Sunday, August 28, 2016

Siasia:The long fight, frustrations, and accomplishments

Samson Siasia's recent announcement that he is quitting management of Nigerian football was a surprise to some people especially after he had incredibly taken an emotionally-beaten team to Nigeria's only medal at the Rio 2016 Olympics. Siasia is arguably Nigeria's most successful age-grade manager. In four national managerial stints, he has placed at the medal stage three times. That is a huge return for any coach. However, in none of those campaigns has he had it easy with the football federation. He had been frustrated every inch of the way and those frustrations have taken their toll.

In spite of the whispers about his business dealings, there is no question that Siasia is a man who fights for the welfare of his players. It is his willingness and commitment to fight for his charges, in the face of administrative oppression, that has often put him in harm's way. However, he remained unbowed in several of those occasions and his charges have often played their hearts out for him.

For those who have forgotten, we take them back to each of those four stints as manager of Nigeria's age grade teams.

2005 World Youth Cup
Siasia was appointed in May of the previous year, replacing Ganiyu Salami. Immediately, he became embroiled with the Head of the Federation's Technical Committee, Kashimawo Laloko, on several issues. This was Siasia's first appointment in Nigeria and Laloko apparently thought that he could lord it over the rookie. First, Laloko attempted to pay players less than half of their allowances but Siasia was adamant that the players receive the previously agreed sum. Then he balked at Laloko sending numerous players to his camp and some of these players had been previously decamped by the coach. Further, Laloko attempted to replace him (Siasia) with Assistant Abdul Sule after the coach left for the USA to see his family during a break. Finally, Siasia rejected Laloko's move to appoint Adegboye Onigbinde to supervise him (Siasia).

Of course, Siasia's refusal to be lorded had numerous consequences. His team had no transportation to training. He was forced to pay custodians to mow the field at the Liberty Stadium in Ibadan where his team trained. Then Secretary Ogunjobi sent him an official query over his media complaints against NFA's maltreatment of him and his team. Later, he reportedly reached a deal with Russell Suites in Abuja for the team to pay only for meals. NFA failed to pay for the meals and the team faced daily threats of eviction. By February of 2005, the NFA was owing him for 8 months! To make matters worse, Siasia seized N7 million donated to the team by the Bayelsa State government in spite of NFA's insistence that the money should be sent to the NFA. Siasia reasoned that he needed the money to camp his team and there was no guarantee that the NFA would make money available if he channeled the money to the NFA. However, he eventually released money to the NFA but only after the NFA handed over funds for the team's camping.

Yet.....Result: He won the African Youth Championship beating Egypt 2-0 in Cotonou and then lost to Lionel Messi and Argentina 1-2 at the final game of the World Youth Cup. His final record with this U20 team was 9-4-3 (Won-Drew-Lost).

2008 Beijing Olympics
A year before, Siasia was named manager. A few weeks into this stint, he led the team to reject N750 bonus for each player. He insisted that only N2500 was commensurate for a U23 team. NFA Chairman, Ismaila Lulu, publicly condemned his actions and advised him to quit if he would not support N750 for the players. Then Globacom accused him of blackmailing the company after Siasia frequently contacted them to redeem the pledge the company made to the 2005 U20 team that was never redeemed. His battles for overdue wages, late payment of allowances, and others continued.

Yet.....Results: He won second place and the silver medal at the Beijing Olympics losing 0-1 to Lionel Messi and Argentina under scorching temperature. His final record with the Olympic team was 11-6-2.

2009 World Youth Cup
Cease was named late, replacing Ladan Bosso. The African Youth Championship was already completed without Siasia and the team had only few friendlies to prepare for the World Youth Cup. Unfortunately for him there were some problem players in the squad but very little time to groom a new squad. Well, he tried some new players and there were whispers of sharp practices in camp. In any case, he had agreed to just N1 million monthly for six months, which was a major drop from the N4.25 million monthly that he reportedly received in 2005 to coach the same U20 team. He faced similar frustrations that he faced previously i.e. allowances and bonuses not being paid.

Results? Disaster. The team failed to medal and was fortunate to get to the elimination round as one of the best third placed teams at the group stage. That fortune derived from the fact that Tahiti was in Nigeria's group. His final record with the team was 3-3-4. He announced then that he was done coaching any Nigerian youth team and criticized local players for the lack of tactical intelligence.

