Thursday, March 30, 2017

Absent Power Teams: Why Africa Deserved Significant Increase in World Cup Allocations?

One underlying issue of an expanded World Cup is whether confederations like Africa (CAF) and Asia  (AFC) should get more teams into the World Cup finals and whether they deserve additional slots. Of course, a supportive position  argues that the basis for additional slots comes from the fact that the two confederations have large memberships and World Cup allocations should reflect the number of members in a confederation. That argument is rooted in representation and it is compelling.

However, there also exists a different argument that is rooted on performance. It is one that states that only the best teams should be at the World Cup finals.

In the past, World Cup qualification has been based on both ideas of representation and performance. Representation assures that each confederation (except Oceania) is represented by a certain number of teams at the World Cup finals. FIFA makes the decision on number of slots to allocate to each confederation. In doing so, it is mindful that diversity in confederations is assured in order to demonstrate that the event is "global" in nature. Recently, FIFA announced that Africa's allocation would climb to at least 9 places for the 2026 World Cup. On the other hand, Performance is assured through a qualification, rather than invitation, process where teams are tested on current form and quality. FIFA and the Confederations design the process for qualification games within each confederation and at inter-confederation level as well.

In this piece, we examine the idea of representation. Notably, while current performance or team quality is determined through a qualification process, a confederation's legacy performance is used (in part) to inform FIFA in allocating spots for representation. It is important not to confuse current performance with legacy performance. The former is used to assess the current quality of a team and its suitability to play in the World Cup. The latter is used as one of several indices (the others being membership size and politics) to determine number of representatives from each confederation.

We focus solely on the issue of legacy performance. We discuss that type of performance with a twist. The twist is based on the fact that certain teams have done well repeatedly at World Cups and they qualify for the finals regularly, whether the World Cup consists of 16 or 24 teams. These are the super teams. Thus, it makes sense in our performance calculations, in a 48-team World Cup, to exempt results obtained by those teams because their performance has been relatively stable overtime. The teams are Brazil, Argentina (CONMEBOL), Germany, Spain, Italy, France, and Holland (UEFA). Additionally, our calculations are at the confederation level since representation decisions are made at that level.

Our Method
First, we examine only those World Cups that have featured 32 participating teams i.e the World Cups of 1998 and later. Why? We assume that 1998-2014 World Cups provide recent data for examination and ample information on non-super teams.

We assume that ample comparison data should include at least 10 contests between confederations to avoid results that may be termed an outlier. This figure is arbitrary but yet reasonable because in certain World Cups some confederations may not meet each other and our data covers five World Cups and to reach the 10 game threshold assumes two meetings per World Cup year. However, as we shall find, this threshold is not met in five comparison cases (i.e.. CAF v CONMEBOL, CAF v CONCACAF, CONMEBOL v AFC, CONMEBOL v CONCACAF, and AFC v CONCACAF).  This is clearly due to the fact that apart from UEFA teams, no other confederation has the number of teams  or games against other confederations to satisfy the threshold. Nevertheless, we report the results but with caution.

We use existing efficiency scores to gain insight on the likelihood of a win when one confederation confronts another. A 0.50 efficiency score indicates at least a 50% chance of a win which is quite impressive. The score is based on percentage of points secured from a possible maximum number of points. 

So What Do We Find?
So what are results when super teams are exempted? Does UEFA still dominate its opponents? Does CONMEBOL still dominate its opponents? Surprisingly, the answer is yes in certain confederation contests. Table 1 reports results of all contests.

As we can see in Table 2, UEFA has at least a 50% chance of a victory when confronting teams from  Asia and Concacaf; CONMEBOL does the same when confronting teams from Africa (0.71), Asia (0.83), and Concacaf (0.71); and Concacaf has the same when confronting teams from Asia (0.72) and Africa (0.52). Surprisingly, UEFA (without the power teams) has 0.40 efficiency against African teams. Africa's highest efficiency is 0.42 against Asian teams which is the same efficiency score that Asian teams have when confronting African teams. The lowest efficiency score for Africa occurs when confronting teams from South America (0.14).

Clearly, UEFA has shown the likelihood to win games regularly against teams from CONCACAF and AFC than against any other confederation. However, a deeper exploration of actual games shows that UEFA's advantage in those games does not preclude a significant number of ties against teams from those confederations.

While South America has not played enough games against non-UEFA teams, its results against those teams have been significantly impressive with very high efficiency scores against African, Asian, and CONCACAF teams. These represent three of the top four efficiency scores, all over 0.70. The fourth is CONCACAF's efficiency over Asian teams.

