Friday, June 16, 2017

Hahahaha: Evaluating Perceived Reasons Why Nigeria Lost to South Africa.....

Every Nigerian loss is followed by clairvoyant reasons dredged up to explain the loss. It isn't one reason but a multiple of reasons that usually come up. This tyranny of explanations can go from the logical to the bizarre. Thus, the explanations that emerged after a 0-2 loss to South Africa in Uyo was expectedly full of reasons. Below I identify them, as many as can be remembered. I examine each one, and then award a grade. Admittedly, my grading of each is subjective but I provide a rational for each grade:

Visitors' match balls
The players reportedly slammed the Federation for not providing approved match balls for practice and for the game. Instead, the Federation borrowed balls from the visiting South African team. While balls may be different in how they are made, the difference at this level is quite minuscule. If the South Africans had the ball advantage, how about Nigerians having the field advantage? This is simply a tale by the moonlight for which a grade of D is the maximum for such a tale.

Inexperienced players
Okay, the reported average age of the Nigerian players was less than the age for the South Africans. However, is experience based on age or appearances for the national team? Generally, players at 23 are not disadvantaged playing against 28 year olds. Age difference in performance is more distinctive at the teen level and below but not at the full adult level. How about number of appearances? Only one Nigerian player has less than six appearances and that is Awaziem! All others except three have no less than 10 appearances! How about South Africa? They have players with more appearances but not by much more. Further, the Nigerians have had more exposure playing against top level players than South Africans who have largely played against African opposition. Thus, I will give this tale a grade of C.

Absence of Mikel Obi
Yea, Mikel was missed if you read the papers. He would have been the calming voice and the organizer. Both are true but would he have prevented defeat? What did he do when Nigeria lost at home to Congo a few years ago? What did he do when Nigeria struggled to tie South Africa at the same Uyo a few years back? Moreover, Mikel has already spoken that this tale tends to undervalue the rest of the players. Moreover, South Africans are largely exposed to local and African football compared to Nigerians who play in Europe. Thus, is this tale of Mikel being a difference maker worth a high score? I say "No, No". Best grade is a C-.

Uyo is "cursed"
To be sure, Nigeria's home record at Uyo is atrocious compared to other cities. But to claim that Uyo is cursed and for to run a story of a man explaining the curse is the height of the bizarre. While Uyo is not a happy home ground for the team, it is a stretch to call it a curse. This earns an F. Call it the loss an unfortunate result at Uyo, then I might consider a higher grade but F it is if called a "curse."

The Weekend Off granted to players
There are reports that the weekend off after the team arrived in Nigeria from the France camp was reason for the defeat. The players were reported unfit after just two days off! Ridiculous report, to state the least. These are players who had been with their clubs for a long season and then camped for weeks in Europe with the Nigerian national team and yet a day or two off leads to being out of shape? Best grade is a C-.

It was the Muslim Players Fasting
The fact that Musa did not start because Coach Rohr did not want to start two fasting players (The other was Shehu) has been fingered as reason for the loss. In essence, had Musa started, Nigeria would have won. Was this not the same Musa that had been pilloried in the press? Was it not the same Musa that hardly saw the field during the season at Leicester? Please spin another story. This earns a D. It isn't as if Musa usually gives more than Moses Simon gave against South Africa.

Coach's player selection
Why did Coach Rohr select Awaziem over Omeruo and Onyekuru was not even selected to be a substitute. These were the points made to support 'poor player' selection by Rohr. After all, Onyekuru was scoring like crazy for Eupen in the Belgian league! Well, from training reports, it was clear that Awaziem's performance was leading to a starting spot and Omeruo was training with the team as well. Onyekuru played against Corsica and then against Togo but was not particularly distinguished nor did he score. Perhaps, I should give this a C+ based on the Omeruo argument since there are coaches who prefer team chemistry and stability and that is what Omeruo would have given in the absence of Balogun but the Onyekuru argument is a non-starter.

Coach's Poor Tactics
Coach Rohr got his tactics wrong and his substitutions were late according to several media. Which tactics did he get wrong? One, playing Iheanacho as a lone striker when the team was home. Two, featuring three midfielders who were not creative types. Three, not instructing a defender in safety position on the second South African goal. But Rohr had changed the effectiveness of Nigeria since he was appointed and was unbeaten until South Africa arrived. Was Iheanacho not the lone striker v Algeria when Nigeria scored three times? Well, watching the game provides support for all the three points because (1) Iheanacho failed to win battles against the defense and seemed lost and with South Africa predictably siting back, there was a clear opportunity to use two strikers instead of an isolated striker, (2) Service to Iheanacho was poor and created a situation where South Africa had better opportunities in the game, and (3) the second goal was preventable if the elementary tactic of using a safety defender was in play. For this, one has to give an A- because Rohr had produced excellent results prior to South Africa game.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Nigeria Crashes at Home to South Africa, a first .........

