Tuesday, August 29, 2017

D-Day Nears v Cameroon: Super Eagles Must Put Up or Shut Up.....

Finally, the long awaited World Cup qualifier against Cameroon arrives. In a space of a week, Nigeria's Super Eagles will host Cameroon's Indomitable Lions in Uyo and then head to Cameroon for the second encounter. Nigeria needs, perhaps, to win one of those games to have one leg into the 2018 World Cup finals in Russia. The Nigerian players have publicly spoken on beating Cameroon and heading for Russia. However, the time for the "Big Talk" is over. It is now either Nigeria backs up the talk or tuck their tails between their legs and rue missed opportunities to get to Russia.

I watched Cameroon huff and puff in a home draw against Zambia in a World Cup qualifier last year. Cameroon was dreadful in that game. If Nigeria had walked into that game on that day, Nigeria would have easily taken the three points. However, Nigeria will now face a very different Cameroon team. A team now overflowing with confidence, playing reasonably well, and coming into the game as the African champion. It is a world away from the team that imploded at home against the Zambians.

How did this change come about? Well, recall that the team faced adversity shortly after the Zambian game. Seven internationals invited for the 2017 Cup for African Nations (AFCON) finals declined the invitation and Coach Broos had to quickly find replacements. It was a major blow and Cameroon suddenly fell from expectation of a relatively good tournament run to an expectation of immediate failure. The opposite occurred.

I watched their opening AFCON game and it was clear that the team, devoid of some experienced internationals, was playing much better and it was clear that Cameroon would emerge one of the top teams at the tournament. Not only did Cameroon fulfill that promise, the team emerged African champion and suddenly its previously unheralded players like Tekieu, Ngadeu, Bassagog, Oyongo, and Fai came to the attention of the continent. Bassagog, particularly, was spectacular with his pace down the wing. Goalkeeper Ondoa emerged the best goalkeeper in the tournament. This was, indeed, a new Cameroon and a return to a heroic past. Just before the recent Confederations Cup, Zambo Anguissan played amazingly well in a Nations Cup qualifier against Morocco and crowned that display with super performance against Australia at the Confederations Cup.

It is that team that Nigeria must now confront. Sure, Nigeria is down in confidence after the debacle at home against the underrated South Africans in June. Several of Nigeria's top players -- skipper Mikel Obi, Victor Moses, and Leon Balogun -- are all returning from injuries. Unfortunately, goalkeeper Ikeme's recent diagnosis of leukemia forces Nigeria to expose a positional weakness behind Ikeme. None of Nigeria's substitute goalkeepers has been up to par. For the previously injured players, the big question is: Are they ready? Are they match fit? While their return adds a lot of experience to the Nigerian team, the issue of match fitness is always there with a player returning from injury. It will not be different in this case.

In-Game Issues
Both teams use a 4-5-1 formation as the base. However, Nigeria has varied its formation from 4-5-1 to 4-2-3-1 when attacking. For this particular game, the objective for the teams would be different. Nigeria seeks a win at home and a draw away to assure itself of likely finish on top of the group and a World Cup qualification around the corner. Cameroon cannot afford to leave Nigeria without a point. That much should be clear. These realities mean that the game in Nigeria will be cagey. Nigeria will have the initiative, dominating possession. Cameroon will largely sit back and wait its opportunities via quick counters led by Anguissan and Bassagog. Defensively, Cameroon will be tight and compact. The task is will Nigeria have the ability to breach that defense? It isn't a problem that Nigeria has found easy to address in the past and it will not be easy against Cameroon. However, Nigeria has Victor Moses who has the ability to break down such obstacles with the help of some creativity early from Mikel Obi and his midfield partners. If Nigeria scores early, Cameroon will be forced to seek a goal, which will play into the plans of Nigeria, opening more spaces for Nigeria's attack.

What Should We Expect
I believe Nigeria wins at home by a goal after fighting bravely, throughout, to prevent a tie. That win should come on the back of spectacular wide displays by Victor Moses and Ahmed Musa (If he starts). The middle will be difficult to dominate no matter the striker Nigeria uses. Best bet is to withdraw Iheanacho behind the main striker to help with creativity. Without the ball, it will be a long long day for Uwa Echiejile and, perhaps, it is advisable that Rohr requires Leon Balogun to pay close attention. One hopes that with a lead, Nigeria would switch to a 5-4-1, a formation that we last saw Nigeria use late in games at the 2013 AFCON but we are yet to see Rohr even attempt. For this game, it will be necessary with a lead.

