Tuesday, December 13, 2016

2016 Annual Report for Nigeria's Super Eagles

Every December we will submit The Fan's Annual Report for Nigerian Football based on the team's performance in the calendar year. There are five units graded in this report and the grade from those units inform cumulative grade for Nigerian Football. The units are as follows:

1. Youth Football
2. Women Football
3. Local Professional Football
4. Football Administration
5. The Super Eagles

The U23 team was the lone shining light in Nigeria's youth football for the 2016 year. The team had a rough preparation for the Olympic Games but played inspired football on its way to winning the only Olympic bronze medal for all of Nigeria's sporting contingent and saved the country from monumental embarrassment.

Both U17 and U20 teams were disappointing. Each failed to reach the African Championship with the U17 team losing to Niger Republic and the U20 eliminated by Sudan. Those were, indeed, shock outcomes considering that Nigeria was the defending World Champion at the U17 level and had been a dominant force in both U17 and U20 in Africa.

Grade: C largely based on achievement of the U23 team. Without that, this grade was headed for F.

Both the U17 and U20 teams did well to qualify from Africa but were eliminated at the group stage of the World Cups for each age grup. The Falcons did not qualify for the Olympics but won the African Women's Championship in Cameroon. It was a mixed bag of results for women teams.

Grade: B- based on performance of the Falcons and the youth teams getting to the World Cup stage.

This was a major season for the NPFL as it increasingly built a positive image. Sponsorship has increased and the take home for all 20 clubs has risen steadily. The image of the league improved with a selected team playing a few matches against La Liga clubs in Spain. Importantly, fans are returning to the stands to watch local games and reports indicate that quality of play on the field has also improved. The downside, however, is that only one of Nigeria's representatives at the continental level reached the critical league stage of those competitions but ended up finishing last in its group (Enyimba).

Grade: B+ based on LMC administration and performance at the local league level. Grade reduced because of weak performance at continental level.

Grading football administration (NFF) based solely on performance of Nigeria's representatives at various competitions is only part of the factors here. On those basis, NFF did poorly and failures at competitions are linked to NFF's inability to financially support the teams at all levels. While it is true that football financial issues cannot be fully separated from the nation's financial problems, it is equally true that the NFF made little headway in securing private sponsorship in an environment where LMC administration secured similar funds. The NFF is certainly innovative in many ways, including bringing technological resources to globally-acceptable levels and becoming politically involved at continental and global levels.

Grade: C  because of its innovative ventures but poorly evaluated on sponsorship and competitive support for teams.


The year 2016 was a tale of two national teams. The year started poorly with the national team collapsing at the African National Championships (CHAN) and then being eliminated at the qualification stage for the 2017 Cup for African Nations (CAN). However,  appointment of new coach, Gernot Rohr, revived fortunes of the national team and it won its first two games of the 2018 World Cup qualifiers. It was a remarkable turn around and the team is currently on a five game winning streak.

Grade: B largely based on the team's remarkable turn around. Grade was headed for a D until then.

Below are grades for specific units of the national team:

Goalkeeping: Nigeria has been adequate in the goalkeeping department this year even though it used several players in goal. The main team depended on Carl Ikeme as starter. However, he has been absent in two crucial games against Egypt and Algeria but his replacement on both occasions, Daniel Akpeyi, was adequate.  Grade B.

Defense: The defense remains work in progress with constantly changing parts, especially at right back. Moreover, Nigeria concedes nearly a goal a game and no one can claim that the defense has been the team's strong point. Far more work is needed for this unit to be considered a strong asset for the team. Grade is C+

Midfield: This unit has grown by leaps. It still runs under the steady guidance of John Mikel Obi but there are many capable players coming through including Etebo Oghenekaro and Wilfred Ndidi. It is a unit that allows Nigeria to dominate possession in several games. However, there are still lapses when the team is in ball recovery phase. Grade B.

Forward: Another unit that has improved during the year, particularly under leadership of both Kelechi Iheanacho and Victor Moses. Arguably, Moses is considered a wide midfielder under Coach Rohr's scheme but here we add his work to Nigeria's attack. Since Nigeria's loss to Egypt in Cairo, this unit has averaged two goals a game, a big chunk in international football. However, earlier in the year, the story was quite different. Grade B+.

Bench: Increasingly, the team's bench has been built up and substitute players have the ability to make a huge difference in games. Consider the use of Wilfred Ndidi, Abdullah Shehu, and Ahmed Musa as substitutes in recent games. Grade B+

Coaching: Earlier, I mentioned that the national team started poorly but experienced a remarkable turn around after the Egypt loss. That down and then up performance is reflected by the coaching influence on the team and, thus, leads to a B grade. This grade is inclining after simmering in C range before arrival of Gernot Rohr.