2016 Rio Olympics
This time, he was appointed early in late 2014. However, frustrations working with the Nigerian Football Federation (NFF) continued. By October 2015, Siasia was complaining about non-payment of allowances and the owing of coaches for months. At the height of the problem, the team was transported to the Olympics barely six hours to its opening game against Japan. Then the team boycotted training in Rio over nonpayment of allowances and bonuses. After a Japanese philanthropist presented checks of hundreds of thousands USD, the federation attempted to take the checks. Siasia refused and he is still owed months of salary.

Yet.....Results: The team went on to overcome Japan in the opener, won its group with a game to spare and then ended up with a bronze medal, the only medal won by the entire Nigerian contingent to the Olympics! His final record was 15-6-7 which included winning the African U23 Championship in Senegal where Nigeria beat Algeria 2-1 in the final game.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Rohr's First Squad: Musing, interpreting, and hoping....

Nigeria's new manager, Gernot Rohr, now has 23 players to form his first squad as Nigeria readies for a competitive international against Tanzania in Uyo. Though the game is formally designated competitive, it will be used as a friendly but without the ability to use as many as 17 players as usually allowed in international friendlies. That regulatory limitation to substitutions certainly hampers Rohr's plans to get the team ready for the World Cup qualifier against Zambia in October and perhaps it also explains the choice of players that he has in the 23-person list.

Of course, the list was likely drawn by his Nigerian assistant, Salisu Yusuf, who has better knowledge of the players but there is little doubt that Rohr set parameters to the invitation list. That squad list as well as a few other decisions give us an idea who Rohr is and how he, perhaps, plans his Nigerian tenure. There is speculation that he plans to recruit personal assistants that include an advisor, fitness trainer and video analyzer. These are likely to serve as his closest confidants never mind that the Federation has appointed three Nigerian assistants for Rohr. Then, Rohr has reportedly contacted two of the country's top players who retired in surprising circumstances but the contacts did not change the players' decisions to retire. Finally, Rohr's decision to observe the Nigerian local all stars during their playing tour of Spain adds to important clues.

Rohr's Opening Phase of Nigerian Tenure
Rohr's current decision produces nothing unique so far. They have all pointed to an unspectacular start of the first phase of international coaching career. His moves have been quite cautious. Some may even classify his moves as extremely safe and conservative. His team list includes only three players without senior international experience. Yet there were opportunities to call up more of those. That move is seemingly intended to not shake the boat. Yet, his hiring is designed to shake the boat, to move the team past current failures and to major successes. So why did he chose to be cautious?

There are several plausible reasons. He, perhaps, believes that the team's recent underachievement is not due to the personnel but to areas that he can positively impact like tactics and personnel management. However, his challenge then will be whether he has time to impact those areas in the midst of FIFA rules limiting training engagement to a few days during international breaks.

Guessing at Rohr: Tactical Re-Thinking
What could Rohr's tactical impact be? A look at the invited personnel points to a heavy focus on the defensive side of the ball where he has listed eight players. To be clear, he has eight players also listed at forward positions but based on Rohr's previous formation preferences, several of the forwards will be used as wide midfielders during the ball recovery phase of play. This is self-evident as the only four players listed as midfielders play centrally.

It seems that Rohr will focus significantly at the solidity of his defense but also find players who can transition quickly to attack, particularly from wide positions. Thus, the Nigerian idea of an attacking midfielder that comes from the middle may not quite exist here in spite of Nosa Igiebor's name on the list of invitees. That attacking midfielder may well come from wide areas.

Personnel Management Changes
Rohr's reputation, particularly, during his coaching tenure in Africa has been built on team unity and strong positive camp climate. That will be tested in Nigeria. However, his move to recall (albeit unsuccessfully) of former captain Vincent Enyeama and his decision to stick with most of the current internationals confirm this view. One would expect Rohr not to dabble into the issue of appointing a new captain or to begin with the benching of an influential international. At least, that will not happen in the first phase of his tenure as was the case with Sunday Oliseh's spat with Enyeama and changing of captainship or Berti Vogts' abrupt and early decision to bench Enyeama. Those decisions had dire consequences for team unity and spirit, particularly during an early phase when a new coach had yet to secure full acceptance from his playing personnel. Thus, Rohr is more likely to signal a change back to orderly affairs within the national camp. The effectiveness of that change will be evaluated in the weeks to come.

