Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Working From Europe? Questions Surrounding NFF's agenda for Nigeria

Reading recently that Nigeria's new national team coach, Sunday Oliseh, will be primarily based in Europe came as a shock to me for several reasons. Conventionally, the primary residence of Nigeria's national team coach has always  been controversial, particularly when the appointee is someone without Nigerian citizenship. In fact, there has always been an insistence that the coach maintain primary residence in Nigeria and often a long-term accommodation for the coach becomes part of the contract. Often, a Nigerian-born appointee (such as Oliseh) is expected to reside in Nigeria and thus the issue is mute. Thus, it was a surprise to read that Oliseh will be resident in Europe.

Of course, one could argue that most of Nigeria's internationals reside in Europe and, thus, it makes little sense for the national team coach to be based in Nigeria. That, of course, is a perfectly reasonable argument but only sustainable if Oliseh's charge was merely to coach the Nigerian national team. But it isn't and that is exactly where the problem lies.

Oliseh's Charge
The NFF announced to Nigerians that Oliseh's charge goes well beyond the regular charge for previous Nigerian national team coaches. He will not only coach the Super Eagles. He will do much more.

The charge includes: (1) Developing a 5-year development plan "to fashion a unique playing and coaching philosophy for all the National Teams, and will for this purpose, interface regularly with coaches of those teams," and (2) through his assistant, Jean Losciuto, he would work with youth teams in Nigeria to build a unified football culture across the various age groups. Oliseh is to oversee the tasks listed above, at least according to the NFF and issued via NFF Website on July 8. As far as I am aware, that has not changed.

In fact, on the NFF website this is exactly the statement attributed to Chair of NFF Technical Department, Mr. Felix Anyansi-Agwu:

"We are looking at how he will periodically organize clinics and seminars for coaches of clubs in the Nigeria Professional Football League, probably once in a month, so as to strengthen the playing philosophy across board. A robust youth development program, elite player development strategy and performance programs to drive higher standards, among other core sustainable development programs, are also part of the proposal."

Given the above and with the frequency of meeting/interaction highlighted above, Oliseh just cannot reside primarily abroad in order to accomplish the stated goals. That just does not seem feasible. Now, of course, if the NFF has the funds they can fly Oliseh down to Nigeria quite frequently to conduct the affairs listed above. However, would that make sense for a Federation that has regularly lamented its lack of funds?

Make no mistake about it, the charge given to Sunday Oliseh is monumental and has the potential to change Nigeria's football deeply but only if the task is taken seriously by the NFF. Let's break down some of these tasks.

1. Five-Year Plan: For effectiveness, this plan must be diligently crafted. A plan for Nigerian football is not one that can be crafted sitting down in a room in Belgium. Such a plan requires significant input from those that the plan intends to serve i.e the various national teams and teams that feed into it. In essence, such a plan requires interfacing regularly with stakeholders to learn about their problems which will help develop an effective plan. As Anyansi's quote above indicates, this will require numerous seminars and training workshops with scores of Nigerian coaches.

2. Youth Development Program: While this task will primarily go to Losciuto as indicated by the NFF, Oliseh still oversees it. Will Losciuto reside in Nigeria? or will he also reside in Belgium? This is a major task requiring a lot of time meeting with youth coaches and the academies.

It seems to me that the NFF may have made a huge mistake if it signed off on this arrangement to have the coaches reside abroad when there are critical tasks requiring a huge expense of time and relationship building in Nigeria. It is either a huge mistake or that the NFF never considered it important to develop an effective 5-year Plan and Youth Program in the first place. Or perhaps, the NFF will source funds from somewhere to cover frequent travels of Oliseh and his crew to and from Nigeria. Which is which?

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Interpreting the Move to Hire Oliseh and the issue of a Foreign Coach. . . .