With unit grades of B+, B, B-, C, and C we award an overall grade of B- to Nigeria's football for the 2016 calendar year. While it is clear that all units continue to need improvement, the administration of the game is in severe need for improvement. In truth, it is a critical unit that has affected all the others and without it Nigeria's football has a steep mountain to climb in the near future.



Monday, December 5, 2016

National Team Players Sharing Names

There are several Nigerian national team players, sometimes related, who share last names but few share first and last names. The latter case is rare and it often creates confusion in their historical record. Such confusion is then solved by using a middle name or attaching a I or II to identify each one. It is this latter case that is addressed in this piece.

It is not unusual to expect the sharing of first and last names to occur with players named Mohammed but amazingly there is no Nigerian international with first and last names where one of those names is Mohammed. Surprising, but factual.

Instead, we found other names where this sharing occurs. A unique case is where the names Kalu and Uche are used by two players, one has Kalu as last name and the other has Uche as a last name. Both players are still active. In another case, two players share same first and last names but confusion is avoided only because one of the players -- Mikel Obi -- changed his name from Michael to Mikel after it was reportedly misspelled.  In total, there are 12 players identified in the research as sharing first and last names.

The most notable players were Peter Anieke I and Peter Anieke II. Anieke I played from 1949 to 1955 and a younger Peter Anieke II played from 1965 until 1973. Both went with the alias "Baby" but the younger Peter later used another alias "Eusebio." The most surprising in the data set is Augustine Fregene because the name Fregene is not a name encountered regularly in Nigeria, except in Warri. Take a look at the table below:

Monday, November 14, 2016

Post-Algeria: WCQ Records and Milestones......

Here are some milestones to watch as the World Cup Qualifiers proceed for Nigeria. Here we go:

Gernot Rohr is yet to give a debut to a player in his first three games and remains second among Nigerian coaches not providing a debut to a player in the first three games. Bora Milutinovic did not provide a debut to player in seven matches.

Kelechi Iheanacho's streak of four consecutive goals in as many games was stopped when he failed to score against Algeria. Thus, he stays (along with six others) behind the record of goals in five consecutive games currently held by both Emmanuel Emenike and Yakubu Mambo.

Nigeria's five consecutive wins is second only to six consecutive wins set under Shuaibu Amodu in 2008. The five consecutive wins is tied with five also achieved under Shuaibu Amodu in 2001.

Ahmed Musa's assist in the Algeria game gave him two assists in World Cup qualifying play tied with four other players since 1994. The four are Mikel Obi, John Utaka, Osaze Odemwingie, and Brown Ideye. The record is held by Obinna Nsofor with four.

Elderson Echiejile barely escaped a yellow card against Algeria with a first half foul that led to a talk with match official Gassama. However, Echiejile has three yellow cards in World Cup qualifiers since 1994 tied with Efe Ambrose and behind Taribo West (4) and Augustine Eguavoen (5).

Mikel Obi has now appeared in 16 World Cup qualifiers for Nigeria. That is tied with Finidi George since 1994. Mikel is still behind eight players with Vincent Enyeama well ahead of everyone with 28 World Cup qualifiers. If Mikel plays one more World Cup qualifier he will tie Osaze Odemwingie at 17. Others ahead of Mikel are Aiyegbeni, Garba Lawal, Seyi Olofinjana, all at 18. Okocha is at 20, Yobo at 22 and Kanu Nwankwo at 23.

Victor Moses' two goals against Algeria gives him a total of four World Cup qualifying goals that ties Okocha. However, he is still behind Nwankwo Kanu, Ikechukwu Uche, and Obinna Nsofor all at 5 goals. Aiyegbeni and Amokachi have 6 goals each, Rashidi Yekini has 7, and Obafemi Martins leads with 9 since 1994.  Moses' two goals in a single game is tied with eight others for the most in a World Cup qualifier since 1994. Martins has scored a brace four times in World Cup qualifying games for a Nigerian record ahead of Amokachi and Yekini who both scored a brace in two games since 1994.

Only three players have played 180 minutes in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers for Nigeria. They are William Ekong, Elderson Echiejile, and Kelechi Iheanacho.

Victor Moses has two goals to lead everyone in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers.

Assists have so far come from three players: Ahmed Musa, Etebo Oghenekaro, and Brown Ideye.

Two players have been cautioned: Mikel Obi and Victor Moses.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Grading Rohr and the Team v Algeria....

Gernot Rohr and Nigeria took all three points against Algeria in a 3-1 win today in Uyo to extend its lead in its World Cup qualifying group. It was the team's third consecutive win in as many games under Rohr. The team clearly is playing at the height of its ability in several areas. Confidence is high and it was important against Algeria as the Algerians were desperate to take something home from the game.

