brand of football that is dazzling. Both bold and audacious, athletic, fast attacking football. Multiple players with tremendous flair. Reflective of the believed potential. Even with the understanding that age limit tournaments inherently cast questions about credibility, there is a capability in the Nigerian player to display those skills on a football pitch. So why are they not doing it at the senior level? The answer to that question is fleeting, for now but to me is the holy grail of Nigerian football. The talent is there. Consider that West African genes produced three of the four most expensive transfers of all time as of the end of the 2018 season. Those are Paul Pobgba, Kylian Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele. And Nigeria is the most populous country in the region by far. 

           The best Nigerian junior teams have
           showcased a brand of football that is 
           dazzling. Both bold and audacious, 
           athletic, fast attacking football.

The most positive attributes of the Nigerian persona that one will imagine will translate on the football pitch particularly flair are often displayed in abundance at the younger levels. Our senior teams on the other hand tend to lack that. Our players start off in Nigeria and finish in Europe. They have it at the junior level but by the time they spend time in Europe and return for the senior team they develop the earliest stages of rigor mortis. Obvious conclusion is that Europe is ascribed the blame and Mikel Obi is a prime example of the phenomena.

Argentina is the Everything else.
From what I can gather, Argentina develops talent from the lowest youth levels. Systems are in place to discover talent as young as five years old. They encourage their players from that age in an Argentine philosophy to develop skill but also to compete. There’s a passion, a drive. They do what they need to do on the pitch. But they start with off the pitch preparations. 
I remember, our "African world cup", 2010 in South Africa. As usual we were in the same group with Argentina. Prior to the tournament, the word from the Nigeria FA was that Johannesburg was like a second home to Nigerians. We expected the stadium to be like a game in Lagos. There was a shock walking to the stadium and seeing more Argentinians by far than Nigerians. We started assuring ourselves that we had somehow ended up on the Argentinian entrance and that once we got inside we will see brown faces in green. To our pure astonishment, we entered and saw even more non browns in their signature light blue and white. In our own backyard, hanging banners, flags, etc. As expected, it was even worse in Brazil because the game was in Porto Alegre which is close to the Argentina border allowing them to crossover like biblical locusts. But then Russia and we had de ja vu. An obvious hint at a disparity in football organization and a gap that shows levels of preparation, tradition, passion, middle class. You name it. We got swag and they got etcetera. Argentinians had sometimes three generations of fans including grandfathers that had not missed an Argentinian World Cup game since 1978. A fan told me that his dad brought him when he was a boy and now he was obligated to bring his sons. It means so much to them.

          Argentinians had sometimes three 
          generations of fans including grandfathers 
         that had not missed an Argentinian World 
         Cup game since 1978. 

Often times players embody their people. When I watch the NBA, I see Manu Ginobli as the epitome of the Argentine player. He just lays it down. Competitive, tough, combative, skillful. On the West African side the epitome currently is Joel Embiid confident, athletic, graceful, smart and potentially transcendent. Potentially. 

I recall being in St. Petersburg to watch the latest version of Nigeria vs Argentina. We were horribly outnumbered so much so that even Stevie Wonder would have seen it. Once again the stadium was like a home game for them. Intimidating. Also humorous that we bought three million jerseys while the Argentinians bought tickets. I proudly bought both. The stadium atmosphere was fervent. Qualification for the second round on the line. The Argentina fans were so intense they impacted the game with their passion, cheering or jeering as needed. The vigor lifted their players and probably affected the referees and to some extent our players just enough. It did not help that the NFF could not get the loud music making Nigerian supporters club into the stadium. Of course it also is a repeat failure because they were not there in Brazil or South Africa.

        Once again the stadium was like a home 
        game for them. Intimidating. Also humorous 
        that we bought three million jerseys while 
        the Argentinians bought tickets. I proudly 
        bought both. The stadium atmosphere was 

Our team played well. Certainly better organized than some of the previous Nigerian teams. So, Nigerians somehow assume that this experience will yield benefits in four years. But so did Cote D’Ivoire and Ghana after elimination in 2014. The real planning hopefully has started already. Though one wonders if it is realistic to expect all the other government system struggles and lack of planning we see in numerous other sectors and somehow have it different and better in sports, which matters less. So the answer to this problem once again comes down to fixing our government. Na wa. I tire. But if we no fix am, our pikins go dey also discuss potential, potential. In the meantime let’s start planning for 4 years both for world cup and elections. And if we can learn from Argentina and figure out how to beat them on and off the pitch, we will likely find the answers to those prayers.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Explaining the Balance of World Cup Teams.......