Besides the high efficiency scores discussed above, the other contests indicate that non-super teams are not much better than their opponents from other confederations. Thus, the argument for a much larger allocation to UEFA based on legacy performance does not indicate a wider gap in allocation to UEFA in comparison to others, for instance. For instance, UEFA's 16 allocations compared to CAF's 9 is exceptionally wide. CAF's allocation represents just 56% of UEFA's whereas UEFA's teams have only generated 0.40 efficiency against CAF's teams and even at that legacy performance should be one of several factors in deciding representation. Thus, while CAF's 9 team allocation is an improvement, it remains comparatively lower than what should be reasonably expected.

But how about CONMEBOL? It seems that the proportion of teams going to the World Cup finals from that confederation is already the highest of any confederation demonstrating the strength of its performance, which has been supported by data shown here. That proportion is already 60% of its teams.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Were Nigeria's Problems Solved v Senegal?

Of course, it is a bit disingenuous to think that the problems with Nigeria's Super Eagles would be solved in one international friendly against Senegal in London last Thursday. However, it isn't unrealistic to expect signs that those problems are on the way to being solved. Here, we talk about defensive problems, solidifying the midfield in absence of Mikel Obi, and then attacking issues. Some of those problems have been particularly irking as they have lingered for a significant period.

Coach Gernot Rohr stated at the end of the Senegal game "I am satisfied with our whole attitude and the fact that after going down by a goal, we were mentally strong enough to come back and eventually ended the match on a high note." He went on to list the players that were absent and to talk about playing the game with players who are not getting enough playing time at their clubs. Rohr's assessment, noted above, spoke volumes. No where did he speak about the team improving nor did he state that he has found solutions to the problems the team had. 

What may have become clear to Rohr are things that were easily observable from that game.  That is what I focus on in this piece. First, the team showed character coming back against a higher-ranked Senegal to earn a draw that will surely help Nigeria's ranking in the near future. Beyond that, certain things that were not so positive became clear on Thursday night.

Goalkeeping: Rohr must work harder to find a goalkeeper besides the often injured Ikeme. Ikeme was not on the field on Thursday because of yet another injury. In two critical games, he has been absent underlining the importance of finding an alternative. His replacement Akpeyi, given that he arrived the previous night, was shaky but the truth is that he has never demonstrated confidence in handling back passes and distributing the ball from his position. Thursday was not different. This is becoming a sore point for the national team, particularly when one realizes that in not too distant past the team had three goalkeepers worthy of starting.

Defense: As an Igbo saying goes I bia nkili nwa nshii nwa inshii  eh kili weh gi (If you go to watch a pygmy, a pygmy is also watching you). As Nigeria prepares for the World Cup encounter against Cameroon, Cameroon will also be watching Nigeria. Surely, after watching Thursday's performance, Cameroon must be smiling and looking forward to playing against Nigeria's defense. The defense was poor under pressure. Unable to play the ball out of the defense to generate organized attack but instead they depended on hoofing the ball as far as possible. The central defenders, particularly Balogun, had a nightmare. It was dreadful. In the first half alone, he completely cleared the air allowing a lurking attacker to head against the post early in the game. Then he lost the ball after a tight pass from a jittery Akpeyi, he was next beaten on a simple header and then was dispossessed on a poor attempt to dribble. In the second half, he kept it simple by hoofing the ball as far as possible. Though Balogun was the worst of them, the fact is that the others hardly distinguished themselves. Omeruo appeared a possible consideration for right back in the future but his late tackles led to two free kicks and on the left Echiejile was beaten for speed in a one on one encounter that earned him a caution. It was just a bad night for the defense.

Midfield: Wilfred Ndidi certainly is knocking on the door to become a starter. He was confident even though he misplaced a few passes in the opening half when Onazi was clearly the team's best midfielder. The entrance of Etebo gave the team better flow as he hardly misplaced a pass and confidently controlled the midfield. He surely has to be a starter when South Africa and Cameroon come calling. Iwobi had a horrendous game even though it was not for lack of effort as he helped pressure the ball but his passes were just not on target. Ogu did his best impersonation of Mikel Obi with short passes but nothing really creative as Mikel periodically provides. Over all, the midfield is work in progress. It was mostly disjointed in the opening half and gradually better in the second.

Forward: Though Iheanacho missed two clear opportunities in the opening half, he was clearly involved. The substitute Kayode did not do much but his few contacts with the ball provided danger and it was his quick dispossession of a Senegalese player and a gorgeous pass to Iheanacho that provided the opportunity that tied the game. However, the player who forced a serious consideration is clearly Isaac Success who's runs, power, and technical ability on the ball were a constant worry for Senegal's defense. Ahmed Musa was notable both when Nigeria had the ball but especially when Nigeria did not. Unfortunately, he made two crosses that left you wondering "What da heck?"

Set Pieces: We had seen this team do well with set pieces, particularly in the away game against Zambia. On Thursday, it seemed odd that Iheanacho had become the king of set pieces particularly away from the box. One understands that Mikel Obi was absent but those duties should go to someone else because Iheanacho's guile inside the box is preciously significant and having him take those kicks from afar eliminates him from inside-the-box opportunities.