However, one must acknowledge that the Nigerian team took its time to settle down and defensively Balogun provided leadership early to energize a group that seemed lethargic and in the middle it was difficult to believe that this was just Etebo's fifth game for Nigeria. He was everywhere especially in the opening half when Nigeria dominated.  Below is how the team's various units did.

GOALKEEPER: Akpeyi's state of mind appeared shaky and Nigeria was lucky that Algeria hardly tested him even when opportunities existed.  This performance is no better than a C.

DEFENSE: The defense was far from solid as a unit even though there were individuals that excelled. The wide players for Nigeria were not consistent helping in the ball recovery phase, leaving gaps for Algeria to exploit on the weak side of play. C+

MIDFIELD: Nigeria was in control of this area most of the game with Etebo as the General and his shadow was enormous both defensively and in ball distribution. Mikel, playing behind Nigeria's most advanced player, provided confidence as usual. However, the midfield organization collapsed in the second half and was largely responsible for not closing down the Algerians at the top of the box. A-

FORWARD: Going forward, Nigeria always threatened with Victor Moses but there were numerous broken plays through Iheanacho. It is clear that Nigeria's passes through the defense provides opportunities and it showed today but the hold up play by Iheanacho was not the best. B+

COACHING: Rohr's use of Omeruo was a major question going in and Omeruo's play was average. However, his presence helped provide defensive cover on the right. The introduction of Etebo in midfield as a starter was indeed a key part of the win. Then introducing Ahmed Musa in the second half to run in the space behind Algeria's attack was telling. However, the team defense still has a long way towards improvement. It defended too deep inside the box in the second half and failed to closedown Algerians at the top of the box. Grade B+.

Daniel Akpeyi (1) -- 5.9 -- This was a shaky performance for Akpeyi and twice he rushed out too early when he had defensive cover. His play just failed to inspire confidence.

Kenneth Omeruo (4) - 6.0 - He was solid defensively but gave very little going forward. Clearly, he is far from the answer at the problematic right back position.

Elderson Echiejile (3) - 6.3 - He arrived camp late but had one of his best games for Nigeria. He exploited space going forward down the left and also provided strong and confident defensive play.

William Ekong (5) - 6.0 - This was an average game for William and he appeared slow to dangerous situations at times.

Leon Balogun (6) - 6.8 - Clearly, Nigeria's best defensive player on the day. Commanded the defense from the opening minute and oozed confidence. This was probably his best performance for Nigeria dominating both in the air and on the ground.

Ogenyi Onazi (17) - 6.0 -- One of his quietest games in Nigeria's colors. However, he played within his abilities making few passing errors and stayed home defensively for most of the game.

Etebo Oghenekaro (20) - 7.2 - Etebo bossed the midfield even with Mikel on the field. This is unusual for Nigeria where Mikel had always ruled. Etebo was always available as an outlet, made right decisions with the ball, and was there to recover the ball when Algeria had possession. He was simply masterful and clearly is now a fixture in the midfield going forward.

Mikel Obi (10) - 6.5 - Mikel scored a bizarre goal when he and the Algerian defense thought he was offside and hesitated. Seeing the flag down, Mikel scored and celebrated. Television replays showed he was onside and he took the goal in stride. His overall play was confident, as usual, but tracking back was not the best.

Victor Moses (11) - 7.0 -- He scored a brace and that alone gives him a high mark. In truth, he was always a threat with the ball at his feet. He could have completed a hat trick only if he converted a very early opportunity.

Kelechi Iheanacho (14) - 5.8 - Kelechi had difficulty all day playing with his back to goal. He failed to win any aerial contest and turned the ball over very easily with poor first touch. However, he did come close to scoring with a chance late from Ahmed Musa's cross but he failed to clean up the chance.

Alex Iwobi (18) - 6.2 - He started slowly but grew into the game after he switched to the right. Alex has to protect the ball better but he did show off his passing skills.

Ahmed Musa (7) - 6.2 - His blistering pace created problems in the few minutes that he was on as he exploited large swaths of space behind Algeria's attack. He made an assist on Moses' second goal and could have had a second if Iheanacho had been clinical in front of goal.

Wilfred Ndidi (21) - 6.0 -- Average play but energetic as always.

Shah Abdullahi (12) - 6.0 - Shehu was better than Omeruo when he came on. He did well defensively and also did well going forward.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Nigeria v Algeria: Ultimate Psychological Test...

With the picture of Algeria's 2014 World Cup performance still etched in our heads, it is understandable that Algeria would be feared by any team. The fact that it took World Champion Germany overtime to overcome Algeria in Brazil tells the story of a team that is quite capable. But is that really the true story of this Algerian team?