Why is it that a Spanish national team stacked with stars from Barcelona and Real Madrid could not eviscerate an Iranian team with players from little known clubs? Why is it that Japan is able to reach the second round of the World Cup while Poland ranked #8 went home in the opening round? How about Germany? These are legitimate questions that we not only ask at this World Cup but it is a question where there are no simple answers. Is it the coaches? What is it?

One of the things rarely discussed is how talent itself is distributed in football. Yet, this very distribution may well hold the answers that we seek. The frequent transfer of players from the periphery to Europe and from the "small" to "big" European clubs creates a sense that there is a gulf of talent difference between the periphery and Europe and between the "small" and "big" clubs of Europe. To be clear, several encounters at the club competition levels provide support for the assumptions of difference.

However, results at the World Cup often tend to demonstrate small and often negligible differences between national teams and between the players that we observe on the field and in spite of the "big" v "small" name coaches on display. So what may be responsible for this surprising situation? Let's bear in mind that the points made here are speculative and exploratory at best but they offer some insight that we should think about. Each of the three areas that I discuss below focus on critical factors in football today -- the talent available, building a team, and the tactical/strategy planning.

The Gaussian Distribution
The Gaussian distribution (also referred to as the Bell curve) provides a theoretical and visual distribution of how human traits and abilities are often distributed across large populations. This distributions holds true across research of various human traits and abilities including height, intelligence, among others. Football talent is one such ability where the Gaussian distribution can be assumed. So also is the distribution in coaching ability.

At the extremes of the distribution are rare and remarkable cases of high and low ability. In most tests, these extreme groups are less than 2% each. The rest of human ability are bunched moderately in the middle. Thus, in footballing talent, extremely few footballers are highly talented such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Messi, and perhaps Neymar. Most footballers, whether they play for Real Madrid, Hull City, or Anderlecht exhibit the ability that is bunched in the middle. The fact that a player is at Real Madrid and not at Hull City may be based on a coach's subjective evaluation or simply that such a player plays a certain role quite well and may well fail in another role. This also applies to coaching talent. Thus, beyond the very best footballers or coaches the difference between the rest of footballers (regardless of their clubs) may be insignificant or negligible.

Time Required to Build a Team
Additionally, the time required to build strong teams even under great coaches is much longer at national team levels than at clubs. Building a seamlessly effective team, whether it is an office team or a team of footballers, requires time together. It is time that is rare for building a national team. FIFA's statutes provide little time and in intermittent chunks for building a TEAM from a national selection. Without such adequate time, the advantages that accrues at the talent level may well be blunted at the team level. This, therefore, nullifies such advantages for the "big" teams and the "small" teams are able to compete better.

Increased Tactical Limitation to Free Play
But it isn't just the lack of time to build teams that harness the talent of individual players. There are now widespread frustrating tactics that present the "small" teams with advantages. For instance, the lax time-keeping in football is an opportunity offered to the "small" teams where minor delays of game in various areas are unrecoverable by match officials and reduce the actual playing time. Recent data from this World Cup showed in one match that the actually playing time in one game was 44 minutes! That is out of a possible 90 minutes!

Beyond the delays are the frustrating defense where a compact four-to-five-man line of deep defenders with a further line of shielding midfielders make it virtually impossible to score in open play down the middle of the field. Of course, attempting from the sides offer poorer angles and crosses offer contestable balls. These situations basically strengthen the defensive team. Worse still, such frustrating tactics disadvantage the offensive squad whose increasing search for an opening makes it susceptible to quick counters from a defensive team with pacy attackers.

