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.