At the other end is the Nigerian team that has failed to reach the Cup of African Nations finals for two consecutive competitive cycles? The same question asked of the current state of Algeria's team must also be asked of Nigeria.

This piece proceeds to address those questions focusing not just on the teams' current state of readiness but it also takes look at plausible psychological indices that may largely determine the result of the game on November 12 in Uyo, Nigeria.

The Current State of the Teams
There is temptation to compare the two teams by looking at: (1) their current FIFA rankings where Algeria stands tall at No. 3 in Africa and well ahead of Nigeria at No. 11 in Africa, or (2) the results of their previous meetings, or (3) the general ease in which Algeria has recently handled qualification matches compared to Nigeria's performances at qualification matches. 

All three measures have their place in attempting to unpack what promises to be a galactic confrontation on November 12. But I sense that none of those three measures will matter in the end. Why? They hardly reflect the current state of either team. 

Therefore, let's look at a fourth measure i.e. how has Algeria played more recently in more appropriate and comparable situations and how has Nigeria played. Algeria will be in Uyo, Nigeria for an away international. In Algeria's last five away internationals, it has won two, drawn two, and lost one! But who did Algeria play in those five games? Two of the away wins came against Lesotho. The loss? It came against Qatar. I bet no team worth its salt will be shaking in its boots hearing names of those teams. The draws? Both came against Ethiopia.

How about Nigeria, at home, in its last five games? Nigeria has won four of those with a draw against Egypt. Again, not particularly impressive when one realizes that the wins came against none of the highly ranked African teams nor was any of those wins a blow out of the opponent.

So what gives? My answer is that similar to the previous three measures, this fourth measure will not do much for us because there have been major changes for both teams in the last few days and months. For Nigeria, the arrival of a new coach in Gernot Rohr has the team playing with a new belief signaled by an important 2-1 away win in Zambia. For Algeria, a poor home result (1-1) against Cameroon led to resignation of Coach Rejavac and appointment of Leekens who's first game will be in Uyo. Advantage? Nigeria.

The Plausible Psychological Challenges
So how about the tactical battle? Sure, tactics will matter and Leekens is likely going to focus on a defensive strategy with an eye on quick counters in search of three points or at worst a point. However, Algeria has not been a team to do this in recent times and this was partly reason for the ouster of Rejavac who called for a more disciplined approach. Nigeria, of course, would attack but under a cautionary approach, particularly in funneling the dangerous Algerian wide players to the middle where Nigeria has a reliable central defense and solid defensive midfielders. 

However, this game will hardly be decided by tactical maneuvers. The decision will come from the psychological state of both teams at various critical moments of the game. Presently, Algeria has a significant amount of self-doubt, while Nigeria come in with a nice dose of self-belief. However, neither of those psychological outlooks last eternally. They will be dynamic and would likely switch around the further the game goes on without Nigeria establishing a lead or with Algeria going ahead. Therefore, Nigeria's best bet is to score within the opening hour of the game and not to concede within that period. With the home crowd in play, Nigeria has the advantage.

Importantly, the psychological challenge is not only going to be decided by game moments and time towards goal. For individual players, there will be challenges particularly for Echiejile at left back and whoever Nigeria puts at right back. Echiejile must receive support against Mahyrez and have the ability to force him to the middle. His success in doing so early will be a bonus for Nigeria. The same issues occur for Nigeria's right back. Inability to force Algerian wide players to cut in to the middle will make crosses available and Algeria has proven deadly in the air with headers at goal.

Nigeria's early domination, which has a high probability of occurrence based on the psychological state of the two teams will be dictated through the middle and the confidence of the midfielders. With that and a lead within the opening hour, Nigeria will be on its way to three points. That is what the November 12 battle will be about. A battle of the mind and confidence.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Why Africa Must be Wary of the 48-team World Cup Proposal....

FIFA President, Gianni Infantino, has promoted the idea that his 48-team World Cup is designed to satisfy wishes and hopes of continents like Africa and Asia that have a large number of FIFA membership. Reportedly, Africa is nursing the idea of having 8 teams at the enlarged tournament scheduled for 2026.

However, with details of the 48-team tournament becoming clear, the question is how beneficial is this proposed enlarged tournament for CAF and Africa? I think it is a case where CAF must look carefully before accepting the proposal without adjustment. It seems to me that this new format will do more to hurt than help in spite of hopes of increasing Africa's World Cup allocations.



1. The 48-team World Cup will have an elimination layer of 16 games after continental qualifiers.

2. The World Cup tournament proper will involve 32 teams as has been the case for a while. This 32-team World Cup will use the current format used in recent World Cups.

