Tuesday, December 19, 2017

2017 Annual Report for Nigeria's Football

This is the second The Fan's Annual Report for Nigerian Football (The inaugural version can be found here). Similar to the previous report, this one will grade five units (see below) and the cumulative grades will inform the total grade for Nigeria's football:

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

Additionally, the 2017 individual and team data for Nigerian football is presented along with recognition of selected individual accomplishments.

2017 has been a barren year for Nigerian youth football, at least at the international level. The failures, at the qualifying stages, in the previous years meant Nigeria was absent from both African and World phases of the age grade tournaments. Locally, the NPFL organized an exciting youth tournament for club academies and there were other youth tournaments. Overall, however, it was an unusually down year.
Grade: D based largely on sustained and new local tournaments alone. This could easily have been an F grade based on absences at the international level.

Women football mirrored youth football in the same year. Nigeria was absent in international tournaments throughout 2017. Furthermore, the U17 national team did not kick a ball in international competition until December against Ethiopia. Even then, they beat a lowly-placed Ethiopia on away goals with 0-0 at home and 1-1 away. Not exactly what is usually expected from a Nigerian women team. The senior national team "Falcons" has been inactive since winning the African Championship in 2016 in Cameroon. The U20 team beat both Tanzania and Morocco in the African qualifying phase for the U20 Women's World Cup. Locally, women football has been stagnant with a largely absent sponsorship, lukewarm national competitions, and poor financial support. Nigeria's women teams may be at the cusp of a major decline.
Grade: C- based on international qualifying performance by the U17 and U20 teams. It is a down year, no doubt.

Local elite football is clearly on the upswing in terms of media attention, sponsorship, among others. This year, a goal in the league was celebrated among the world's best by the American sports conglomerate ESPN. However, the issue of always win at home and lose away among the 20 teams continue to plague the league. Fans are re-embracing the league, in the main. However, performance at the continental level by the league's elite team has been abysmal at best. For the second year running, only one of four representatives reached the league phase of African competitions.

Grade: B- based on poorer than expected performance for the year. The continued weak continental results is a significant consideration here.

Nigerian football administration claims World Cup qualification for its flagship team -- Super Eagles. That is indeed laudable but administration grade is based on more factors than just performance of the national teams. Fortunately, football administration had a good year in acquiring a major sponsorship with AITEO to pay coaches. Then it reached a World Cup bonus agreement with the national team long before the start of competition in Russia. Importantly, the administration also provided great results in political muscling by securing significant clout at the continental level where its President won elections to CAF Executive Committee and became a key player in ending the Issa Hayatou era.  All the above indicated at least an A- grade in spite of failures at the women and youth competition levels. However, all that was soured with the administrative bungling that led to FIFA sanctioning the country for using an ineligible player in a competitive game.

Grade: B+ is, therefore, the grade based on progress with sponsorship and accruing important political leverage at the continental level but also recognizing problems noted above.

Super Eagles qualified for the 2018 World Cup with a game to spare. The team was strong throughout the qualifiers and soundly thrashed its erstwhile nemesis Cameroon 4-0 in a critical game and it went unbeaten in the World Cup qualifiers. In addition, the team humiliated highly rated Argentina 4-2 in an international friendly. However, 2017 was not all rosy. The opening game of the AFCON qualifiers ended in a shock home loss to South Africa. That was a blemish that stained the national team in 2017.

Grade: A- based on great run in the World Cup qualifiers and the beat down of Argentina. But those accomplishments are tempered by a shock home loss in the AFCON qualifier.

Below are grades for specific units of the national team:

Goalkeeping: This was the problematic position for much of 2017. Ikeme's unavailability on account of sickness was problematic as Daniel Akpeyi's performance was well below par. Additionally, Ezenwa replacing Akpeyi provided early succor before a horrendous display in Algeria. Grade is C.

Defense: This was a particularly vexing unit in 2016 but was greatly stabilized much of 2017. The central defenders Ekong and Balogun grew into a stable and reliable unit. Abdullah Shehu on the right was consistent. However, Echiejile on the left still has shaky moments especially against pacy opponents. Indeed, it is a unit that has grown. Grade is B.

Midfield: This is, perhaps, the most stable unit for the team. Ndidi and Onazi at the base have been solid and largely disciplined, while skipper Mikel Obi is still able to play at an elite level. At the wide midfield are Simon and Victor Moses who provide the guile and pace. This is the unit that often decides whether Nigeria wins or loses a game. Grade is A-.

Forward: Here, the idea is to evaluate players that often join the attack whether or not they are largely designated as midfielders. The most advanced player is Odion Ighlo and at times Kelechi Iheanacho. The unit has scored regularly and continues to position players for goal scoring opportunities. Grade is B. This grade is a step back from 2016. 