Now, Why the New Faces?
We pointed to the fact that three of Rohr's invitees have not represented Nigeria at the senior level. Two of those three, Chidozie Awaziem and Emmanuel Daniel, have been previously invited to the Nigerian senior camp but are yet to appear in a game. Awaziem was invited to participate in Nigeria's recent two game internationals in Europe but failed to play. Daniel was called up in preparation for the Nations Cup qualifiers against Egypt. They are now both recalled. The other invitee, Victor Osimhen, is receiving his first invitation. In essence, the list was largely a safe move by the coaching crew to focus on inviting players already familiar to Nigerians.

It does not seem the team will see any revolutionary change. At least, it is unlikely to happen soon. The invitation of Osimhen is more likely to help the coaches evaluate him as one of the prongs for the re-building of the team further down the line. He may represent the first and gradual call ups in that direction. 

In essence, what we learn from Rohr's first squad is that the steps are going to be cautious. Importantly, we learn the possibility that Rohr's views are hinged on assumptions that the playing personnel is adequate and that changes will come in terms of tactics and man management. The obvious concern is whether Rohr has the time to make his impact in the areas that he has likely diagnosed.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The Race for Gold Ends for U23 but.....

Today, Nigeria was eliminated by Germany from contending for the gold medal in men's Olympic football. However, the Nigerian team has come a long way during this Olympics. From a very late arrival to winning their group and then reaching the semi-final stage was far more than even Nigerians had expected from this team. 

Playing against Germany, a team that was disciplined from start to finish, Nigeria had its chances but in the end it was the better team that deservedly moved on to the final. For me, the achilles heel was the inability to create an effective offside trap. It burned Nigeria badly in the opening game against Japan and the Swedes attempted, albeit unsuccessfully, to exploit it in the next game. While we may have all forgotten, it was clear that the Germans did not. Early, they sought to exploit the weak areas in that trap. It paid off as the poor reaction time by the central defense created the winning goal after only eight minutes. From then on, it was a mountain too high to climb. Yes, Nigeria had two great chances afterwards from Sadiq exploiting a goalkeeping error and Mikel rounding up the defense, but the Germans escaped. To be sure, the Germans also had their own opportunities.

In fact, the Germans so thoroughly dominated the second period that it was hard to believe that Nigeria was the team chasing for an equalizer. There were so many misplaced Nigerian passes that it seemed the players had already given up the belief that a comeback was possible. The second German goal was surely arguably as Pieterson was offsides from just after the circle but the game had already been won and lost by then.

Troost-Ekong had a heck of a game and has now had his two strongest games for Nigeria in a row. Besides him, Mikel also played very well. After that, the rest were average at best. Shehu and Imoh, who had played so well prior to the German game, were below par. Of course, the German tactics had much to do with it. 

It will definitely be argued whether the absence of two of Nigeria's hardest midfield workers -- Etebo and Azubuike -- impacted the result of this game. Etebo, of course, sacrificed unnecessarily in a meaningless game when two reserves (Ajayi and Erimuya) had not seen a minute at the time is definitely a point worthy of discussion. As for Azubuike, it is left for him to wonder about his, unnecessary (again), ball handling that ruled him ineligible for this game. But to be frank, there is no certainty that their presence would have made a difference in the final outcome but they were two workhorses that Nigeria sorely missed.

Now, it is left for Nigeria to fight for third place with a bronze medal that may be the country's only medal at this games. Beyond that, there is much to celebrate about this team not just about its efforts to reach an unexpected medal stage but also the future that it promises for Nigeria going into the 2018 World Cup qualifiers. I wish the team luck and a better outcome going forward.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Mikel Leads Nigeria to the Medal Round.....

Obi Mikel, Team Nigeria's skipper, was instrumental to Nigeria overcoming Denmark to move into the medal round of the 2016 Men Olympic Football. This victory was very important. Denmark has been Nigeria's boogie team at least in the minds of many Nigerians. Not many will forget their 4-1 pounding of the Super Eagles at the 1998 World Cup when reaching the quarter final stage had been assumed to be easy. Then just a few months ago, this Denmark Olympic team whipped Nigeria 6-2 after leading 6-0 until the last few minutes during an international tournament in Korea. Thus, today's game was approached with a good dose of trepidation by Nigerians.

However, in spite of Nigeria's boycott of training because of delayed payment of allowances and in spite of the trepidation, Nigeria came through in a game that Nigeria probably could have won by a larger margin. At the center of that victory was clearly Mikel Obi who was the game's co-Man of the Match as far as one observed. He ran the midfield and his confident play was unmatched by any one else on the field. That he converted Nigeria's first goal was an important confidence builder for Nigeria.