Records Between Nigeria and Cameroon
Nigeria has met Cameroon 21 times, losing in only three games! The record is surprising as Nigerians feel that Cameroon has always been a major obstacle for Nigeria. However, the feeling of despair results from all three losses occurring in competitive games and in a fourth, Nigeria lost a tiebreaker to Cameroon in spite of the game ending in a 2-2 tie. See all the results in the table below.

Friday, August 11, 2017

The Future: Nigeria's G.O.A.T. (Vol. 5)

In the last few weeks, I have dedicated space to write-ups on Greatest of All Time (G.O.A.T) players and coaches of Nigeria based on accomplishments in the senior national team. With this final piece, there are now five volumes of write-ups. In this final volume, I do not identify G.O.A.T. players or coaches. Those already identified can be found by clicking on this link. Instead, this final volume is predictive i.e. it predicts who may be a future G.O.A.T. and those who are current G.O.A.T. but likely to fade in the future.

Those likely to Fade
Clearly, the G.O.A.T. list is never permanent. It changes as new players come of age, old ones fade away, and new guys outdo achievements of the old. This dynamic process means that the list of G.O.A.T players and coaches in 1995 cannot be the same in 2005 or in 2015 and, thus, the expectation is the G.O.A.T today will surely change in the future.

In any case, I want to examine those who have been listed as G.O.A.T starters or honorable mentions who are likely to fade in the near future. One starter may be Sunday Oliseh. Beyond him may be  Yisa Sofoluwe who is currently listed as an honorable mention. The G.O.A.T. coach could also change quickly.

Sunday Oliseh is currently listed as a G.O.A.T. largely based on statistics but those statistics are not beyond reach by any means. I believe that an excellent defensive midfielder who has spent a significant number of years as a top performer on a very good Nigerian national team can quickly overtake Oliseh as G.O.A.T. Oliseh's position is vulnerable because his qualitative support is not overwhelming. Moreover, Nigeria currently produces quite a number of good defensive midfielders.

Yisa Sofoluwe, as G.O.A.T, is also likely to fade in the future. He has more qualitative cache than Oliseh considering the support he received during his playing days and he has some statistical support. None of those is insurmountable. However, how soon that would occur is difficult to predict. It may take at least a few more years because none of the active national team defenders has shown any sign of being classified as a G.O.A.T player in the near future.

The Possible New Names
On the bright side, there are three active players in the G.O.A.T. team. Those are Mikel Obi and Vincent Enyeama as starters and Obafemi Martins listed as an honorable mention. That is a significant number considering that players from 1949 to date were considered for spots.

Notably, the current senior national team has a preponderance of young players. This means that thus, it is very early to predict which of them may join Obi, Enyeama, and Martins as G.O.A.T. in the future. However, there are a few mid career players on the team. Of those, only one stands out as a future G.O.A.T and that is Victor Moses.

Victor Moses is a dominant wide forward for the Nigerian national team. Importantly, Nigeria has only lost three games in which Victor Moses was on the field. That is a significant statistic. In those three games, one was an international friendly against the United States. The other two games were against  France at the World Cup and Egypt in an AFCON qualifier. Importantly, his dominant play meets an important career for G.O.A.T.  He was instrumental to Nigeria winning the 2013 AFCON.

On the downside, though, Moses has missed critical games and those absences may cause rifts with national team managers. Such a rift may shorten his career with the national team and ultimately affect opportunities for a future G.O.A.T position.

This concludes a view of the G.O.A.T players and coaches. It is a view that has unearthed surprises, for me, as some players that I would have selected subjectively did not make it because there were other players with better stats. Importantly, I believe that using the combination of qualitative and quantitative measures is important in this exercise even if it ultimately eliminates some players that we would have wished as G.O.A.T. players. Of course, there is an argument that G.O.A.T. should cover club careers, even those completed abroad. I do not think that such club careers should count, except in a process to unearth the Best Ever Foreign-Based Nigerian Players. A G.O.A.T team of Nigerian players should be one where players are compared, at the highest point of competition, wearing the colors of Nigeria and not those of a foreign club. That shirt is the green and white of the Nigerian senior national team.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Coaches: Nigeria's G.O.A.T (Vol. 4)

Nigeria senior national team has a remarkable history of numerous managers, several barely lasting a few years at the helm. Sifting through the list of managers and their accomplishments is not especially difficult because Nigeria has won very few championships at the senior level. However, it has to be noted that winning championships, though important, is not the only criterion used in determining the G.O.A.T. among Nigerian coaches. It is important to look at their efficiency scores, particularly in competitive games and games played away from home.