Bench: The bench has been built up slowly with Etebo, Ahmed Musa, and Kelechi Iheanacho now considered options on the bench. These are players who could easily start on this team. This level of bench strength is a major consideration in the Grade of B+

Coaching: Gernot Rohr, beyond the stunning home loss to South Africa, has been impressive. The dismantling of Cameroon with a virtuoso performance both in Uyo and Yaounde was telling. The quick counter attacking of the team and disciplined performance defensively bodes well for the team's future. The zenith of the coaching team's performance was the changing of formation against Argentina and still winning 4-2. This is certainly a A- grade. It could well have been a higher grade if South Africa did not happen.


The over all grade for Nigerian football in 2017 is B. This is based on unit grades that were A-, B+, B-, C-, and D. In 2016, Nigerian football received an over all grade of B- and thus this year is an improvement. That improvement is, however, uneven. The Super Eagles received A- grade compared to last year when none of the units received better than a B+ grade. However, youth and women football declined and that is reflected in this year's grades.

The data include results of the home-based national team that played in the WAFU Cup in Ghana. This may explain the drop in efficiency from 0.67 in 2016 to 0.58 this year. The 'A' national team lost one game all year, at home to South Africa, but had a very good year qualifying for the World Cup and raising hopes of an excellent 2018 at the World Cup in Russia. Table is included below:

Goalkeeper Ikechukwu Ezenwa led in both minutes and number of appearances, courtesy of appearing for both the 'A' national team and the home-based team (see table below). Iheanacho scored another four goals in 2017, as he did the previous year. It is an amazing total for him in 2017, considering that he started most games from the bench. His two assists tied Alex Iwobi for the lead in the national team.

There is no surprise that Victor Moses leads as the best player ahead of Mikel Obi and Leon Balogun who also played excellently. Moses was instrumental in leading the national team to World Cup qualification. The BEST NEW PLAYER was a toss up between Ola Aina and Hafeez Aremu. Aina, by virtue of appearing for the 'A' national team, gets the nod but Aremu definitely showed quality with his performance at the WAFU Cup. Leon Balogun has been a feature in the national team but he is named the EMERGING STAR because in 2017 he took the next step of not just being a starter on the team but becoming one of the best players of the team. See the table below.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Realities of Nigeria's World Cup Group......

Ambivalence pervades analyses of Nigeria's 2018 World Cup group. For some, this is definitely a group where Nigeria is certain to finish among the qualifying two teams. For others, the ranking states otherwise and both Argentina and Croatia should keep Nigeria out. The uncertainty among analysts about the likely outcome in the group has led some to christen it the Group of Death even though there are surely much stronger groups from top to bottom. My analysis is not so much to claim that I have a crystal ball. Instead, it is to provide some insight, another perspective, or fresh thinking beyond just results achieved by each team in the group. In doing so, I intend to examine the draw, the schedule of games, and then the teams. I believe those three areas are critical in gaining insight on what could happen in June in Russia.

The Draw

The draw on December 1 was certainly not what Nigeria hoped for but it was not the worst case scenario either. In a sense, the best possible draw for Nigeria was to be the African team in Group A where Russia is seeded. That would have been an easier group, at least on paper. But it didn't happen. Instead, Nigeria was drawn in Group B with Argentina, Croatia, and Iceland. It is a much tougher group but certainly easier than a worst case scenario that may have put Nigeria in a possible group with Germany and Spain! Thus, Nigeria escaped with a draw that gives it a reasonable chance to get to the Round of 16. After all to achieve great things at the World Cup you must first make it out of the group. After that, any thing is possible. That is thumbs up for Nigeria's chances come June.

Schedule of Games

Theoretically, it is always best to encounter the top seeded team in the final round of group games. The reasoning is that the top seed will come into that game already qualified and may rest some of its top players. But that is if the top seed has taken care of business in its first two games! That is a big IF because the top seed may disappoint in one of those earlier games and, thus, not always qualify before the final round of group games. 

Second, it is best to play against the weakest team in the group in the second round of games rather than the first round. Why? Settling for a draw in the usually nervy opener provides an easier game to take maximum points in the second. 

For Nigeria, the scheduling of games broke perfectly. Nigeria plays Iceland in the second round and the thinking is that Iceland may be the weakest team in the group in spite of the fact that it is ranked ahead of Nigeria. Then, Nigeria does not play top seed Argentina until the final round. 

However, this is all theoretical. Nigeria had a somewhat similar schedule at the 2014 World Cup but instead of beginning with expected victory against Iran, it stumbled before beating Bosnia in the second round and had to sweat on Bosnia v Iran game before sneaking into the Round of 16. In any case, the schedule is much better than having to face the top seed first and then scrambling to qualify in the later games if it loses the opener against the top seed. Again, another thumbs up for Nigeria.

The Teams

While it appears that Nigeria has a very good chance of qualifying, one must acknowledge that Nigeria is the lowest seeded team in the group, which means that it is theoretically expected to finish at the bottom of the group. However, on-field play can trump the ranking of teams. At least, that is what Nigeria must think. In that case, lets examine the teams in the group and their strengths.