Overall, team play was scrappy but the team clearly has a fight about it. That fight is very important because earning points is a very important goal, if not the most important. However, much more work needs to be done as the team moves forward in terms of creating a team that not only wins on grit but also on graceful play.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Is the Bell Tolling for Mikel Obi?

With the coming of age for young players in the Nigerian national team, it is time to ask if the bell has begun to toll for Mikel Obi. Nigeria's recent international in London against Senegal may be remembered, much later, as the moment Nigeria transitioned from the Mikel Obi era to the era of the young boys -- Ndidi, Etebo, Iwobi, and others. Mikel has, so far, shepherded those boys as Nigeria gradually rebuilt its team in the last few years but London may have signaled the turning point.

However, the truth is that even before London the signs of a transition had already appeared. Though Coach Gernot Rohr's handed over the team captainship to a deserving Mikel Obi, what was left unspoken was that Rohr substituted Mikel in two of three games that Mikel played under Rohr. It was not so much as Mikel playing poorly in those games but the Coach introducing new faces for the future.

What is left now is to ask whether Mikel Obi will be starting games in the near future. If Nigeria plays at the World Cup of 2018 and the Nations Cup of 2019, would Mikel start the games or would he lead from the bench as Stephen Keshi did in 1994 and Nwankwo Kanu did during the tail end of his career?

When Mikel Obi debuted in August of 2005 against Libya in an international friendly, he had around him the likes of Nwankwo Kanu and Joseph Yobo. Notably the likes of Ejike Uzoenyi and Apam Onyekachi debuted ahead of him in a bizarre historical occurrence. Mikel, like Okocha before him, was to make the Nigerian No. 10 shirt his own. It was his shirt except for eight games, early on, where he wore shirt numbers 8, 5, and 18 while waiting on the end of Jay Jay Okocha's career and the snuffing of a short-lived career of Onyekachi Okonkwo.

Twelve years later, Mikel appears the only man standing from that era of the Super Eagles, the only one active at the national team level. His career, surely, is one of the most accomplished at both club and national team levels. At 78 national team appearances, Mikel seems now a long way from eclipsing the Nigerian record of 101 appearances held by Vincent Enyeama and yet for years he has been an automatic choice for Nigeria. The fact that he has not yet passed Enyeama is because of a 2010 injury and missed international friendlies.

But make no mistake about it, Mikel Obi throughout his national team career was inarguably Nigeria's best in keeping ball possession and seeking out his team mates for goals that matter. His pass at the 2013 Nations Cup against Zambia that setup Emenike for a crucial lead in a group game was a signature solely his. Yet, he may also have been one of the most vilified by a section of Nigerian fans who cite a lack of pace and a silence of risk in his passing choices. If indeed his bell is tolling, one undeniable truth is that Mikel's career will not forgotten no matter whether you stood as his champion or his foe.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Case of Invitations to Foreign-Developed Players....

When Pinnick Amaju was elected President of the Nigerian Football Federation (NFF) in September 2014, he made it clear that he will not only seek to appointed a foreign coach but encourage Super Eagles' invitations to players developed outside Nigeria. Amaju is a man who appears bent on achieving his goals. He believes in those two for sure and he has worked to achieve them. Already he has a foreign coach and the results, so far, have been successful with maximum points in the ongoing World Cup qualifiers. It is hard to argue against that. If Rohr goes on to take the team to the World Cup and then win the Cup of African Nations, then it has to be acknowledged that Pinnick made a prescient decision.

Invitation Reservation
But how about his other avowed goal? The one about scouring Europe to invite foreign-developed players to form the bulk of the Super Eagles? By foreign-developed, I refer to players born outside the country to Nigerian parents (e.g. Sone Aluko) or players born in Nigeria but who received their early football education outside the country (e.g. Alex Iwobi). This group of players differ from players who currently play outside Nigeria after playing in advanced academy or club football in Nigeria. 

Pinnick, like a significant number of other Nigerians, believes that foreign-developed players are better than other Nigerian players because they are tutored in foreign football academies. However, this claim is based on a belief but rarely confirmed through research. It is a matter of belief over evidence. If the foreign-developed player is much better how come foreign youth teams find it difficult to better Nigerian youth teams at international tournaments? Of course, some would claim that Nigerian youth teams are over age but such a claim has dimmed in recent times with new age verification processes in place. 

But beyond comparing the foreign-developed player to other Nigerian players, selecting players for Super Eagles from foreign academies is inappropriate when very few players from such academies make it to elite levels in their countries or elsewhere. In essence, it is a process of selecting from a dreg pool. Senior players are better selected from few exceptional players at the academy who have proven their exception by already experiencing quick promotion to the elite level (e.g. Alex Iwobi). Other invited players should deserve a place based on their regular performance at their clubs and not academies.