Who was the other co-MVP? I believe Imoh Ezekiel deserved that tag. His running on the flanks and at the Danish defense was critical. He assisted in the first goal after switching to the left flank and running past the defense before making a high quality cross that Mikel only needed to re-direct into goal. If he was just a bit unselfish, he could have assisted a second goal few minutes later instead of going for glory. But there were, to be honest, a few others who were top quality today.

Nigeria played very well and seemed very assured with the ball but some defensive laps were still evident. One in particular was Amuzie's inexplicable failure to win a header that forced Nigeria's goal keeper to make a spectacular save. Late in the second half, a series of poor play disintegrated the defense but Nigeria was fortunate not to concede. These lapses could be problematic in a more difficult game. The top guy on defense was clearly Shehu. That defense earned a B for its play. No goal was conceded.

In the midfield, Nigeria was in control for much of the game with both Azubuike and Usman doing well in ball recovery and Mikel presenting himself to help maintain possession in advanced positions. Usman, however, was fortunate to stay in the game after numerous fouls that could have sent him off. Azubuike was very good covering a lot of space and recovering the ball but a few times he made unforced errors that would raise eyebrows. The grade was a B as well.

Upfront, Sadiq struggled to compete against the defense. It was not easy and he appears a tad slow in decision making and the ball control was not quite there in this game. However, Sadiq is a competitor and stayed active till he was substituted with Ajayi. For me, the attack earned a B-.

The technical crew did well and it showed in the way the defensive shape stood up for much of the game except late. In addition, the midfield play was good. I was concerned that Usman was left in the game at the beginning of the half when he seemed headed for disqualification. A  grade of B it is for the crew.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Pinnick Casts his Lot with Rohr as the 'Vultures' Bid their time.....

Nigerian Football Federation, led by Amaju Pinnick, today announced the signing of Gernot Rohr to manage the Nigerian national team. Pinnick had always made it clear that he preferred a foreigner to manage the Nigerian national team because he feels no local coach is good enough. He, finally, pulled the trigger after several misfirings in recent past. But by making this decision, the anti-foreign coach group is surely sitting on the fence and waiting for the German coach, Rohr, to fail. Such an outcome will test Mr. Pinnick's will to stay in office.

Gernot Rohr is a well travelled coach in Africa. He has won very little everywhere he has been in Africa but the reality is that he has never been at a big African job as the one Nigeria now presents. His first tenure managing a national team in Africa was in Gabon where he took Gabon to the brink of a semi-final place at the Nations Cup in 2012. Gabon had won all its group games and was five minutes to a semi-final place before Mali forced penalty-kicks where Aubameyang's miss proved costly. His longest tenure of over two years was at the Niger Republic where he frequently favored a defensive 5-4-1 formation that relied on quick counters at the 2013 Nations Cup. Though Niger failed at the group stage, a lone point was a record for the country. But Rohr's best performance is arguably his tenure in Burkina Faso where he lasted 10 months before quitting after qualifying the team for the 2017 Nations Cup and the third phase of the 2018 World Cup qualifiers.

Prior to 2012, he had spent his time managing at the club level and taking Bordeaux to the 1996 UEFA Cup finals against Bayern Munich. It was at that level that Rohr first had his African coaching stint. Unfortunately, that did not go well as Etoile du Sahel of Algeria fired him when the club failed to finish high enough to play in the African Champions League.

Records Aside
Rohr is a man that jealously guards his independence and fell out on several occasions with officials at Etoile du Sahel over team selection. That is a point that is likely to occur in Nigeria as well considering the penchant for Nigerian officials to dabble into team selection. Though going by Rohr's antecedents in Africa, it is difficult to determine how his team would play. He relied on 5-4-1 in Niger where he spent most of his time but the reality is that Niger was often playing from a position of underdog. Would he use the same system in Nigeria? That is not known but 5-4-1 is a highly flexible formation as it has opportunities to transform to more offensive approaches when the team has the ball. However, what is known is that he did vary from the 5-4-1 to 4-3-3 in a few games with Gabon.

Importantly, Rohr has shown in his time in Africa that he believes the right psychological state of his players and team is paramount. Thus, he has often built relationships with his players and the media and publicly stresses importance of team goals over individual goals. In Niger, he made it a point to take to press conferences players often overlooked by the media.