3. To get to the 32 teams mentioned in #2 above, 16 of 48 teams will automatically reach the World Cup proper. The other 32 teams will play elimination games to determine 16 teams that will join the 16 automatic qualifiers at the tournament proper.

4. The 16 automatic qualifiers will be chosen based on FIFA ranking. 


Why Concerns For CAF?
Rarely has CAF or AFC teams received a top 16 FIFA ranking. Yet that ranking will be used to select the automatic 16 qualifiers to the World Cup. Take the current FIFA ranking as an example (October 2016), the confederation distribution is shown below. In essence, UEFA will have 10 automatic qualifiers or 77% of its current automatic qualifiers (using 2014 World Cup as baseline),  CONMEBOL will have 83% of its current automatic qualifiers. How many would CAF have? The answer is 0%! 

Clearly, this is a massive fleece and yet CAF members of the FIFA Council are about to vote yes to this proposal giving members of its confederation zero automatic qualifiers to the World Cup proper. In essence, this proposal stands a chance to push back the gains of the continent.

Now, of course, you may argue that Africa may have 8 qualifiers among the other 32 teams. However, none of those 32 teams is granted automatic pass to the World Cup proper. All they get is an assurance of a single game at the tournament site. Only 16 of those 32 teams will win those single game eliminations and get to the World Cup proper. It is quite possible, therefore, that all CAF representatives lose elimination games which means that CAF may not be represented at the critical group stage of World Cup games!
Top 16 FIFA Ranked Teams Come From Following Confederations
UEFA = 10

Number of Reps from Each Confederation at the 2014 World Cup
UEFA = 13
AFC = 4
CAF = 5

What Could Have Been Better?
There is of course a better alternative. The initial alternative offered by Infantino had 40 teams that go into the tournament proper. That would have increased group matches from a total of 32 to 48 games. i.e 6 games in each group of four teams to 10 games in each group of five teams. The proposed 48-team increases the games by only 16 elimination games. The difference is remarkable and perhaps justifies a move to 48 teams, instead of 40, with the proposed structure that includes a round of 16 elimination games to save costs. Understandable.

However, everyone knows that the real party occurs when the group games begin. Why then create a situation where certain federations are denied one of the automatic places? Sure, the argument would be that it is a fair process because it depends on a country's place on FIFA's ranking. Yet, FIFA ranking has not been the fairest ranking system because it has co-efficients that have in-built advantages for UEFA and CONMEBOL teams.

What should have been fair is a system that assures all confederations atleast an automatic place. For instance, such a system could assure CAF, UEFA, AFC, and CONCACAF three automatic places each with one automatic place to OCEANIA.  The other three spots would go to the host nation and the two teams that played in the last World Cup final. Let the rest of the teams battle in the 16 elimination games. This will remove the legacy of in-built advantages to UEFA representatives. After all, it is those UEFA privileges that lead to perennial cries about unfairness. As the proposal now stands, that perennial cry will persist.

Hopefully, CAF's representatives on the 36-member FIFA Council are not sitting listlessly while UEFA fleeces them. By January, when FIFA make decisions on this proposal we hope that CAF insists on adjustments that assure fairness.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Briefs on Milestones from Zambian game....

Here are some achievement milestones that were reached or are close after Nigeria’s game against Zambia.

1     Coach Gernot Rohr became the second Nigerian manager not give a single player a debut in his first two games in charge. The other was Bora Milutinovic who went  seven games without giving any player a debut. Note that Lars Lagerback, after giving one player a debut in his first game, went the  next five games without introducing a new player.

2   Kelechi Iheanacho scored in his fourth consecutive games. If he scores in his next game, he will tie the Nigerian record jointly held by Yakubu Mambo and Emmanuel Emenike. His fourth consecutive game with at least a goal currently has him tied with six players – Segun Odegbami, Obafemi Martins, Sunday Oyarekhua, Paul Hamilton, Rashidi Yekini, and Ikechukwu Uche.

      The Nigerian win in Ndola was Nigeria's first win over Zambia on Zambian soil after 8 tries.

3   The win over Zambia is Nigeria’s fourth consecutive victory. If Nigeria wins the next game, it would tie the country’s second best record set under Shuaibu Amodu in 2001. The Nigerian record of six consecutive victories is also held by a team coached by Shuaibu Amodu in 2008.

4   Brown Ideye’s assist on Iheanacho's goal against Zambia was his fifth for the national team in 28 games. He also has 6 goals. Ideye’s assist total ranks third among players in the current squad that played in Zambia. Mikel at 13 and Ahmed Musa at 9 have made more assists but Ideye’s assists per game (0.19) is the second best among everyone else who has played at least 10 games. The only player with a better ratio of assists is Nosa Igiebor at 0.20. However, even Nosa at .20 is really low as it represents just one assist in five games!