Argentina. This is the top team in the group and a usual group mate of Nigeria. Argentina  and Nigeria have been in the same group in five of Nigeria's six World Cup appearances. Dreadfully, Argentina has always beaten Nigeria at the World Cup. However, Nigeria beat Argentina 4-2 recently to derive a psychological up lift. But how much would such uplift count when both teams meet in Russia? Notably, while both teams missed top stars during that 4-2 game, Argentina was without the World's best player Lionel Messi who surely will be on the field in Russia. Messi is a player who can significantly impact a game more than any other player in the world. Thus, that 4-2 victory may be meaningless come June. Make no mistake about that. With Aguero, and probably a returning Higuain, running ceaselessly behind the defense, Messi has the guile to either locate their runs or take on the defense by himself. Nevertheless, Nigeria has a good chance to earn a point or three in the game if its defense and midfield are disciplined. It will be a difficult game for Nigeria.

Croatia. Croatia certainly expects to qualify as one of the best two teams in the group and has the star names to support this expectation. This is a team that has been troubled for a while and has made several coaching changes as it sought to produce results that reflect its potential. While Croatia beat Spain at the Euro in 2016, it has drawn with likes of Finland and lost to Iceland. The midfield may be one of the best in the world but the reality is that this team needs loads of attempts to score. It is not a clinical team up front and certainly not as clinical as Nigeria's team. Mandzukic has a reasonable goal scoring ratio, but he is at the end of his career and so are most of the team's top players. This World Cup is probably their last hurray. Their recent 4-1 win over a poor Greek team is an aberration after difficult games in recent times. Its defense is also suspect but definitely good enough to compete against any of the teams in the group. Croatia has never played against Nigeria but it must be remembered that it destroyed Cameron 4-0 in its only victory at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. 

Iceland. Nigeria has only met Iceland once, losing 0-3 in a second of a two-game Scandinavian tour in 1981. Nigeria had tied Norway 2-2 in the opening game of that tour with amateur players. But then Iceland was not exactly a powerhouse at the time. However, Iceland has developed rapidly building all-season fields that provide year-round play for its players and has developed numerous top grade local coaches that belie its low population. Results have followed, including a defeat of England at the European Championships in 2016 and beating Croatia in the World Cup qualifiers. Nevertheless, Iceland lacks players playing at the top leagues in Europe but it has not mattered as it has been coached into a disciplined outfit that is difficult to break down. Iceland is a dark horse that may be underestimated but it certainly can make noise in this group.

Nigeria. While each of the other teams in the group can be beaten, they each can also beat Nigeria. Nigeria, surely, will be an underdog in games against Argentina and Croatia. Against Iceland, Nigeria will be expected to dominate the ball and will have the difficult task of breaking down a sturdy Icelandic team. The keys in this group for Nigeria will be a defense that is alert to forwards making runs behind the defensive line. This means that Nigeria must avoid playing a high line and avoid pressuring the opponent very high because those may cause exploitable gaps in its own dangerous areas. Nevertheless, there are other issues. Against Croatia, particularly, the experimental 3-5-2 may not be the appropriate option. Instead, a more defensibly solid 4-5-1 should be preferred with a quick forward and quick wide midfielders. Against both Argentina and Iceland, the 3-5-2 may be preferred but for different reasons. Against Argentina, the 3-5-2 is more effective as an adapted 3-5-1-1 and compacting the spine of the formation, which is critical. Further, it would help to deny Messi in the middle with two defensive midfielders playing deeper than usual. Up front, the wide backs and forwards provide pace against an aging defense. Against Iceland, Nigeria will more likely have the initiative with a traditional 3-5-2 and would need the spaces wide to help break down a likely compact Iceland on the day.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Race to Build a Memorable World Cup Team

The 2018 World Cup in Russia is barely seven months away but Nigeria's readiness to build a record-setting team remains largely unclear in spite of the recent 4-2 win over Argentina in an international friendly. By record-setting one refers to a team that would at least get to the quarter final stage in order to surpass previous performances by Nigeria at a World Cup (see Figure 1). The current team has qualified for the World Cup finals with one game to spare but, at times, left doubts about its ability to take serious positive steps at the World Cup in Russia.

This is not to slam the team. Not at all. After all, qualifying with a game to spare is no mean feat and dominating Argentina in a spectacular second half was indelible. However, Nigeria in doing so did not always dominate its opponents and, at times, there were some doubts. What Nigeria largely demonstrated was its clinical ability in front of goal, something that its opponents rarely matched. Take the 3-1 win over Algeria in Uyo, the game was much closer than the scoreline. The 4-0 win over Cameroon was much closer than the scoreline indicated and the Zambian game in Uyo saw the visitors an inch offside on a goal that could possibly have led to a draw. The bottomline is that while Nigeria won those games, the scorelines were often deceptive. In only one game did Nigeria put up a performance where the scoreline did not do favor or overestimate its play. That was the 1-1 draw in Yaounde where Nigeria was the better team and Cameroon rarely looked likely to score. Then the magnificent three-goal second half against Argentina in Krasnodar was no less than the team deserved.