Although there are other factors that have increased the strength of the supposedly "small" teams, the three mentioned above are critical explanations for the closing of gap between the "haves" and "have-nots" in World Cup play. Merely having your top players in Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester City, and the like provide little or negligible advantage in today's global national team encounters and has been somewhat demonstrated in World Cup play.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

World Cup 2018: What We Learned As the Curtain Closed


When Argentina's Rojo rifled an 86th minute shot off a cross and beyond Nigeria to signal Nigeria's elimination from the 2018 World Cup, it forced a lot of thinking. Nigeria was less than 10 minutes away from an appearance in the Round of 16 and the boys had fought so hard for hope to evaporate at that very moment. That many Nigerian players sunk to the turf, after the inevitable final whistle to their World Cup, underlined how much they had wanted to do for their country. In the end, I cannot fault any one of those boys who fought for glory in that important game against Argentina.

For the first time in our regular meetings with Argentina in the World Cup, Nigeria held its own and was denied at the last moment and would also relive the fact that two penalty appeals against Argentina went to nought. There are those who would analyze the game ad infinitum and claim that tactical superiority decided this game. I certainly resist that thinking and ask you to read this. Games aren't always determined by tactics. This was a game of inches and chances and it was decided by variables beyond mere tactics.

Nevertheless, there will be those who point accusing fingers at Gernot Rohr, those who criticize Omeruo for Messi's goal, those who will call for Victor Moses to be axed over the Rojo goal, those who think that Uzoho should have saved both goals, and inevitably those that feel one flew over the cuckoo's nest in the believe that those who were not there (The Onyekurus, Aina, and others) would have saved the day. The reality is that all that demonstrate mere frustration and nothing more. The fact is Nigeria lost the game that it could have won if things had fallen a bit differently in this game of chances and inches. For me, it underlines the difficulty of getting past the barriers at the World Cup and against the traditional big teams. Ask Sweden after its loss to Germany, ask Costa Rica after the Brazil come back, and there will be additional teams to ask before this World Cup is over. It is a tough mountain to climb.

Although it was the third elimination for Nigeria at the group phase of a World Cup, there are several important things that we learned from this particular appearance. Here they are:

1. That Nigeria Can Compete At this Level: While we saw the 1994 team turn heads in Nigeria's inaugural at a World Cup, the 2018 version showed a team that could compete with the best. It may appear ridiculous to make this statement after the team failed to progress beyond the group phase. However, this team was indeed capable of doing more if it only had overcome a determined Argentine team. It had a squad that was built to be strong across the list of positions and players and these were the players who appear regularly in the elite leagues of Europe. Yet they had the heart and belief. That is always important.

2.  Time to Rethink Coaching Tenure: For years, my view has been to avoid the firing of coaches at every slip in competition. Surely, there will be demands for the coaching crew to be let go and this will be the song as the federation election approaches. However, I continue to believe that Nigeria will do much better by granting our coaches longer tenure to blood talents rather than the current tendency to fire at every loss. Yes, this coaching crew has been quite conservative but it has also shown that it can make drastic changes to move the team forward. All it has to change is to act quicker that it currently does.

3.  Nigeria Can Build A Stronger Team Going Forward: There are several youngsters waiting to break into this team. They include Taiwo Awoniyi and Sadiq Umar. Then we have those who barely missed the cut to this World Cup including Ola Aina and Henry Onyekuru. These youngsters are likely to play bigger roles in the upcoming Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON). They  represent the future and one hopes that the coach can begin to blend them into the team with the likes of Echiejile headed for the exit after a long and fruitful career. The status of skipper Mikel Obi is unknown at this point but his future replacement should be in the pipeline if Iwobi isn't that guy.

4.  Musa's Pace Matters: For months and even years, Ahmed Musa has borne the height of criticism on this team. However, Musa's pace is excruciating that it provides great advantages to the team when space is available. He was unplayable in the Iceland game and he gave Argentina fits as he did four years ago. This guy is an asset and maybe Nigeria's most dangerous forward when he comes to play. That should now be recognized by those, in the Nigerian media, who had resolutely denied Musa's impact.

5.  Uzoho Arrives: For months, we had all wondered about Nigeria's goalkeeping with Ikeme ailing in the hospital. That the coaching crew made the point to use Francis Uzoho was shocking at some level. However, the coaching crew provided Uzoho with coaching support that paid off at the World Cup. Uzoho is definitely a major piece of the team going forward. His control in the air is a major welcome.