The story below is directly from Nigerian Football Federation's (NFF) website and, thus, must be considered accurate. You can find the story by clicking on NFF. Reading the story leads me to the following interpretations:

1.     Sunday Oliseh’s job is far more reaching than had been the case with previous national team coaches. He will not only coach the A squad but will oversee Nigeria’s football by beginning the process of codifying it and outlining its culture. Essentially, he takes over a task that was supposedly Shuaibu Amodu’s.

2.     Pinnick did get his wish for a foreign technical imprint on Nigeria’s football.  In fact, not only did Pinnick get what many thought he was focused on but he got more! The designated Foreign Assistant is only such by name. In essence, that Assistant will have (by all intents and purposes) far reaching influence. He will oversee the entire youth development. My sense is that because those youth teams will still have local coaches and Oliseh will have his hands full with the A squad, it is this Foreign Assistant who will be charged directly to develop the football plans that I mentioned in #1 above.

3.     Shuaibu Amodu’s job is effectively swallowed up by #1 and #2 above. He is walking dead. As some have already stated, it is now just a matter of time for Amodu.

4.     It is clear that a strategy that I referred to back when Eucharia Uche was assigned a Foreign Physical Trainer is not just confirmed but is in full effect. Note that the same strategy had been applied by assigning a foreign assistant to John Obuh, just a few years ago. The strategy is a reaction to resistance from Nigerian public to the hiring of foreign coaches. To checkmate this, my thinking is that the NFF decided (Starting under Maigari) to appoint FCs  without the large media attention that often follow such appointments i.e. just appoint them under the radar. Designations such as Physical Trainer or Assistant Coach will do the trick whereas their actual duties will surpass the usual duties under those nomenclatures.

5.     The changes taking place now is revolutionary and only rivaled by the late Isaac Akioye’s move that eventually brought "Father" Tiko and three other East European coaches to Nigerian football in the early 1970s. That move by Akioye led to Nigeria becoming an African football power, a position that was then reserved only for the likes of the Congo, Egypt, and Ghana. Time will tell whether or not Pinnick will achieve the same as Akioye did but make no mistake he is forcing his way to achieve his dreams. Never underestimate that.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Vicissitudes of Explaining Soccer Results by focusing on Coaching....

In spite of widespread knowledge of human behavior and an understanding of general systems, there remains a willingness to explain football results solely by the simplistic ideas that: "all results derive from coaching." This is misleading and retrogressive. It reeks of, perhaps, lazy analysis or simply an inability to deal with complexities and, thus, a willingness to chase the "simple route."

In this brief piece, I do not focus on providing statistics to expose the fallacy of "all results derive from coaching." Instead, I assume that what we all understand in the statement "football is not mathematics" should open the window to the universal truth that football results expectedly feature "up and downs" and unpredictabilities, which are the crux of game's excitement. No coach has been able to buck that trend nor will there be a coach to do so. At best, a 'good' coach will provide a certain probability of consistency in results. 

Contribution of Coaching
Nevertheless, it is important to acknowledge the critical contribution of coaching. Coaching is absolutely important. It creates a pattern and consistency of structure and funnels team energy towards a specified goal. It includes a strategy of how to achieve the goal and the tactics that make such strategy workable. Of course, for a team to come close to achieving its stated goals, it requires hours of training or preparation to reduce the amount of errors associated with an attempt to accomplish the goals. Therefore, it should be clear that an increase in time spent on preparation is related to reduction of errors in goal achievement and, thus, increased probability of coaching success. The logic is simple enough or at least it should be. However, the larger question is whether such logic is all that is needed for team success in a game? In essence, can the errors be reduced by 100%? Can coaching reduce all errors associated with goal achievement?

Basic knowledge of human behavior and all that is associated with it (i.e. what is knowable at this time in human history) should tell us that coaching is a part of team success but it is NOT the only rationale for team success. Thus, no matter the number of hours coaching, 100% of errors can NEVER be reduced because of several reasons or factors which we explain below. This, perhaps, explains this surprising and amazing finding about Changing coaches.