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Super Eagles and their Most Recent Nigerian Clubs....

Manager Gernot Rohr has begun to slowly build his team to represent Nigeria during the 2018 World Cup qualifiers. Without the benefit of international friendlies, it appears that Rohr will rely on tactical preparation and not necessarily on a new crop of players to take Nigeria through to the World Cup. Only three of Rohr's current invitees arrive without ever playing for Nigeria's senior team (see Table 1). 

With the NFF claiming financial difficulties, Rohr is also unable to engage in a long drawn camp for local players. Instead, he is relying mostly on accomplished internationals based outside the country. However, most of those players cut their teeth playing for either elite or youth clubs in Nigeria.

Our focus in this article is to identify each player's last Nigerian club before heading overseas to play professionally. This exercise points to continued importance of home grown players in the process of unearthing talents for Nigeria's national team. These players are initiated to elite competition through Nigerian youth football or through elite Nigerian clubs, and such competitions serve as beginning point before additional polishing in professional clubs outside the country.

One result from the data is the growing number of national team players who never played youth or club football in Nigeria. Table 1 shows that 6 of 24 players fall into this category. This is a category that was non-existent or had very few players barely a decade or two ago. Also notable, is that another 5 of 24 never played elite club football in Nigeria before a professional career in Europe. So essentially, 11 or 46% of the recently invited players never played top flight club football in Nigeria. Obviously, this is a further confirmation of a trend widely acknowledged in the country's football.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

World Cup Qualifiers: Nigeria's Striking Options

Striking options for Nigeria during the upcoming 2018 World Cup qualifying games will be at a premium. In recent times, Nigeria has found it increasingly difficult to distance itself, scoring-wise, from even its weakest opponent (see Table 1). In its last 10 competitive games, Nigeria has scored three goals only once and that was two years ago! This has become, perhaps, Nigeria's most vexing issue. With a World Cup qualifying group of difficult teams, the scoring opportunities will become more scarce. Here, we discuss the options for Nigeria to rectify this problem.

Tactical issues
Though it is difficult to fully make a claim to tactical choices that Rohr is likely to apply, one may use the Tanzania game to attempt an educated guess. It is likely, that like under Manager Sunday Oliseh's tenure, the set piece will become important in Nigeria's creation of scoring opportunities. Thus, we will discuss the set piece as well as open play scoring options available to Nigeria.

Open Play
With just a single game under Rohr, it is likely that Nigeria will have one player dedicated to play at the zenith of attack. In the Tanzania game, of three forwards, one player was dedicated up top. That was Odion Ighalo. This was clearly a different philosophy compared to philosophy under Manager Stephen Keshi where the tendency was to switch all three forwards within the flow of the game.

There were enough opportunities provided for Ighalo in that game but he failed to convert a single one. To be clear, his movement off the ball was good and very important in the creation of those several opportunities. The question, however, is whether Nigeria can afford such profligacy from its top-slotted striker? Some have argued that Ighalo could be used as a foil for a scorer who advances from deeper positions. However, Ighalo can not be described as adept at holding up play in order for such tactic to work efficiently. Thus, if Nigeria seeks a striker to hold up the ball then Ighalo has to head for the bench. However, Ighalo's running behind the defense is valuable and creates numerous opportunities when the ball is played through to him timely to beat the offside trap. Against Tanzania, however, those balls came largely from the middle while Victor Moses hogged the ball on the left.

Unfortunately, Ighalo's goal scoring for Nigeria is poor (see Table 2). The table shows that Nigeria's most recent top strikers -- Ike Uche and Oba Martins -- scored at better clips (.40+) while Ighalo's meager 0.25 only compares to Emenike who quit the team after a long dry spell attempting to score. Of the current options at the striking position, Iheanacho has by far the best scoring clip (.60) but he has played in very few games. Perhaps, Iheanacho can play in place of Ighalo. No doubt, he is a much better goal scorer. Iheanacho has as many goals as Ighalo but in less than half of Ighalo's appearances. However, there are drawbacks to playing Iheanacho up top.  He is not much better than Ighalo in hold up play and his movement from that position is poorer. Further, playing him in such advanced position means that his usefulness in providing service to the strikers, because of his excellent vision, will be sacrificed.

The idea that Brown Ideye may be the man to replace Ighalo has its own problems. He is not a reliable scorer and he is not better running behind the defense as Ighalo is. Importantly, having a striker playing in the most advanced position is a much efficient plan than using the most advanced position for someone who's best quality will be to hold up the ball.