6.  Administrative Organization is Possible: This was a peaceful preparation to the World Cup. The international friendlies came off as planned, the players were paid, and the team had good media publicity about its preparation going into the World Cup. That is definitely alien to a Nigerian team before a World Cup. No fights between players and administrators! So, such efficient and effective organization is possible? One hopes that this marks the beginning of such organization going forward. 

Friday, June 22, 2018

"Big Game" Musa Restores Nigeria's Hope....

Ahmed Musa, so often derided by Nigerian fans, once again proved why he is so critical. He scored a brace and had a third come off the bar as Nigeria outclassed Iceland 2-0 to restore hope of reaching the Round of 16 of the 2018 World Cup in Russia. There were those who even questioned Musa's inclusion in Nigeria's final 23-man squad to the World Cup. Then others questioned the coach's decision to restore him to the starting position in this game against Iceland. But few of them would ask further questions after he single handedly destroyed Iceland.

Nigeria was lethargic in the opening half. It was all possession for Nigeria but without a single shot at goal compared to Iceland's six in the opening half. The performance was mystifying considering the urgency needed to worry Iceland. But in the opening minute of the second half, Nigeria signaled two important changes. The first was that Coach Rohr hauled off an uninventive Idowu and installed a more attacking option in Tyrone Ebuehi. Then in the first move, Etebo exploded through the middle to hit a weak grounder that was easily saved by the goalkeeper. It was Nigeria's first shot of the game but it was very important because it signaled a change in attitude.

But before the sudden attitude change, Nigeria had demonstrated loudly that it could cope with Iceland's aerial threats as it held its own against Iceland's corner kicks and long throw-ins. Clearly, the introduction of Omeruo helped as it was an added man who could compete and duel aerially. 

In the second half, as Nigeria increased the pace it was surely a matter of time. That goal arrived four minutes into the second half when Musa scored a world class goal with a superb control of Moses' cross before hitting viciously into the net. Then in the 74th minute he hit another spectacular shot against the bar. But he was not finished. A minute later, he broke speedily into the left side of the box leaving a defender in his wake and then left the goalkeeper sprawling in a quick dribble before hitting another shot into the net. It was a goal that surely will be shown over and over again in the future. Musa had certainly reminded Nigerians today of what he is worth when the big game is in front of the team.

Here is my rating of the players:

Francis Uzoho (23) -- 6.8 -- Did not put one foot wrong. In the first half, he kept Nigeria in the game with some saves. Uzoho is turning into a main stay for this team even beyond this World Cup.

Leon Balogun (6) -- 7.0 -- Leon had another very good day. He won the aerial duels and had the time to join the attack. In addition, he came very close with a header from a corner kick.

William Ekong (5) -- 6.2 -- William was very good in the air and produced an assuring display at the back.

Kenneth Omeruo (22) -- 6.2 -- Kenneth was not taking any chances today. He was ready to boot the ball a mile away and was winning several aerial duels. However, he had one mental mistake when he lost the ball deep in his box when it would have been easier to clear and it led to Ebuehi conceding a penalty kick.

Victor Moses (11) -- 6.5 -- Victor was good especially in the second half when he gave Icelandic defenders much to think about. He ended the day with an assistant on Musa's first goal.

Brian Idowu (2) -- 5.9 -- Brian was not sure of his play today and did not do much to help the attack on the left and he was correctly pulled off in the beginning of the second half.

Wilfred Ndidi (4) -- 6.4 -- Ndidi was again busy in the ball recovery phase and did well joining the attack as well.  This is essentially a consistent display.

Mikel Obi (10) -- 6.8 -- Obi was withdrawn deep for this game and he seemed to have lost very little. He dominated the ball and bossed the game from deep. His late hand injury may yet be a major issue if it leads to his absence from the Argentina game.

Oghenekaro Etebo (8) -- 6.4 -- Another outstanding display moving the team forward. His energy is the kick that moved this team forward even in the mostly lethargic opening half.

Ahmed Musa (7) -- 9.0 -- Outstanding display when Nigeria needed it. Even in the first half when the team could not get through he showed consistent effort and determination before his second half explosion.

Kelechi Iheanacho (14) -- 6.0 -- Kelechi had an average game but he does bring consistent threat at the striker position.