However, it is now a 7-month race to build a team capable of emerging as one of the best eight teams at the 2018 World Cup. Though Nigeria's advanced forwards have not scored a lot of goals, the team has done well because goals have also come from the midfield. Arguably, playing against favored opponents may reduce the ability of midfielders to move into advanced positions in the field in order to score goals. Often the questions surrounding pace in the center of Nigeria's defense has meant that the defense plays further back with the midfield a bit withdrawn to provide cover. The alternative, when quick counters become difficult is that Nigeria must quickly identify advanced forwards who are more likely to get on the scoresheet. Besides Ighalo, there has been a problem finding others. Kelechi Iheanacho scores a bit but for Nigeria he has not demonstrated convincing ability to play at the most advanced forward position. Anthony Nwakaeme debuted in Constantine but did little to justify any confidence in his ability. Iwobi did the trick against Argentina but can he be trusted to be consistent in front of goal?

Though questions surround the attack, the midfield appears solid. Nigeria's midfield is as good as most of its counterparts any where else in the world. Rohr, unlike his predecessors, has focused on providing not just key personnel in the middle but also providing numbers there. The consequence is that he has developed solid starters and some bench players that can step up in case of any injury to a starter.  More importantly, he can employ them in his favorite 4-5-1/4-4-1-1 or the 3-5-2/3-4-1-2 he recently used in Krasnodar. Mikel Obi, is unquestionably the leader in the midfield. His technique on the ball is one of the best not just in Africa but also in the world. It is on his feet that Nigeria must look with hope if reaching the last eight is doable. Ndidi and Onazi are strong ball winners. However, both of them lack passing accuracy. Etebo brings better passing accuracy but his range of passing is questionable. Mikel Agu is an option from the bench but he is yet to produce a convincing performance on his appearances for the team. John Ogu will be fighting for one of the last spots to the World Cup. He wins the ball but is a step slower than his team mates and his range can be doubted. At the wide positions are a ton of players that include Victor Moses, Moses Simon, Alex Iwobi, Ahmed Musa, and Henry Onyekuru. Further, Rohr can use wing backs as he did against Argentina. However, the unit is good enough in spite of some weaknesses. Victor Moses is the most valuable of the lot and the most consistent. He has to play and be effective for any Nigerian chance to reach the final stage.

Defensively, the team has done well. However, there is this lingering doubt that this defense may be achieving results well above its real abilities. Individually, none of the players can be said to be outstanding but as a group they have been effective. Whether such effectiveness will continue at the World Cup is left to be seen, however. To the team's credit, Coach Rohr has worked to stock the squad with defenders of similar abilities meaning that in seven months time, an injury to one does not mean a major loss for the team.

At the goalkeeper position, the bottomline is Nigeria needs to recall experienced Vincent Enyeama in order to dream of reaching the last eight in Russia. Without him, a final eight or even getting out of the group phase might be too tall a task for the team. The current goalkeepers are just not on the same level of performance or confidence as Enyeama. This includes the new Nigerian favorite -- Francis Uzoho. He debuted in Krasnodar but produced just one save worthy of note as he was rarely tested by the Argentines. However, his height and his large wingspan make him appear assured both in the air and getting to balls shot away from his body. However, more of him needs to be seen for him to be anointed an assured goalkeeper for the team.

Table 1 below looks at the team's current personnel and grading their individual performances and estimating their individual impact on the team. NG grade is simply "No Grade" as there is little data to evaluate. Team impact ranges from 1 to 5 with 5 reflecting greatest impact on the team. A player reaching an impact of "?" means the impact is difficult to assess because of few appearances.

In the next few months, it seems, Nigeria's dreams for reaching the final eight will either get a boost or raise major doubts. The activities that would drive those emotions lie in the coaching crew's recruitment of important talent in the attack, a recall of Enyeama and/or development of Uzoho, and the tactical work on the team, particularly in defense. It is the thin line between just participating at the World Cup or creating  a team capable of setting a record worthy of memories at the event next June.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Victory Over Argentina is a Remarkable Comeback....

The 4-2 come back win in Russia against Argentina is an important marker. To come back from being 0-2 and being overrun by a top team like Argentina is remarkable. That should never be underestimated. Besides that marker, Rohr's decision to test the 3-5-2 formation is work in progress but there are indeed promises. As we saw after Nigeria went up 3-2, the defensive benefits from that formation proved important as it frustrated the Argentines repeatedly. It is likely that Rohr will call up that formation at critical moments at the World Cup.

But it must be clear that the 3-5-2 did not work very well at times. This was particularly clear with   Aina reluctant to join the attack and at times effectively rendering the system unbalanced on the left. Idowu's entry and his willingness to commit upfront created opportunities as the formation should, going forward. As for Aina's reluctance, is surprising because he had provided attacking promises in the game against Algeria. Although against Algeria, he had left the defense exposed in one of his moves upfront. Could that have led to his reluctance? I have no idea.

