Monday, July 18, 2016

The Coming of Paul Le Guen: Dreams, Expectations, and Likelihood

The Technical Committee for Nigeria's Football Federation (NFF) finally recommended Frenchman, Paul Le Guen, as manager in the run up to the final rounds of the 2018 World Cup qualifiers. The announcement was anti-climactic as the choice of Le Guen has been the worst kept secret for several weeks. So who is this guy?

Paul Le Guen is no stranger to Africa. He led Cameroon to the 2010 World Cup. Nothing new there. However, the committee's recommendation is strange because the country had recently turned away from hiring foreign coaches to focus on appointing its own coaches who had played professionally in Europe. So why the sudden change? Well, failure to qualify, under local coaches, for three of the last four Cup for African Nations finals (2012, 2015, and 2017) was a bit much to swallow for a proud nation. Thus, a 180 degrees turn to foreign coaches seems to be a concocted path to a hopeful solution.


Nigeria and a Problem Unsolved
But does the mere appointment of a foreign manager signify an effective solution? My answer is no. Nigeria's history is littered with appointments of foreign coaches that have failed to produce desired results. Here, one assumes that with Nigeria's domination of youth football, its conveyor belt production of football talents, its leadership in migration of footballers to European leagues, and its perception of self as 'African giant' presumes a dream and expectation of sustained leadership at the senior level of African soccer. Positive results, sadly, have been absent in the last few years. The fact that Nigeria slipped to 17th in Africa, based on FIFA's ranking, is a testament to how far off the "giant" had fallen.

But Nigeria's failure cannot always be placed at the table of its coaches nor can it be easily resolved by the appointment of a foreign coach. The reality is that what ails Nigeria is far deeper than the coach. One has to examine the environment in which the coach must apply his tools. That environment is the responsibility of the Federation that has long shifted blame to the coach and a gullible public has been bred on the "bread" of promised success with every coaching appointment. If this dystopic environment is not improved, the success of a Nigerian football manager will stutter along -- success here and failure there, sometimes fortunate and other times unfortunate. That will be Nigeria's status.


What to Expect of Paul Le Guen?
One can conclude that Paul Le Guen has been a successful coach but also a controversial one. That much we know. He took Cameroon to the 2010 World Cup finals when the more reasonable expectation was elimination after a poor home result against Morocco during the qualifiers. Le Guen won three consecutive league titles in France. Thus, this is not someone that has not been successful, at least reasonably.

Yes, one may argue about his slow starts at Glasgow Rangers and PSG, and then his unspectacular tenure at Oman. The fact is that in Glasgow, he successfully imposed his possession game on the team and success was largely denied because of his drive to change off-field culture. At Oman, his efforts are not to be denigrated, particularly with the knowledge that he was working with low-level talents for most part. Realistically, therefore, it should be recognized that Le Guen is a good coach, not outstanding but also not poor.

What is his philosophy both on and off the field? He plays with a base formation of 4-4-2 and at times 4-2-3-1. It is clear he focuses much on ball possession and supreme fitness of his players and he wants each player to work hard for the team for all 90 minutes in both the defensive and offensive phases of the game. For Nigerian players who focus on one phase, the likelihood is that they will be shown the door. Le Guen is a disciplinarian who has not shied away from taking decisive, even unpopular, personnel decisions. Expect that to happen in Nigeria, particularly if he gets the benefit of preparing with several international friendlies.

Notably, it is his personnel decisions that led to player mutinies at Rangers and then in Cameroon. Further, during his tenure in Cameroon he was accused of putting players in unusual positions. Here is a quote from Samuel Et'oo during the 2010 World Cup under Le Guen:

"After the World Cup he (Le Guen) will have to answer for his decisions. I played where Paul told me to, defending the flank ... I am the best striker in the history of Cameroonian and African football, but I have to play where the coach tells me to. I'm obliged to accept difficult situations."

Those decisions have been taken without consideration to team climate and unity. Yet, football teams thrive under positive climate and fail under negative ones, no matter the quality of their talent. And in none of those controversial situations did Le Guen seek compromise. It is that personality that has been the cause of various controversies that caused his departure in several of his previous positions. Will Nigeria be any different? Perhaps, but unlikely as personalities do not suddenly change.

Can he get Nigeria to the 2018 World Cup? Why not? He perfectly can do so particularly since the qualifiers are to be played quite early in his tenure. At least, before a chance for controversy and mutiny arise. All he needs is an enabling environment created by the Federation to make World Cup qualification a possibility.