In the next month, Nigeria's Coach Gernot Rohr will have his first opportunity to introduce new players to the national team after seven months on the job. Those months had been spent playing competitive World Cup qualifiers, for the most part, which forced him to rely on the players who had debuted under previous coaches. Table 1 shows that Rohr used 20 players in the three games that he managed and the average appearance record of his players before their first game under him is 19.5. However, that is skewed by seven of the players who had at least 20 appearances each. Without those seven players, this is a young team with an average of just 6.23 appearances before their first game under Rohr. Notably, none of the players debuted under Rohr although one of them (Anderson Esiti) played just a game for Nigeria before appearing under Rohr.
Importantly, Rohr achieved 100% efficiency and a 3-0-0 record with the team and steadily improved the team's Africa and continental monthly rank since his appointment in August (see Figure 1). However, Rohr remains dissatisfied going by his statements to the media. Rohr's dissatisfaction is based on his own assessment of player quality in certain positions.
With two upcoming international friendlies and less pressure, Rohr finally gets the opportunity for his full imprint on the team in March. What should we anticipate? and how would those games impact the critical and competitive games scheduled for June and August? Those questions are addressed here.
Will Rohr Address Goalkeeping Crisis?
One of the weak points for the Nigerian national team is goalkeeping. Twice in critical games, the starting goalkeeper Carl Ikeme has been absent injured. On each occasion, Nigeria appeared in crisis searching for a stand-in for those games. While Daniel Akpeyi did well as stand-in, it appears that he is not in Coach Rohr's future plan. In fact, if Rohr is to be believed, the No. 2 option is Ikechukwu Ezenwa but he was not suited up for the critical World Cup qualifier against Algeria because he was inactive during the break in the local Nigerian league. Well, Rohr now has the opportunity to test his options at the goalkeeping position in March because Ikeme's availability in critical games cannot be trusted. Options: David Nwokolor (Vitez, BOS), Ikpechukwu Ezenwa (FCIU), and Dele Alampasu (Cesarense, PORT).
How About the Defensive Issues?
A few months ago, most believed that Nigeria has begun to solve its defensive personnel problems. Ekong and Balogun were solid in the middle and Elderson was adequate at left back. The exception was the right back where Rohr tried multiple options and none looked good. Fast forward to now. There are problems in at least two positions with a third an increasing concern. The left wide back where Echiejile has started most recently is now called to question based on Rohr's policy requiring his players to be active with their clubs. The same issue appears in the central position manned by Ekong. Who are the options that Rohr could try in these positions: Tyrone Ebuehi (ADO Den Haag, HOLL), Uche Agbo (Granada, SPAIN), and Brian Idowu (Amkar Perm, RUSS).
Will an Advanced Goalscorer Emerge?
Another position that Rohr has tried to fill with little success is the advanced forward position. Clearly, Ighalo was unsuccessful in the position and his major struggles at his English club -- Watford saw him move to China. Rohr has also tried Kelechi Iheanacho in the position. Iheanacho has been prolific for Nigeria but it is notable that he failed to score when played in the advanced forward position against Algeria and appeared lost. Thus, it is likely that Rohr will test other options at this position. Onyekuru is particularly intriguing with his pace, dribbling, and direct play. Options: Brown Ideye (Olimpiacos, GRE), Henry Onyekuru (Eupen, BEL), and Godwin Obaje (FCIU).
How About Fitness Issues?
Rohr's policy that his players must be active at their clubs could wreak havoc on his current starters with the likes of Ekong, Iheanacho, and Echiejile finding it difficult to establish themselves at their clubs. Will Rohr look for their replacements during the March friendlies? It is hard to tell but it certainly will be a huge disruption to overhaul a team that has accomplished so much in a short period simply because of Rohr's policy. Ekong, particularly, has done well enough in the national team and has established a growing partnership with Leon Balogun and it is unlikely Rohr will simply pull the hook on him.
Impact on Upcoming Competitive Games?The March friendlies could possibly be the only friendlies that Nigeria plays before the Nations Cup qualifier against South Africa in June and the two World Cup qualifying games against Cameroon in August and September. Thus, it appears that Rohr will use both friendlies as well as the practices to begin to build his team for the qualifiers. There is however, a possibility that Nigeria may be able to add a third international friendly during the week of the South Africa game but that is yet to be seen.