Tyrone Ebuehi (21) - 6.1 -- Tyrone came in and had a better game than Idowu. Yes, he gave up an inadvertent penalty kick but his play was assuring on the left.

Odion Ighalo (9) -- X -- Not rated.

Alex Iwobi (18) -- X -- Not rated.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

With Hopes Dimming, Silver Lining Remains Argentina 1 Iceland 1......

Nigeria's hopes heads towards a possible implosion after the 0-2 loss in Kaliningrad to Croatia but some how there is still a chance to grab a spot in the second phase of the World Cup because the other group game between Argentina and Iceland ended 1-1. Thus, with Nigeria bringing up the rear in the group, they are just a point out of second place. It may be thinking of the cup as half full but that is the best face after a disappointing loss to Croatia. Yet, to still hope to reach the second phase of this World Cup, Nigeria must now get favorable results in its next two games. However, Nigeria has never reached the second phase of the World Cup after losing the opening game but records are meant to be broken.

The loss to Croatia featured what has become a broken record for Nigeria if that term (Broken record) is still in use given that only the very old can remember what a broken record sounds like. But for Nigeria that broken record is conceding goals via set pieces, REPEATEDLY. Against Croatia, the two goals came from such sets. None came in open play. The first was gravely disappointing. Nigeria had conceded several set piece goals in preparatory games before the World Cup and Manager Gernot Rohr promised that the team would work on it. Yet, in the 31st minute, two players were left unmarked deep in the six yard box as a corner kick floated in. It seemed Nigeria would escape the danger when the low header from Croatia was certainly heading wide of the goal but unfortunately a lurking Oghenekaro Etebo re-directed it into his own net. It was a stain on Etebo's day, a day when he was just one of the few that showed up to play. The second goal was worse, in the 70th minute, in response to yet another cornerback, William Ekong was desperate to defend the set piece but he made a meal of it. He openly grabbed Croatia's Mandzuric and wrestled him down for an obvious penalty kick. At that moment, the game was clearly beyond Nigeria.

Manager Rohr must now win the next game in order for Nigeria avoid elimination in this group and it is against a fiercely organized Icelandic team that is the most deadly from set pieces. It would be a huge challenge, indeed. But he must produce the results or his stay in Nigeria is headed for an end point.

Here is how the players rated:

Francis Uzoho (23) -- 6.0 -- The worst was anticipated for him but he came out looking good. Not that he was busy because Croatia hardly produced any worthy shot at goal and he ended up making a magnificent 1 v 1 save in injury time.

Abdullahi Shehu (12) -- 6.1 -- Although largely villified before the game, he ended up producing some timely saves but again he did little going forward.

William Ekong (5) -- 6.1 -- He surely will have a nightmare watching his arm wrestling that ended Nigeria's hopes of coming back in this game. Beyond that, he had a stellar outing but that stuff must lead to a downgrade of his rating in this game.

Leon Balogun (5) -- 6.7 -- The best player in a Nigerian shirt. He defended quite well and had two shots at goal, one more than Ighalo and one more that Iheanacho, both strikers.

Brian Idowu (2) -- 6.0 -- He was average but defended stoutly. In the opening half, he left some gaps down his side in attempts to join the attack but that was not the reason for today's loss.

Wilfred Ndidi (4) -- 6.2 -- He did well busying himself in the game but again his passes were some times sub par and this was clearly not his best.

Oghenekaro Etebo (8) -- 6.4 -- He had a presence all game beyond the own goal that he conceded and he suffered several fouls.

Mikel Obi (cpt-10) -- 6.0 -- Mikel was a shadow of himself today. He provided very little movement in his position nor did he provide the support for the advanced forwards. Late in the game, it was sad to watch him stand instead of moving into space for a colleague seeking an outlet. That he was rescued by the coach with a substitution was not a surprise.

Alex Iwobi (18) -- 5.8 -- He may have been Nigeria's worst player on the day. This kid was becoming the MAN in the last few games but today he appeared overwhelmed by the game. It is the World Cup after all. Very early, his attempts at taking on defenders failed and his confidence went down hill.