The 3-5-2 formation in the opening half was not static with Mikel and Iwobi frequently switching and in its ball recovery phase, Iwobi clearly was the one more likely to be withdrawn deep leaving Iheanacho advanced. Of course, Iwobi became the most advanced after Iheanacho's exit in the second half. Ultimately, Iwobi played his best game ever for Nigeria and Ebuehi was a pleasant revelation. Here is how I rated the players.

Daniel Akpeyi (1) -- 6.0 -- Made two blunders but overall was steady and made two important saves to keep the Argentines at bay. The first blunder appeared as if he perceived that Di Maria had been whistled off sides and he prepared to take the kick but as Aguero intervened, he picked up the ball leading to a ferric call. The second was a poor left foot clearance that could have cost Nigeria as it hit an attacker before going into throw in.

Chidozie Awaziem (20) - 5.8 -- Had a poor second half with some mind boggling tackles and then turning the ball over in dangerous position. In the first half he was left stranded allowing Otamendi a free header deep inside the box.

William Troost-Ekong (5) -- 7.0 -- Nigeria's best defender in this game. He was quick to cut off dangerous attacks and was business like as usual. Made several saves.

Leon Balogun (6) -- 6.0 -- Made a dangerous turnover in the opening half and then was beaten for pace leading to the second goal. Otherwise he had some good moments and was surprisingly confident on the ball against the South Americans.

Abdullahi Shehu (12) -- 6.0 -- Shehu was average in this game. Nothing remarkable except one important block of an Aguero attempt in the opening half.

Ola Aina (2) -- 6.0 -- This was an average game for him. Rarely joined the attack and his positioning in the opening half largely rendered the formation unbalanced down the left when going forward. However, he had some good defensive moments.

Wilfred Ndidi (19) -- 8. 0 -- Though Iwobi was very good but Ndidi was good from the opening minute to the last. He was the best player out there for long moments. His ability to recover the ball is growing every game. It was his ball recovery that led to Nigeria's equalizer early in the second half.

John Ogu (19) -- 6.4 -- Ogu was very confident and circulates the ball with quick one-twos. Rarely made a passing error in this game but otherwise was not very influential.

Mikel Obi (10) -- 6.5 -- Mikel had a good game and very confident on the ball as usual. However, as he tired it meant that his tracking back became more labored. His use in the system often felt like an interchange from a forward to midfield positioning.

Alex Iwobi (18) -- 8.0 -- This was Alex Iwobi's best game for Nigeria by far. He was still lively even when he was not seeing much of the ball in the opening half. He earned the foul that led to the free kick goal and then he scored a brace in the second half. His second goal was top quality as he embarrassed Mescherano before shooting craftily beyond the goalkeeper.

Kelechi Iheanacho (14) -- 6.5 -- Kelechi, apart from his masterful ferric goal late in the first half was largely anonymous. However, he exploded in the second half and provided two assists and could have scored a spectacular goal with a back flick in the second half.

Francis Uzoho (23) -- 6.3 -- Uzoho's debut was not much of a test but he exuded confidence. He was only called upon twice and he passed with flying colors. First he flicked a header over his goal and then he confidently punched a threatening lob off his goal area. Otherwise, it was a quiet debut.

Tyronne Ebuehi (17) -- 7.5 -- Tyrone was at the right place and at the right time at a every moment. This was a superb game for him both defending and going forward. He hardly put a foot wrong during his time in the game.

Kenneth Omeruo (4) -- 5.8 -- Was on for 30 minutes but was largely anonymous. In one moment he made an unforced concession into corner chesting the ball.

Brian Idowu (21) -- 6.3 -- He had a memorable debut. Came in and changed the play on the left by frequently joining the attack ending up putting Nigeria ahead for good with a well taken opportunity. He also defended very well late in the game.

Ahmed Musa (7) -- 6.0 --  Musa was in the game for 20 minutes and his effort was high both defending and attacking. Then he assisted Nigeria's fourth goal.  Beyond those, there was nothing else that was remarkable.

Kayode Olanrewaju (9) -- X -- Was not evaluated in only five minutes of play.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Nigeria Remains Unbeaten on the Road to the World Cup

Nigeria ended its World Cup qualifying schedule, again, unbeaten after a 1-1 draw against Algeria in Constantine. It was a game that would be quickly forgotten. It produced very little fireworks and had large stages of unorganized play by both teams. The field was atrocious with the ball bouncing unpredictably and passing by both teams was just as unpredictable. While it is easy to blame the poor field, the fact that several key players were missing on both sides may well have been significant in producing the poor display for a game that was supposedly a competitive encounter.

