Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Effects of International Friendlies on Nigeria's Competitive Outcomes…..

Recent reports indicate that Nigeria plans to play two international friendlies before a key Nations Cup qualifier against Egypt next March. Quite often Nigeria, as well as other nations, seek to play international friendlies before a competitive game. The idea is that an international friendly prepares the team for the more important competitive game that follows. However, Nigeria does not always play international friendlies just before participating in a competitive game. This makes one wonder whether or not it makes a difference playing international friendlies before a competitive game.

This article explores the question of whether international friendlies before a competitive game makes a difference in the outcome of the competitive game.

While we will not depend on an ultra scientific test to measure effects of international friendlies on the results of competitive games for Nigeria's Super Eagles, we will in this piece look at a few data.

We will investigate Nigeria’s games in the last decade (i.e. 2005-2015) and assume that a good outcome in a competitive game played away from home is either a draw (or a win). We assume also that Nigeria always has a high probability of winning its home games. Therefore, our measurement interest is in poor results achieved at home and how those relate to a prior international friendly or no prior international friendly.

Furthermore, for this exploratory study we do not use any competitive game played at a neutral venue i.e tournament games. The reasoning behind this is that such games often include a significant time that the team practices together which may on its own negate the effect of a lack of an international friendly. Further, we assume that an effect of the international friendly is played when such a friendly occurs within a week before the competitive game. The effect of a friendly may be over multiple competitive games if such competitive games are within two weeks of each other. Finally, the effect will be calculated on efficiency basis i.e. percentage of total potential points earned by the team.

Away Games: Figures 1-3 show results of Nigeria’s away games since 2005. The first figure compares efficiency between Away Games after a Friendly to Away Games after no Friendly. The efficiency for away games after a friendly is higher than efficiency after no friendly. In the data, we have 12 games each that was played after a friendly and after no friendly. In the first case (see Figure 2), there was one defeat (1-2 to Uganda in 2007) after a friendly in Nairobi against Kenya. Nigeria won 6 and drew 5 of the other away games played after an international friendly.

Figure 3 shows away games played by Nigeria without the benefit of an international friendly. Nigeria still did well with 4 wins, 6 ties, and losing only in Conakry to Guinea (0-1) and in Sudan (0-1).

Home Games: Figure 4 looks at poor results obtained at home in competitive games since 2005. These results are 2-2 v Guinea, 1-1 v Kenya, 2-3 v Congo Republic, and 2-2 v South Africa. Only one of those results followed an international friendly and that was the 2-2 draw against South Africa. Note also that this friendly occurred with the CHAN team i.e. home-based players. The rest occurred after no international friendly was played to prepare the team.

While there may be a tendency to look at data and assume that they are conclusive, we caution that for this particular study we must recognize results as exploratory. For instance, the poor results shown in Figure 4 for good reasons occurred during an era when the NFF was battling with the coach and the government and, thus, results can also be alternatively explained.

However, the results offer some lessons. Those lessons include that international friendlies are important before competitive games, particularly when it is clear that the team has just a few days to prepare for competitive games and the coach needs actual games to be sure which problems need urgent correction before a competitive game. Without international friendlies, the coach relies solely on information obtained in slower-paced training. Further, international friendlies assist the coach in making personnel and tactical decisions. Moreover, friendlies help build team confidence and lead to psychological readiness.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Oliseh's Eagles and Set-Pieces.....

One major question about the Super Eagles under Sunday Oliseh is as follows: Is the team improving or not? Ultimately, that question will be answered by how much progress the team makes in its attempt to qualify for both the 2017 Cup for African Nations (CAN) and the 2018 World Cup. However, we can at least take a look at one area that improvement now appears obvious. That area is in conversion of set pieces. In an earlier article, we discussed Nigeria v opponents' set-piece successes at the CAN and the World Cup.

This article is different. It looks at the set-piece data under Coach Oliseh and compares it to similar data, at the same point of development, for the Super Eagles under Adegboye Onigbinde, Christian Chukwu, Augustine Eguavoen, Berti Vogts, Shuaibu Amodu, Lars Lagerback, Samson Siasia, and Stephen Keshi. In essence, it is a comparison of Nigerian coaches since 2002. We wanted to look at the last 15 years but that would have involved covering one coach over two periods, we decided to settle on 2002 to avoid collecting data multiple times on a single coach.

The table and figures below provide data generated for the comparison. The data should be interpreted with caution for various reasons. First, only the first seven games of each coach's career are used. For Lagerback it is just six games and for both Onigbinde and Amodu, we used only the first seven games during their last period managing the national team. Second, note that under Keshi the first seven games were with a largely home-based squad. Third, though we are confident about the accuracy of our data, we do not discount the possibility of minor errors.

Offensive Play: Data
The data demonstrates that only under Oliseh and Eguavoen has a Nigerian coach, during the researched period, converted five set pieces within the first seven games. However, we would give Oliseh the edge over Eguavoen since set-pieces under Oliseh's management constitute a larger percentage of total goals scored during his tenure. Oliseh's team has scored 56% of its total goals from set pieces as the graph in green demonstrates. That is a remarkable percentage! The closest is Lagerback at 43% but two of the set pieces under Lagerback came from the penalty spot. Similarly, Eguavoen's total includes three penalty-kicks, compared to two under Oliseh. In essence, the team under Oliseh has used the set-piece as an important aspect of its game during the manager's first seven games.

Defensive Play: Data
Defensively, as the graph in red demonstrates, Oliseh's team has been stellar against set pieces. It has yet to concede a single goal from that route. Generally, Nigeria's coaches have done comparatively well defending the set pieces in the managers first seven games. The only exceptions are Onigbinde, Lagerback and Vogts. Onigbinde's team, particularly, conceded a whopping 67% of its goals via set pieces!

Oliseh's Team and the Subtle Change on Set Pieces
One thing that is impressive with Oliseh's team is not just the conversion of set pieces as percentage of total goals scored but the strategic change on how these kicks are taken. See the video on the Swaziland game in Lobamba and in Port Harcourt. Notice the converted set-pieces and those that were not converted. Prior to Oliseh's team, the route of choice for most Nigerian teams was to blast the ball with the hope that it will travel faster towards the net than the goalkeeper would be able to save it. This often was used by the likes of Taye Taiwo and Emmanuel Emenike as set piece takers. Only few players in an earlier era, notably Augustine Okocha, relied on finesse to convert such opportunities. Under Oliseh, we have now seen Moses Simon and Ogenyi Onazi use finesse rather than power to outwit the goalkeeper with opportunities closer to goal. On opportunities that are wide off the goal, the ball is no longer lofted aimlessly but appear to be more targeted to the bigger Nigerian players to convert.

It must be noted that while it is obvious that the coaches have focused on converting set piece opportunities and players have worked on getting the calls near opponent's goal, these strategic shooting should also be applied to non-set piece opportunities in front of goal. The recent match against Swaziland could have ended in a larger margin of victory for the team if players such as Igbonu and Ighalo were more clinical in front of goal. These players tried to strike the net with the most vicious of shots instead of attempting to place the ball away from the goalkeeper's reach. This is clearly a world of difference from the way the team has so far approached set-pieces.