It is not surprising that Rohr reportedly agreed to live in Nigeria while managing the team. After all, this is clearly his biggest job managing a national team. Importantly, he has spent a significant part of his life in Africa. Recently, he donated his monetary award from being named a German sports ambassador to a Burkine-German FOGEBU-Academy in Ougadougou. It may seem to be a minor gesture but the gesture exposes perhaps his inner feelings about a continent where he has dedicated a significant part of his coaching.

So What?
While Rohr has his big job, it is clear that he has little time to turn around a team ranked #70 in the world. He has barely two months to his first World Cup qualifying game in Lusaka against Zambia. That would be a difficult task for the world's best managers, let alone for the likes of Rohr.

However, there is a sense that Nigeria has underachieved. Thus, the belief is that a little bit of work may just be enough to nudge this team into the 2018 World Cup finals. It is a belief that would have to be tested in the coming months. Fortunately, there are several young stars coming through the ranks. Is it possible to make them significant game winners within the period of the qualifiers? We saw Stephen Keshi take Nigeria from its lowest point to win the African championship within two years. Rohr faces a similar challenge. His task? He has to take the underachieving Super Eagles beyond the favored Algeria, unpredictable Cameroon, and Zambia to a World Cup place in 2018. Can he do it? It is quite possible but daunting. He surely needs the full support of the federation. It is the type of support that Nigeria has lacked now for years.

If Rohr fails, the 'vultures' will be waiting, certainly. The table below shows how different coaches have performed leading Nigeria in World Cup qualifying campaigns. Rohr is on the clock and it is ticking. The "vultures" will take a look at performance of local coaches during previous qualifiers and wonder what could have been if  Rohr fails to take Nigeria through.

Friday, August 5, 2016

The Victory over Japan in Brazil...

Yesterday's 5-4 win over Japan in Nigeria's opening game of the Men Olympic football is a story worth many headlines. The major one being the embarrassing travel plan of the Nigerian team. It made world headline news underlining pitiful circumstances of the country's Olympic preparations. That this U23 team overcame the difficulties of arriving in Brazil barely six hours, as widely reported, before the Japan game is a testimony to their strength of character. In fact, it is arguable that the Nigerian U23 team could have won this game going away if the travel plans had characterized a more serious Olympic preparation.

Beyond the travel embarrassment, Nigeria acquitted itself reasonably against Japan to take the three points at stake. Those points are important. However, we learned a few things as well from the game.

First, this Nigerian team is going to be unpredictable at the Olympics. The offensive power is clearly evident. Sadiq Umar demonstrated yesterday that he will be a force not just at this Olympics but also at the upcoming World Cup qualifiers. Of course, the early comparisons with a similarly-built Kanu Nwankwo is misplaced as both players are different in style. Sadiq was a handful and a nightmare for Japanese defenders yesterday. The only issues with him at the moment is strength as sometimes he is easily pushed off the ball and he appeared to tire late but then who knows whether that was a function of the abject Nigerian travel plan.

Second, the Nigerian Olympic team with 61% of players already with at least an appearance for the full national team cannot be considered an underdog at this Olympics.

Third, the Nigerian midfield is a bit light particularly in providing cover for the defense. This can become an ongoing issue. However, it is difficult to be certain on this considering that these players were playing in difficult circumstances and in positions requiring a lot of work after horrendous travel. This may explain the subpar display by Mikel Obi and Usman Mohammed. Mikel, particularly, should be expected to have far better games going forward.

Fourth, the defense was woeful. The continuing inability to play an effective offside trap will be exploited by opponents. Yesterday, Japan repeatedly exploited this huge Nigerian problem. It clearly led to the second goal when Shehu's positioning kept the Japanese goal scorer onside. More worrying is that the tactical change in personnel to sustain the lead failed. Siasia added an extra defender for a 5-man base after withdrawing a midfielder in the second half but yet it did little.

Fifth, Etebo Oghenekaro is proving to be a valuable goal scorer despite playing behind the forwards. He was able to score at a high percentage clip. No one could have been more clinical yesterday. Further, his work rate continues to be impressive.

After yesterday's game and a valuable win in difficult circumstances, the team should be expected to get out of the group and into the quarter finals. But it is important that the realization of such progression lies on the defensive abilities of this team to face the tests that are coming and most of those will explore their difficulty in playing the trap.