Nigeria had already qualified for the World Cup and, thus, this game was equivalent to an international friendly. It ended up even looking worse. However, it was enough to provide some insight on those who were on the field. Here are my thoughts:

Ikechukwu Ezenwa (16) -- 5.5 -- This was a horrific game for Ezenwa. In the first half, the Algerians had little to threaten him but his unreadiness was exposed in the second half. First, he clawed at a high ball to concede a cornerback (60th), then he failed to strongly grip another, and then dived and completely missed a cross to offer the Algerians a big chance from just about five yards out (67th).

Abdullahi Shehu (12) -- 6.4 -- Shehu had another confident outing and won numerous one-and-one encounters. Though, he was called for the penalty kick that led to the Algerian goal but the call was a controversial one. Shehu is gradually solidify his grip on the problematic right back position.

Ola Aina (2) -- 6.2 -- Aina had a reasonably good game and his one and one defending against Mahrez was a plus. It is quite obvious that he has the pace to keep up with fast attackers and the ability to contribute going forward. However, his ability to win contested high balls is definitely an issue and it showed in this game. Additionally, he has to make the right reads on when to join the attack. Overall, a good game.

William Troost-Ekong (5) -- 6.3 -- William is almost always a good decision maker at the heart of Nigeria's defense and he proved that today. He was very reliable cleaning up in defense.

Leon Balogun (cpt-6) -- 6.2 -- Leon captained the team today and started very jittery. It appeared that he was having monumental problems controlling the ball on the poor field but he played much better after a rather uncertain start to his day.

Oghenekaro Etebo (8) -- 6.2 -- This was thought to be an opportunity for Etebo to impress and force a consideration as a starter. He played well but not enough to win such a consideration. He was around the ball but most of his passes were just about five yards out and very little inventiveness to stretch the play with longer passes. Defensively, he won his share of balls.

John Ogu (19) -- 6.0 -- Ogu scored Nigeria's goal with a remarkable shot from 25 yards out but beyond that his play was unremarkable. He will surely be on the very edge fighting for the last spots to make the World Cup team.

Wilfred Ndidi (13) -- 7.0 -- Ndidi was all over the field in the opening half and I had him rated 7.5 but that fell off in the second half. However, it was clear that he was head and shoulders above the other midfielders. This guy recovers the ball more than anyone else on Nigeria's team. However, he also has a tendency to turn the ball over.

Alex Iwobi (18) -- 6.0 -- Iwobi was largely anonymous playing on the wide left of the midfield in the opening half. He was slightly better on the right after halftime before he was replaced. Alex had a big opportunity in the second half but fumbled his final ball as the poor field produced an unusual bounce forcing him to make a cross off his shin.

Anthony Nwaekeme (22) -- 6.0 -- He reminded me of a young Yakubu Aiyegbeni, running all day. However, for such a big fellow it is surprising that he hits the ball softly in front of goal. He will get another chance against Argentina but Ighalo will not be having any sleepless nights.

Kelechi Iheanacho (14) -- 6.2 -- Kelechi had his moments and was very good with his set pieces into the box. In the 40th minute he played a set-piece to Etebo but slipped on the poor field as Etebo set him free on the right. This combination set piece was a feature in a 2016victory over Tanzania where he and Musa combined on it a few times. This time the field prevented a good outcome in that exchange with Etebo. 

Onyekuru (11) -- 5.8 -- He was anonymous in the 20 minutes that he was on. However, in one single play (85th) he did remind everyone why he had been scoring in Europe. One turn to his right, dismissed an Algerian defender but his low shot was deflected into corner. Beyond that, nothing else was remarkable.

Ahmed Musa (7) -- x -- Musa was on the field for just 10 minutes and is unrated.

Coaching Crew -- 5.5 -- This game was poor on both sides. One has to credit the crew because Nigeria qualified and the team finished the qualifiers unbeaten. Both are admirable achievements. However, the team v Algeria played poorly for a large part of the game. If this was a 'friendly' why did the crew not use the opportunity to use up three substitution spots? Why did it take so long to bring in replacements? At this rate, some of the rarely used players may end up not playing against Argentina on Tuesday.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Gernot Rohr's Imprint Begins to Take Shape.......

Nigeria’s Coach Gernot Rohr may not have debuted any of the current starting players in the Super Eagles but he has made some key changes. Unfortunately, the media have rarely commented on these changes. I will comment on them by focusing on five key ones.

The formation and focus on defense first. Gernot has moved away from Nigeria’s most recently preferred use of the 4-3-3 as the base formation with a great deal of attention to attack. Instead, Rohr has chosen to play cautiously, with a base formation of 4-2-3-1 that changes, at times, to 4-5-1.  From these formations, particularly the 4-5-1, he relies on quick counters, using players wide, and widening passing lanes. His use of 4-5-1 in Yaounde, particularly, exposed what I believe Rohr will use at the World Cup against a favored opponent. The game in Yaounde has been, in my opinion, the most clinical display by Nigeria for years. Besides conceding an unforced penalty kick, Nigeria gave Cameroon few decent chances in front of goal and Nigeria closed down quickly and consistently. That is a recipe that we are likely to see more often at the World Cup.