Other Factors Critical to Team Success
So what are the factors that contribute to team success in a game? The answer is that the factors are many. They include psychological readiness (external effects, trust in managers, perception of opponents, environment, and so on) at both individual and team levels, fitness and fatigue, player ability/talent, critical refereeing errors, among others. It is likely that the list is not exhaustive but it provides the idea that results of games should be attributable to far more factors than coaching.

Psychology deals with the relationship of the human mind and behavior. There are numerous effects on the outcome of a game under the factor of psychological readiness. I cannot begin to list all of them in this piece but I will mention just a few examples. Each example demonstrates how incidences outside the game affect the player's mind and ultimately impinges on his/her behavior or performance on the field. A player who has a troubling domestic issue, which is unrevealed to the team, cannot play at an optimal level whether he or she is a professional or not. A player or team that does not trust its coach or managers may not play at optimal level. The team  may also be affected by its Football Association's poor transportation plans or its wavering on payment of player and team bonuses. Players who feel that they are better than their opponents may not play at an optimal level. Players shaken by the environment of a given game may not play at optimal levels. In many of the above examples, a team could lose in spite of how good the tactics employed by the coach.

Another factor is the level of player fitness and its effect on the player and team performance. Fatigue in a game has a similar effect. Fitness may refer to a range of injuries of which the effect is not easily decipherable by spectators. Yet the injury is minuscule but sufficient to impact ability to achieve team goals. For example, a bruised toe may not be enough to put a player on the bench but yet it could affect the quality of balls crossed by a wide player on a given day. Here, again, it matters little what the coach's tactics are. 

Of course, player ability/talent is, also, a factor. This factor is widely recognized unlike the two factors that are already mentioned. However, what is rarely discussed or is often ignored (naively) is that a focus on individual talent is not as important as a focus on how individual talents mesh together or become integrated in the quest to achieve goals. In essence, the selection and use of the top 11 individually-talented players is often not as good as using a team of players (perhaps less individually-talented) whose combined talents and role-integration increases the probability for goal achievement. The coach has a major role in this factor and the coach's tactics are intricately related to this factor.

Critical refereeing error is also a factor in the outcome of a game. As we all acknowledge, referees and their assistants make errors that may be unintentional but yet they have dire consequences for a team. There are numerous examples of such errors including wrongful dismissal of a player, wrongful decisions on a set piece, on a goal, or on a goal scoring opportunity. Again, no amount of coaching tactics may prevent defeat when a team is at the wrong end of such refereeing decision.

Factors: Ultimate Effect on Game Outcomes
How do these different parts work towards achievement of team goals? To begin to answer this question, one must remember that these parts constitute a SYSTEM. In essence, failure of one factor  (a part of the system) adversely affect achievement of team goals and, thus, prevents the reduction of errors. A system is successful when all parts working effectively creates efficiency and optimization in its productivity. A successful team is, therefore, one that not only receives good coaching (a part of the system) but does well in other factors (other parts of the system) mentioned above. Now does that assure 100% reduction of error? The answer is no. The chance of error is never zero. As long as the game is played by human beings and not robots, the ability to completely control error never exists. One needs to review General Systems Theory (GST) by Ludwig von Bertalanffy to understand why. Bertalanffy makes a very important point: "life depends upon the INTERACTION of the parts as a SYSTEM: The WHOLE is more than the sum of the parts."

Just to Reiterate
In essence, the explanation of the outcome of a game by solely citing failure of coaching tactics or strategy merely scrapes the surface and does very little to help our understanding of the team's failure to achieve its goals. Such explanation is simplistic and does little to unpack a complex phenomenon. You should think critically when you read the next match report/analysis that focuses on coaching tactics as THE rationale determining a game's outcome. A game is never determined solely by a coach's tactical decision. The outcome of a game is determined, always, by a complex interaction of several factors. Thus, a coaching explanation is at best a part explanation and not the ONLY realistic one. We should always ask deeper and more complex questions of a system to successfully understand and explain a game's outcome.