How about Ahmed Musa? He definitely is a hard worker and will get goal scoring opportunities running at and outrunning the defense but his finishing is quite unreliable. Of Nigeria's current options at the striking position, he has the worse goal scoring stat. However, he also is the only one who has not spent much of his time, in Nigerian colors, playing as the most advanced player.

It seems that the effective options are just two. One, play Iheanacho up top inspite of his weaknesses because his scoring dexterity is high enough to ignore those drawbacks. Moreover, if Iwobi is available and at the top of his game he certainly can provide as much vision as Iheanacho setting up the forwards from deep. Two, continue with Ighalo up top with the hope that he will deliver with the opportunities that he helps to create from that position.

Set Pieces
Rohr's work on set-pieces from the corner was evident in the Tanzania game. It produced a goal and was close on one other situation. It showed that set pieces will be one of the team's key packages for producing goals. This had, previously, appeared to be an afterthought for so many of Nigeria's previous teams in recent memory bar the Oliseh era.

Rohr is likely to work on the team at set-pieces from other spots on the field. Under Oliseh, the key player was Moses Simon. However, there is no guarantee that he starts on Rohr's team. However, his replacement, Victor Moses, came close with one opportunity early in the Tanzania game. Work in this area is important as the quickness of Nigerian forwards is likely going to lead to opportunities for set pieces just outside the box.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Nigeria v Tanzania: Insight as Nigeria Prepares for Zambia

If you are excited after watching Nigeria’s win over Tanzania by the slimmest of margins, I must say you have a good reason to be. Forget the slim margin. Deeply looking into the match itself, it is clear that the Nigerian team is headed for a good place with a bit of luck added. The win over Tanzania and the recent wins in the European friendlies against Mali and Luxemburg have introduced great expectations. The interest here, however, is in providing my view about the win over Tanzania. My view focuses on examining the team structure, the tactical issues, and then the individual athletes.

Team Structure
There have been insinuations that the team played in a 4-4-2 formation. Nothing could be further from the truth. The team played from a base 4-3-3 as we had assumed it might be under Gernot Rohr. However, 4-3-3 was just the base. At times, particularly defensively, it morphed into a 4-5-1 but there were difficulties with this as the likes of Victor Moses found it difficult to maintain shape defensively. Late in the second half, after going up by a goal, the formation changed to a 5-4-1 with substitute Ndidi moving into the central defensive space. The base 4-3-3 had only Onazi playing in the deepest position in the middle with both Mikel and Iheanacho advanced. Although Mikel appeared to have freedom to sometimes move deep, along with Onazi, in some defensive situations. All in all, it appeared to be a midfield in an inverted pyramid shape. Remarkably, Ndidi coming in for Mikel inverted the pyramid the other way with both Ndidi and Onazi in deep positions but with Onazi having a free role like Mikel on rare occasions.

Tactical Issues
Though the structure described above was positionally observable, the activity within the field was not always effective. As already mentioned, Victor Moses rarely carried defensive duties when the team was defending and, thus, created some amount of disruptions for Nigeria defensively on the left.

Importantly, it was clear that Nigeria was applying intense pressure even up high when in recovery mode. This was helpful as it forced the Tanzanians to turn the ball over frequently. However, it also created problems for Nigeria’s midfield when the Tanzanians successfully overcame the pressure. Large holes in the middle were apparent with Onazi quite often being the only midfielder available to protect the defensive line.

Further, as Nigeria became increasingly desperate to score late in the opening half, there was switching of personnel positionally with Iheanacho moving increasingly into an advanced forward position and Musa checking into the central midfield area to provide cover.

Nigeria created numerous goal opportunities largely through two routes. One was quick one-twos at the top of the box, usually involving one of two of Nigeria’s most gifted players – Ilheanacho or Mikel. Here, one must praise Ighalo’s running behind the defense, which presented options for the passers. Of course, the finishing was awful but the chances were many with 15 shots before half time. The other route, less successful, was the ball up top seeking for Ighalo.

Set-pieces:  Obviously, the team worked on this and it was apparent. First, the free kicks. Moses was very close with an early opportunity (5th min.). I believe that if Simon was in the game, he would be the specialist on these kicks when close to goal but he was on the bench. The most telling set piece was the corner kick. It is clear that there were sets for these kicks with Iheanacho and Musa working on the right side and Echiejile and Moses, on occasions, on the left. That the only goal came from this was not surprising but I will come to that a bit later. The first warning on these kicks for Tanzania came after Musa, clearly in an offside position, was allowed to earn a corner for Nigeria (58th min.). Iheanacho took a short kick to Musa who returned the pass and with only one defender on this set piece it was easy for Iheanacho to curl round and take a fierce left footed volley that the keeper parried into a corner. Tanzania learned. The next kick, coach Charles Mkwasa sent two defenders.  This time, it forced Nigeria to kick directly from the flag to the box. But sending two defenders limits the number defending in the box. Thus, in the 78th minute, Mkwasa varied the response. This time, he sent one defender with another quickly joining up when it was clear that Kelechi would get the pass from Musa. However, it was late as Kelechi accelerated past the second defender to knock in a vicious left footed shot that won the game.  The next corner on the right (86th), Mkwasa went back to two defenders waiting and again it forced a direct kick from the flag to the box. It was a chessboard battle but Nigeria won it.