Handing over the set pieces to Victor Moses. Over the years we have seen several players from Emmanuel Emenike, Moses Simon, Mikel Obi, Ahmed Musa, Kelechi Iheanacho, to Victor Moses assume set-piece duties for Nigeria. Even Rohr used Musa in his first game against Tanzania but that has changed when you closely watch Nigeria’s recent internationals. It is clear that Rohr has now handed that role, solely, to Victor Moses. Moses now takes both corner and free kicks. He is yet to score from one of them but he came close against Cameroon, forcing the keeper to a magnificent save and against Zambia he found Ndidi for a spectacular header. His precision and consistency taking these opportunities are self evident. Previously, Nigeria frequently over hit corner kicks and routinely frittered away free kicks.

Using Wilfred Ndidi for the throw-ins. The same thing has happened with taking throw-ins. It appears that the role is now strictly Wilfred Ndidi’s. This certainly keeps defenders free for defensive duties when the ball is quickly lost.  This also means that midfielders are free from routinely scampering back to cover deep for defenders who are far afield taking throw ins consequent to an opponent’s counter. In any case, Ndidi’s ability to launch the ball a great distance from points on the touchline or sideline, close to goal, provides an opportunity similar to a corner kick.

Building bench support. While Rohr has not debuted a starter yet, he has done well to expand number of bench players capable of filling the role of starters. For instance, Nigeria’s midfield and striker positions now have quality substitutes. In central defense, Awaziem has the potential to become a quality substitute as well. Of course, there are still positions where reserves are not quite up to par but the squad is gradually building capable personnel.

Depending largely on players developed abroad. The NFF President, Pinnick Amaju, encourages Rohr to build the national team around young players who have come from foreign-based academies. In recent times, Rohr’s starting eleven players barring recent absences due to sickness and injury respectively to Ikeme and Iwobi, included five such players! If Ola Aina takes over from Elderson Echiejile as widely anticipated, that would be six of eleven starters.

Rohr has, thus far, justified these changes by results that include qualification to the 2018 World Cup and a possible qualification to the 2019 African Cup of Nations. His work on team playing strategies and tactics along with developing the team’s personnel are beginning to regenerate Nigeria and to create potential for greater things. Much of his success will ultimately be measured by how far Nigeria goes at the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Iwobi Sends Nigeria to Russia....

Alex Iwobi, who had missed the crucial two games against Cameroon, returned against Zambia to send Nigeria to the 2018 World Cup in Russia. His solitary goal was all that was needed to shut up the Zambians. Iwobi had lost his starting spot and no one could argue that he had not played his best until today against the Zambians when his energy, runs, and his intelligent passing proved decisive. 

While Iwobi definitely was the man of the match, Leon Balogun again, was at the heart of Nigeria's defense. He is quickly emerging into the mold of great Nigerian center backs. Not only did he dominate at the heart of the defense over the Zambian striker but he frequently cleaned up mistakes by others. It was also a welcome sight to watch Ola Aina take his debut by the scruff and in one move down the left a cross provided by him spoke volumes. The days are now numbered for Elderson Echiejile on the left who started strong but was poor after half time.

This was not Nigeria's best performance by any measure but the fact that Nigeria was able to rally to win the game is the most important thing. For much of the game it seemed Nigeria, in spite of playing cautiously, looked vulnerable to high balls behind the center of the defense in the opening half. Twice Zambia got through. On the first they had the ball in the net but it was ruled offside. On the second, the Zambian attacker knocked Balogun down only to shoot hurriedly over the bar. Nigeria was indeed lucky but in the second half, the Nigerian midfield, particularly Ndidi, began to close down the long balls and Zambia had to shift to the wide attacking positions where Echiejile was repeatedly found wanting. Here are how the players rated (Firsthalf/Second half):

Ike Ezenwa (16) -- 6.0/6.0 -- He had only few moments to worry about when he had to deal with long range shots. Beyond that he was solid and stood his ground. He did nothing spectacular all day.

Abdullahi Shehu (12) -- 6.0/6.5 -- Shehu was average in the opening have but he went up by several notches after halftime both defensively and assisting in attack. He provided the assist for Iwobi's goal and what should have been his second assist was frittered away by Victor Moses.

Elderson Echiejile (3) -- 6.2/5.8 -- Elderson had one of his strong games in the opening half as he shut down the Zambians defensively. In the second half, it was a different story. He was run out of the stadium by the speedy Zambians and he began to accumulate errors before he was substituted on account of injury.

William Troost-Ekong (5) -- 5.9/6.1 -- William had an average day defensively. He won, in large part, his defensive battles but had a difficult opening half dealing with balls behind the defense and had one atrocious pass that put Nigeria in deep danger after only 14 minutes.

Leon Balogun (6) -- 6.5/6.8 -- Leon was Nigeria's defensive hero just as he was in the two games against Cameroon. He was always available cleaning up errors by others and in this game he showed increasing confidence taking the ball from defense into attack.