The initial list for G.O.A.T included the following: Shuaibu Amodu, Josef Ember, Otto Gloria, Stephen Keshi, Jorge Penna, Jelisavcic "Father Tiko" Tihomir, and Clemens Westerhoff. Each finalist distinguished himself in one way or the other. Either he was consistently good with the team or won a championship or performed remarkably in a tournament with the team. There are coaches like Eguavoen and Bonfrere who had spectacular runs but they managed the team for a short period and did not win major championships and, thus, were not considered.

It is important to remind you that what is valued in selecting the G.O.A.T. is accomplishment and statistics accumulated by coaching Nigeria's full national team. Thus, performance while coaching other teams is not factored in. For instance, the fact that Otto Gloria took Eusebio and Portugal to the third place at the 1966 World Cup or that he took Benfica to nine Portuguese national trophies are unimportant here. It is not important what Tihomir "Father Tiko" did coaching Australian national team. Neither is it important to calculate Shuaibu Amodu's remarkable performance at the club level in Nigeria where his list of achievements makes him stand head and shoulders above his peers.

The G.O.A.T. Coaches
The top coach selected is Clemens Westerhoff. This is an easy choice and one that is likely close to unanimous among Nigerian football fans. Westerhoff's team efficiency is tied for first with two other coaches and his team's rate of conceding is tied as the stingiest with Amodu's team (see Table 1). However, it must be stated that Westerhoff's team, in spite of its wide acclaim as Nigeria's finest, had the poorest efficiency away from home (see Figure 1). Amodu's teams excelled on all the stats that are produced here but because he did not win the Cup for African Nations (AFCON), we rate Westerhoff as the G.O.A.T. of Nigerian coaches.

For two positions as assistants, I have picked Shuaibu Amodu and Stephen Keshi. Both were  great achievers. Amodu's stats are by far better than others, especially his efficiency away from home. Though he never won the AFCON, he set records like going through World Cup and AFCON qualifiers without losing a point. He currently holds Nigeria's record of most consecutive wins at six. His pedigree is beyond reproach. Keshi fills the next assistant position for G.O.A.T. as his championship winning and World Cup performance is only matched by Westerhoff. Beyond that, he has the second best efficiency score away from home (only Amodu surpasses it). His efficiency in competitive games trails only Amodu and Westerhoff (see Figure 1).

Many would, perhaps, question the non-selection of "Father Tiko" and Otto Gloria. So why were they not selected? "Father Tiko" brought Nigeria to a high consistency level among top African teams when he won third place at the AFCONs of 1976 and 1978. His team is tied first in team efficiency (see Table 1) and scored the second most goals per game (second only to Penna's team). However, he never won a championship with Nigeria and his records pale in comparison to Amodu's who also did not win a championship. Otto Gloria's team won the AFCOn, at home, in 1980 but imploded immediately after rendering his tenure inferior, statistically, to the two coaches selected as G.O.A.T assistant coaches.

In essence, Westerhoff is the choice coach of the G.O.A.T. team with Amodu and Keshi as assistants. In a subsequent blog, I will mention players and/or coaches that are future G.O.A.T and those currently selected who may be displaced in the future.

Starting XI G.O.A.T. Nigerian Players (3-4-3) and Coaches
GK:  Vincent Enyeama

DF:  Uche Okechukwu
DF:  Christian Chukwu
DF:  Stephen Keshi

MF:  Sunday Oliseh
MF:  Mikel Obi
MF:  Muda Lawal
MF:  Augustine Okocha

FW:  Rashidi Yekini
FW:  SegĂșn Odegbami
FW:  Thompson Usiyan

Honorable Mentions

Emmanuel Okala, Yisa Sofoluwe, Taribo West, Haruna Ilerika, Henry Nwosu, Sunday Oyarekhua, and Obafemi Martins.

Clemens Westerhoff

Assistant Coaches
Shuaibu Amodu and Stephen Keshi