The Players (1-10 scale with 5 as average)
Carl Ikeme (1) – 6.0 – This rank simply could signify that he was present at this match. He hardly had anything to do all game, except late.

Musa Mohammed (2) – 6.2 – One of the fittest players on the field. He often joined the attack but was back in position when needed. Importantly, he also made some good crosses. However, his tackling is a concern as they can be quite rash.

Uwa Echiejile (3) –5.8 – One of the veterans on the team. He had an awful early first half but made some outstanding defensive stops in the second. He also worked excellently with Victor Moses going forward.

William Troost-Ekong (5) – 6.3 – William was stable in the middle and won challenges in the air. It has to be noted that he was hardly tested. However, a mix up between him and Balogun let in a Tanzanian forward (39th min.) that could have resulted in a headed goal.

Leon Balogun (6) – 6.0 – Leon was strong defensively but in the second half he was forced to advance further as the defense set a high line to help the team in search of goals. In such position he showed vulnerability, losing the ball in a cul-de-sac that could have endangered the team (49th min.).

Ogenyi Onazi (17) – 6.5 – Onazi had a good game playing far deeper than usual. At times, he looked like he was playing center back. However, his problem with misplaced passes continued to exist although there were less such errors in this game.

Mikel Obi (cpt-10) – 7.2 – It appears Mikel is back to his old 2013 form. He has now showed that form at the Olympics and then in this game. He is clearly one of two Nigeria’s creative passers of the ball. He appeared to play in a free role and had several shots at goal and created opportunities all game. However, his fitness was a major question as he was often absent in the ball recovery phase. He was later substituted, perhaps, as he tired.

Kelechi Iheanacho (18) – 8.0 – Kelechi was my MVP and it was not because of the incredible goal that he scored. This kid has gained tremendous confidence and has now scored three goals in his last three games. Clearly, he is quickly becoming one of the on-field leaders, prodding and encouraging others. He is a great passer of the ball and broke down the Tanzania defense several times with passes. Importantly, he is the best shooter of the ball on this team. His shots are not simply to decapitate a goalkeeper but they are very thoughtful shots aimed to out think the goalkeeper.

Ahmed Musa (7) – 7.0 – Ahmed Musa is not just fast but he is a work horse.  One of the things people often fail to see is the work he does in the ball recovery phase. At the 21st minute, Tanzania breaks very fast on the right and Musa runs all the way from his own right to force the opponent into passing the ball back. That play demonstrates the value of this player to the team. Note also that as Kelechi increasingly moved into scoring positions late in the first half it was Musa tucking into the middle to help.

Odion Ighalo (9) – 6.3 – This is a much maligned player. However, if you watch closely, he runs into scoring positions quite often but he has been unlucky and now has just three goals 12 games for Nigeria. However, his runs behind the defense caused several problems for Tanzania, particularly in the first half.

Victor Moses (11) – 6.2 – This is a supremely talented player with the guile to outwit defenders, almost at will, but his final choices in this game left much to be desired. In the opening half, he was mindlessly individualistic choosing often to attack alone when options were waiting and open in the box for a cross.

Wilfred Ndidi (4) – 6.5 – Ndidi is definitely challenging for a starting position ahead of Onazi or besides him, depending on the formation. He came in as a substitute and provided the required outlet for passes from the defense. Late in the game, he appeared to play deep in the middle of the defensive line to set up a base of five defenders. His passing accuracy is better than Onazi’s at this time.

Ideye Brown (8) – 5.6 – He really did not do much but had two opportunities. One, I believe, was wrongly waived offside when he ran behind the defense just above the center circle to get onto a looped pass. Then Iheanacho’s pass presented him with an opportunity, which was blocked for the corner kick that led to Nigeria’s only goal.

Moses Simon (13) – x – Simon was on the field for only seven minutes, which was not enough for any reasonable evaluation.

TEAM – 6.5 – This was well above an average outing. Nigeria thoroughly dominated and should have scored more if the forwards had been more clinical. However, the performance provides assurance that this team and players will seriously challenge for a place at the 2018 World Cup.