Nevertheless, it is clear that Pinnick's agenda is being implemented through reserving invitations that go to foreign-developed players for other reasons beyond being good enough to play for the Nigerian national team. The good news, however, is the speculated move to invite players from foreign academies has not yet been explicitly implemented.

This new invitation policy of invitation-reservation leads us to investigate how well foreign-developed players have done playing for Super Eagles. The investigation covers a period of the last ten years and involves number of minutes such players have played for Nigeria and how many games (see Table 1). Of course, Pinnick's tenure has been only from 2014 and covers a period when only five of the listed players debuted (Akpan, Ukoh, Iwobi, Ikeme, and Ekong). However, what is important is not just Pinnick's tenure, but the outcome from use of foreign-developed players.

It is not a sure thing that a foreign-developed player will perform better than other Nigerian players. From the table, just about half of the foreign-developed players, debuted in the last 10 years, went on to play close to 10 games for Nigeria. In fact, two of them played just a game and were discarded for not being good enough. It clearly shows that there is no better reason to invite a player than focusing on a player who has a good potential of making the national team based on how well he is doing for his club. In fact, for foreign-developed players, the clubs that they play for and their career progression are better indicators of how good they may be. This is quite different from using that same measure to evaluate other Nigerian players. Why? The foreign clubs have had ample time to get a very good read on foreign-developed players compared to other Nigerian players. 

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Reading Meaning Into Rohr's Recent Invitations for Friendlies

Finally, Gernot Rohr announced his list of invited players for two international friendlies later this month. The list is a very important one as Rohr previously restricted himself, largely, to lists of previously capped players. It made sense because he did not want to take chances while playing competitive games.

Now, without competitive games, Rohr has the restrictions lifted. This situation provides opportunity to read into what his invitations mean. This is not about his tactics nor is it about specific preparation for South Africa or Cameroon. It is simply about Rohr’s true evaluation of his team personnel.

There are certainly signs that one may read. Here we go:

1    Goalkeeping Issues Remain Unsolved

With Ikeme’s injury problems and Rohr’s public airing of his dissatisfaction with other goalkeepers, it is surprising that there are no new faces that Rohr has called up for the international friendlies. This, obviously, means that Rohr is unimpressed with other Nigerian goalkeepers both home and abroad. Of course, this is with the exception of Vincent Enyeama who has retired and is unavailable to Rohr at the moment. All the noise about goal keeper Nwokolor proved to be much ado about little. It speaks volume that Nwokolor was unnamed for these two noncompetitive internationals.

2   Rohr has shown Determination to Solve Defensive Problems

Rohr has focused attention in building the Nigerian defense and this is not surprising going by Rohr’s previous jobs in Gabon and Burkina Faso where he focused on strong defenses. In Nigeria, he has already strengthened the middle but the lack of first team opportunities for Ekong means Rohr is forced to think of options. Those options are clearly provided on his invitation list. Importantly, he continues to work on strengthening the wide backs and the invitation of Ebuehi and the fact that Madu is getting games at Zulte provide options at those positions.

3    It appears Rohr has Few Concerns for His Midfield

It was widely reported that Rohr left out his captain, Mikel Obi, to allow the latter to settle in with his new Chinese club. Mikel Obi was the only usual name missing in the center of the midfield. The rest are players that Rohr has built a trust in and it seems that he is fully confident that the current crop of midfielders will get the job done under his management.

4   The Advanced Striker Position Remains Unsolved

Ighalo out and Ideye out. Clearly, Rohr is looking for an advanced striker that he can live with. I am uncertain that Iheanacho is the guy but he is on the list and his previous games for Nigeria justify his call up but he has recently received little playing time at his club. As for his play for Nigeria, Iheanacho was not exactly impressive as an advanced striker against Algeria after impressing in a more secondary attacking role. Further, Rohr has called up two young and heralded strikers in Osimhen and Noah Sarenren Bazee. Clearly, this is a position that needs a new name and hopefully the international friendlies will help here.

5   Rohr has Little Trust of Home-based Talent

Rohr has watched some local games and he had his assistants scout others. Yet, his only invitation to a locally-based player went to reserve goalkeeper Ezenwa who had been in Rohr's squad from the first day. What does this mean? Rohr is unimpressed. Last time, he claimed he would not invite locally-based players because the league was on break. The league has been in full tilt this time around but invitations did not go out to other local players. The answer should be clear on this issue.

6    Rohr is Definitely Building for the Future

Rohr’s focus on young players makes it clear that he is building for Nigeria’s future. Inviting players such as Bazee, 20, in German lower division, Osimhen, 18, in Wolfsburg and Ebuehi, 21, presents the picture of this thinking. There are other players on the list who could have been comfortable in the Olympic team this past year as well. They are that young!