Ogenyi Onazi (17) -- 6.1/0.0 -- Played just about half an hour before going off injured. However, by then, he was doing his work recovering the ball on defense. 

Wilfred Ndidi (4) -- 6.0/6.3 -- Wilfred covers more grass than any other player. In this game, he won more than he share of the ball in the middle and came close to scoring with a magnificent header from Victor Moses' cross. However, Wilfred turned the ball over multiple times and his timing when he had the ball was not exactly what it is usually.

Mikel Obi (cpt-10) -- 6.2/6.5 -- Mikel Obi finished the game something he rarely does in recent days. He was the calming influence in the middle and his ball control was impeccable as usual. He bore the brunt of several fouls by Zambia.

Moses Simon (15) -- 6.0/6.0 -- Simon had a few remarkable runs down the right after he switched with Victor Moses beyond the first quarter of an hour. Simon had a relatively good game and tracked back repeatedly. That he was substituted was more about introducing a change of pace into the game than it was a reflection on his play.

Victor Moses (11) --6.5/6.5 -- Victor Moses always comes to play and he did so for most of this game except for the early second half when he seemed out of it. His pace, as usual was deadly but his finishing took a vacation in this game.

Odion Ighalo (9) -- 6.0/6.0 -- Odion had a good game but he was not as active as he usually is but still won a fair share of the ball against the strong centre backs of Zambia.

Mikel Agu (21) -- 5.8/6.0 -- Mikel had his first extended play in competitive games for Nigeria after he replaced Onazi in the opening half. It could have been nerves but his tackles were poorly timed and he deservedly received a caution and his passes were late leading to Victor Moses visibly complaining in one case. However, he did improve in the second half.

Alex Iwobi (18) -- 0/6.8 -- Alex came into the game and promptly changed it with his play. Not only did he finish up with a good goal but he was involved in the exquisite passing that preceded it. He played confidently, unlike his recent games for Nigeria. 

Ola Aina (2) -- 0/ 6.0 -- Ola barely played enough to be rated but he was involved in one remarkable play on the left that portended a future place on the starting team. It was indeed a good debut for him. More expected in the future.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Unlocking Nigeria v Zambia: The Keys......

These five keys will decide the Nigeria v Zambia qualifier Saturday. Nigeria is at home in Uyo but unmistakably, the team that is under greater pressure will be Zambia. Zambia must earn a point or three away from home to have a chance of qualifying for their first World Cup. A point only provides a dim chance! Thus, a win is preferred and to win away in Nigeria requires a high level of motivation. Nigeria can qualify in Uyo on Saturday or wait to do so in Algeria in the next month. That should be motivation for Nigeria but not necessarily one that induces extreme pressure.
1.              Victor Moses starts at the top of his game. Moses has become the barometer for Nigeria. When he plays well, Nigeria always has a big chance and Nigeria is yet to lose a home game played by Moses. Zambia will clearly strategize to take both Moses and Mikel Obi off their game but planning to do so is a big difference from actually succeeding in doing so.
2.              The first goal will decide whether Nigeria qualifies Saturday or is forced to wait. If Nigeria scores first, Zambia will surrender. If Zambia scores first, Nigeria’s best result could be a draw. That is how important that first goal will be for both sides. Further, that opening goal should come in the opening half.
3.              Nigeria’s defense is critical in this game. If it is 90% as disciplined as it was against Cameroon, it will assure that Nigeria does not concede against the quick Zambian attack and provide opportunity for Nigeria to get to the World Cup. That defense was crucial against Cameroon, providing few openings for Cameroon to shoot at goal, ceaselessly and quickly closing down on Cameroon attackers in dangerous areas.
4.              That Ndidi and Onazi provide adequate cover for Nigeria’s defense. They were amazing in both Cameroon’s games and Nigeria needs both of them, not just one, to do well against Zambia. Both win a lot of balls and help distribute to more advanced players. Opportunities to win balls against Zambia will be there as Zambia is not adept at ball possession. Those two players are Nigeria’s unsung players.
5.              Nigeria winning set pieces, including flag kicks, could decide the game. Zambia usually concedes set pieces in bunches and Nigeria needs set pieces to threaten goalkeeper Mweene. Yes, Nigeria has not scored much from such opportunities, I the past, but has been close and one such opportunity may be converted against Zambia to decide this critical game.

These five keys will decide the Nigeria v Zambia qualifier Saturday. Nigeria is at home in Uyo but unmistakably, the team that is under greater pressure will be Zambia. Zambia must earn a point or three away from home to have a chance of qualifying for their first World Cup. A point only provides a dim chance! Thus, a win is preferred and to win away in Nigeria requires a high level of motivation. Nigeria can qualify in Uyo on Saturday or wait to do so in Algeria in the next month. That should be motivation for Nigeria but not necessarily one that induces extreme pressure.