Nigeria, losing a game under Gernot Rohr, was not unexpected but to do so in a competitive game at home was a shock. The 0-2 loss to South Africa at a venue where Nigeria has repeatedly underwhelmed, now puts Nigeria in danger of missing out in a third consecutive Cup for African Nations (AFCON) finals. The manner of defeat was deflating. Nigeria did not record a shot on goal until the dying minutes, besides two crosses that the South African goalkeeper parried in the first half! Shockingly, the defeat could have been worse with the South Africans hitting the post twice and a third opportunity frittered away widely from barely 14 yards out! Nigeria dominated possession early but could not muster but two opportunities in the opening half. With Nigeria’s array of foreign-based stars it was a surprise to look at the South African list of players to find a team that was largely based at home. Yet, the South Africans with local players outwitted the much-heralded foreign players in Nigeria’s own turf. It was Nigeria’s first loss, at any venue, in a competitive game to a South African selection at the senior level and it was under a well-paid foreign manager whom the Nigerian Federation celebrated as a Messiah. Perhaps, it is time to rethink the hype and come to the realization that there are days when the tag “foreign manager” or “foreign-based player” means diddly. Surely, there are now doubts surrounding the upcoming World Cup qualifier against Cameroon in September that many Nigerians had taken as a given. The warnings surrounding this South African game had been out there for weeks and it came true in a perverse way today. Here is the way the players are rated.

Daniel Akpeyi—5.5 – Can hardly be faulted on both goals but his shocking error on a crossed ball presented South Africa with an opportunity that eventually came off the post. Increasingly, yet continually ignored, is the need for Nigeria to seek a reliable goalkeeper if Vincent Enyeama is not headed back to join the team.

Shehu Abdullahi – 6.0 – Helped to get the attack going from wide but really there was nothing spectacular about his play. However, his performance is clearly one of the best that Nigeria has seen, for months, on the wide back position.

Uwa Echiejile – 5.5 – Play was below average and he appeared heavy throughout and was lucky to escape a referee’s caution with a late heavy tackle in the opening half.

William Ekong – 5.5 – His reaction time and discomfort on the ball continues to be exposed. It almost led to a third goal when a South African attacker left him lead-footed before hitting the post in the 69th minute.

Chidozie Awaziem –5.8 – Saw a lot of the ball in the opening half and is surely an upgrade over Omeruo but there are still doubts about his pedigree. He was outwitted badly in the 71st minute and he resorted to pushing the attacker but Nigeria was lucky that the referee turned a blind eye to an appeal for a penalty deep in Nigeria’s box. Then he had three attempts at clearing the ball where he barely made contact twice and on the third he missed the ball entirely.

Wilfred Ndidi – 6.0 – This was supposed to be his coming out party as a starter but he turned the ball over at least five times in the opening half and was largely quiet. However, he had three shot attempts but none on target.

Ogenyi Onazi (cpt) – 6.2 – He was involved, at least, making himself available as a outlet and recovering the ball more than any one else on the team.

Oghenekaro Etebo – 6.5 – The best player on Nigeria’s side. He was always available for the pass and had two shots but none on target. On the second, it would have been better to find Olarenwaju who appeared open on the far side of the box.

Alex Iwobi – 5.5 – Not active and turned the ball over at two critical moments when it seemed easier to keep possession. Alex does have the skill to help but playing him on the wide positions appear to cripple rather than help the team.

Simon Moses – 5.6 – For all his quick feet and ability to get past his marker, he increasingly turns the ball over. Further, his crosses are sub standard. Simon ended up with just a shot at goal but again off the target.

Kelechi Iheanacho – 5.4 – He was on an island all day with few passes created for him. However, he just cannot hold up the ball and, thus, reduces opportunities to work with advancing midfielders.

Ahmed Musa – 5.8 – His running in the second half was too little too late. However, he ended up having the only Nigerian shot at goal that was not a cross when an exchange with Etebo set him free but he hit the keeper with the ball.

Kayode Olanrewaju – 5.5 – He did not see much of the ball in the 20 minutes in which he was on the field.

Victor Osimhen – X – He was on the field too briefly to be rated.