Victor Moses (11) -- 6.5 -- Although Moses suffered several fouls, he appeared to be the only real threat for Nigeria going forward. Unfortunately, his efforts did not help results all day.

Jude Ighalo (9) -- 6.0 -- Jude was starved of service most of the day but he did little to find options to this problem. For Nigeria to do well Ighalo must have the needed service. He had just one shot all day and it was just a glancing header in the second half.

Ahmed Musa (7) -- 6.1 -- Ahmed may not have produced a goal chance but he put up 110% effort, far more than you could write about several of his colleagues.

Kelechi Iheanacho (14) -- 6.2 -- Kelechi played only 20 minutes but he produced a shot and found Musa for a half chance. It was an effort that Ighalo could not produce in 70 minutes of play.

Simmy Nwankwo (13) -- X -- He did not do enough to be rated.

Monday, June 11, 2018

How Willing is Rohr to Make Difficult Decisions?

Gernot Rohr has so far demonstrated a consistent streak of conservatism as Nigeria's manager. However, with four consecutive games without a win, that consistency is facing a major test because in front of him is a game that will go a long way to decide whether his job as Nigeria's manager continues after the World Cup. Rohr, as he did in Burkina Faso, has stood firm with his preferred 4-3-2-1 formation. However, his experiment with the 3-5-2 had unexpectedly provided his team with some vigor against major opponents such as Argentina and England. Is he now willing to switch to that formation against Croatia next Saturday as the World Cup begins for Nigeria? That is the test.

But it is not just switching to a 3-5-2 which, on paper, appears to be a better match against Croatia than the 4-3-2-1. The real test is re-thinking the personnel for that formation instead of force-feeding his current personnel from the 4-3-2-1 into the 3-5-2. There is no doubt that he has a number of players able to flex into multiple positions but the question is how best can he maximize their values? Presently, here is how Rohr has attempted to fit players into the 3-5-2:




Ebuehi---------------------------------Mikel Obi-------------------------------Idowu

-------------------Ighalo-----------------------------Vic Moses-------------------------

Two major problems have arisen with the above but one has to acknowledge that the team has done well in it, compared to the team's use of Rohr's preferred 4-3-2-1. Here, preference simply refers to how often the manager has used each formation. In any case, one of the problems has been scoring and Ighalo and Moses upfront offer very little change. None of those two players is prolific and Moses tends more often than not to hold onto the ball longer than necessary. Secondly, he isn't physical in holding on to a forward position. Ighalo, holds up the ball and moves well behind the defense but is prone to poor finishing.

In the midfield, while Mikel and Iwobi are very good passers of the ball, Iwobi is more aggressive going forward, scores more, makes more valuable passes for scoring but is also turnover prone. Mikel is better in keeping possession and can make more accurate long passes and has the ability to recover the ball better. 

Can Rohr Pull the Strings and Would he?
It seems quite clear, that the jigsaw puzzle with the personnel in 3-5-2 is far from solved and with just a few days to the Croatia game, the question is whether Rohr is willing to tweak the personnel so it looks like this:



--------------------------Ndidi---------------------------Mikel Obi------------------------

Ebuehi-------------------------------------Iwobi---------------------------------Vic Moses


Will Rohr move Mikel Obi to a deeper position in the middle and move Iwobi to a more advanced position given the characteristics that are already mentioned? Bear in mind that Mikel has stated publicly and several times that he prefers the more advanced position. Can Rohr put his feet down and make the switch any way? I doubt it or at least there is nothing to indicate that he will. Rohr's conservatism means that this change is still a long way off and may not be done during Rohr's managership of this team. Secondly, can he move Moses to the wing back position, a position (albeit on the right side) that Moses already plays at his club Chelsea? Again, I doubt it when one considers that Moses is not strong defensively when he plays for Nigeria but it is clear that he is capable of playing in that position and he provides a far better option than Idowu will ever provide. Then up front, Iheanacho can be offered some valuable minutes instead of the garbage minutes that he has recently received from the team. Yet, Iheanacho provides the best chance to score for Nigeria. He is far more clinical than any one else on the team, bar none.

Gernot Rohr is the manager. Gernot Rohr is the one faced with the hot seat on Saturday against Croatia. Gernot Rohr can make a big difference if he chooses to. The fact is: will he?