Coaching crew – 5.0 – The coaching crew lacked ideas today. First, it was surprising that a team at home had just one advanced striker when South Africa opted to rarely pressure the ball. Then the second goal that the team conceded was elementary and shocking with a South African player running with the ball, with no defender on sight, for half the field before scoring. There was no defender tactically placed between the goalkeeper and the South Africans as a safety, which is a basic tactic on corner kicks or when attacking.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Rohr Faces Challenges in Nigeria's Midfield.....

Nigeria's coach Gernot Rohr is facing a different challenge in Nigeria's midfield compared to the wide back, goalkeeping, and striking positions. Copious reports have been written about his constant search for a deserving starter in those three positions but not the midfield. That isn't a surprise. The challenge for Rohr in the mid field is very different. It is not about a search for a deserving starter. Instead, it is about determining who to select from a pool of sudden riches. Further, it is a decision that is fraught with danger to team chemistry and one that can tilt the balance in the team as it stands.

Nigeria, once known for producing abundance of defenders and forwards in an earlier era, has suddenly produced several quality mid fielders each with the ability to start for the country. Moreover, the team's current leadership is squarely based in the midfield with both captain Mikel Obi and his deputy, Onazi Ogenyi, occupying starting positions at the base. But are they really better than those who are inching close to starting positions?

Those at the gate are Wilfred Ndidi, Etebo Oghenekaro, and Alex Iwobi. Then there are those who have done well at their clubs but have been largely ignored by Rohr.  Leading that group is Anderson Esiti at KAA Gent in Belgium. Consider also, that if Rohr finds a worthy striker with the required consistency, then Kelechi Iheanacho may find himself battling for one of the midfield positions, albeit in an advanced space. To be clear, none of these players can be considered adept in wide midfield positions even though the likes of Iwobi have done so with their clubs. Instead, they all have the quality to play through the middle. But the middle positions for the Nigerian team is limited to two or three.

A few months ago, I wrote about the signs that Mikel Obi's phasing out was already under way.It isn't a statement that the coach has made publicly but the signs are there for those willing to look. How much longer can the coach keep the likes of Ndidi and Etebo on the sidelines?

Let's assume Rohr maximizes his personnel in the middle using a 4-2-3-1, here are questions that come up.

1. If Rohr is to keep Mikel and Onazi at the base of the midfield, how would he explain Ndidi on the bench?
To claim that I know the answer here is to claim that I can predict the World Cup winner in 2026. The easy answer is that Rohr is fretting on how to explain to either Mikel or Onazi that one of them would have to come in from the bench. With Ndidi's profile growing daily, Rohr's hand is being forced to grant him a starting position much sooner than later. With the 2018 World Cup around the corner and Mikel's days in the national team on a downward trajectory, he may be the one likely to hear from Rohr soon about a place on the bench. Tough decision for sure, considering that Mikel's play often dictates the play of the entire team but with the talents in the midfield, Rohr can afford to take this decision early, which means right after the crucial Cameroon games.

2. If Iheanacho plays in the advanced space, where does Etebo play?
Here, the assumption is that Rohr has found the person for the most advanced forward position and Iheanacho is pushed back into the advanced midfield position. Again, this is a tough decision. Based on consistency in the middle, Etebo should get the nod but then Rohr has to think about Iheanacho's goal scoring talent and his top club pedigree. What gives? Rohr may prefer the assuredity of club pedigree and Iheanacho's goal scoring record at this time but a final answer to this question may not be given even if Nigeria is in the midst of World Cup matches in Russia next year. The jury remains out on this one.

3. Is Iwobi effective wide on the left or right? 
Sometimes, copying what foreign clubs do with Nigeria's national team players is not necessarily the best guide. That Arsenal has mostly used Alex Iwobi on the left is a good example. Iwobi seems better with the wider space in the middle than the constriction on the left or right. Moreover, Nigeria does better by having speedy and thinking players wide in the mid field. While Iwobi is a huge thinker, he is by no means a speedster. Best option for Nigeria is using him in the middle at the most advanced position but that puts him in competition with both Iheanacho and Etebo. In that scenario, Iwobi's inconsistency for Nigeria may see him on the bench than in a starting position. That is a concern because Iwobi is a gifted player with ability to find gaps even in the tightest defenses. Such a player should have a spot on the field. Again, this is clearly a difficult decision for Rohr.

Though these decisions are challenging for the coach or so they seem, they are preferred challenges compared to the ongoing difficulties in the defense, goalkeeping, and striker positions. The point here is that the challenges faced by the coach is to continue to build a strong team for the 2018 World Cup and the 2019 Cup for African Nations.