Friday, September 22, 2017

Examining Gernot Rohr and his Management of Nigeria

In an earlier blog, I attempted to predict who Gernot Rohr really is as per his management of Nigeria’s Super Eagles. That was more than a year ago. Has anything changed since then? Are there new tell-tale signs of the type of manager he is? Well, that is what I explore here.

How Rohr Sets up his Team
It is obvious now that Rohr believes in being cautious than being adventurous in his overall thinking about the game. On the field, he clearly prefers to set up in a 4-5-1 defensively or 4-2-3-1/4-2-1-3 when attacking. The way the team played in a 1-1 draw in Yaounde is, in my opinion, the way Rohr prefers to play and the way the Nigerian team will play in Russia in 2018 if the team gets there. For the first time, the team exhibited a high level of discipline that practically shut down Cameroon. Watching that game, Cameroon was unlikely to score, except from the spot, even if the game had gone on for three hours! There were almost no chances to shoot at goal for the host team. 

Importantly, Rohr’s thinking going forward is to use explosive players wide so that they can quickly get behind the defense in a counter as was demonstrated in the destruction of Cameroon in Uyo. Now, Nigeria has such players, both starting and available on the bench. Moreover, with Ighalo, there is a hold up guy whose quick distribution with his back to goal can quickly support such explosive attacks.

Rohr: Reluctant Making Changes
While it is clear that Gernot Rohr is not fully satisfied with some players in certain positions on his team, his cautious tendencies mean that it takes him time to make changes. The fact that he kept faith with Akpeyi in goal, because Akpeyi had previous international experience, speaks volumes. Akpeyi probably would have remained first choice until injury forced Rohr’s hands. That cautious tendency has been demonstrated at other positions on the team. Think about this, in 8 matches managing Nigeria, Rohr has not consistently started any of the 12 players that he debuted. That is telling. It essentially means that despite Nigerian players blossoming at their clubs, their chances starting in Rohr’s team are very slim if they do not already have substantial international experience.

His Valuation of Locally-Based Talent
Gernot has been reluctant to use locally-based players, unlike Stephen Keshi, and it appears that his hand has been forced in certain cases where invitations were extended to local players. His sudden introduction of a few of them into the squad in recent times coincide with media pressures on this issue. Prior to his invitation of the likes of Alhassan, Odey, and Olatunbosun, among others, the only local player with a regular call up was goalkeeper Ike Ezenwa. Ezenwa was already part of the A team under previous coach Sunday Oliseh. Yes, Rohr watches local league games but he has repeatedly made statements that local players are not good enough. Thus, any locally-based player hoping to get to the World Cup finals has very little chance of doing so. Notably, it is likely that Ezenwa’s performance against Cameroon surprised Rohr given Rohr’s beliefs about locally-based players.

What does the Future Bode?

Gernot Rohr, undeniably, has been successful with his method at this point. He has taken the team to the brink of World Cup qualification and it is difficult to argue that the team’s quality has not improved. The team's display in a hostile environment in Yaounde demonstrates that it is not awed by playing away from home and it has reached a level of discipline rarely approached by a Nigerian selection. What is unknown is how the team will perform at a major tournament like the FIFA World Cup? I strongly believe that strengthening the goalkeeping position with, perhaps, one more seasoned player and providing depth at the wide back positions will move Nigeria to a likelihood of doing better in a World Cup tournament than ever before. The team certainly is working towards quality that bodes well for the future.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Ultimately, Nigeria achieves its goal after draw in Yaounde....

Though this was a winnable World Cup qualifier in Yaounde but the 1-1 draw is a result that Nigeria would take happily. After all, Nigeria achieved its ultimate goal of taking at least four of six points in the two World Cup qualifiers against the African champions. In many ways, Nigeria's performance today was excellent. It was disciplined from the opening minute to the last, just as it was in Uyo. It never really appeared that Cameroon could find space around the Nigerian defense and it is telling that Cameroon's only goal came from the penalty spot after Ezenwa had made contact with a Cameroon player deep in the box.

Nigeria played a very disciplined game with nine players constantly in position behind the ball and in a structural shape that consistently frustrated Cameroon as Cameroon attempted to play through the cauldron that channeled the free ball to defenders. It may have been Nigeria's most disciplined display under Rohr. Further, what was exhibited was Rohr's willingness to block out Cameroon's wide play by always sending an extra player in a team defense that was befuddling to the opponents. But the difference between today's game and Uyo was Cameroon curtailing its reckless abandon when going into attack. It certainly curtailed Nigeria's opportunity for quick counters. However, in spite of Cameroon's adjustment, Nigeria had the better opportunities in the opening half and it appeared that Nigeria was certainly on its way to winning again.

There will be disputes over Nigeria's goal pertaining to whether Ighalo was on or offsides but it was not more than Nigeria deserved at that point in the game. It well could have been two goals shortly afterwards when Ighalo rounded up a defender only to shoot the ball too high from inside the box. The second half was all about Nigeria attempting to hold on to its slim lead except that there were still opportunities to widen the margin. Victor Moses, again a constant threat to Cameroon, could have scored twice in the half. First, with a curving free-kick that was very deceptive as Ondoa was expecting a cross. Then a few minutes later, Moses craftily controlled the ball, as three defenders hung around him, and in the end he carefully aimed for the top right corner only to watch the ball clip the bar with Ondoa no where near to contesting the shot.

Cameroon earned a penalty kick that it had sought throughout the game when Ezenwa clashed with an attacker who was not quite in any position to score as the ball drifted high and off the left. Aboubakar converted and it was the tonic to a dispirited Cameroon finally lifting its play. Nigeria was then fortunate when Ezenwa stretched to parry a goal bound shot struck from inside the box. He was alert to also save the rebound as Cameroon's Fai cluttered into him. It was the last real chance for Cameroon.

Here is how I rate the players.

Ike Ezenwa (1) - 6.5 - Ezenwa did very well on high balls and making saves when called upon. This guy is much better than Akpeyi that he had replaced.

Shehu Abdullahi (12) -- 6.2 -- Another disciplined display, shutting down Cameroon's wide play on the right.

Elderson Echiejile (3) -- 6.0 -- Excellent first half but faced some really stiff test when Bassagog was put into the game. Over all, he had a credible display until late.

Leon Balogun (6) -- 6.5 -- Another excellent play and overall leadership in the middle for Balogun. Leon is certainly growing into the top defender for Nigeria. He was rarely beaten in the air and seems to find that last stretch to take the ball from attackers.

William Ekong (5) -- 6.2 -- William had a strong day in defense as well. It is really hard to pick out a player who did not step up today along that defensive line.

Mikel Obi (10) -- 6.5 -- Mikel Obi clearly determines the play of this team. In the two games against Cameroon, he has played excellently in the middle weaving the team into a strong unit.

Ogenyi Onazi (17) -- 6.2 -- Onazi was very strong in the middle, winning several balls. However, he was playing on edge with some questionable tackles. Eventually, he picked up a caution that appeared inevitable in this game.

Wilfred Ndidi (4) -- 6.1 -- Ndidi was steady in this game and won his share of the ball. However, his play never stood out on a day the midfield did its bit.

Victor Moses (11) -- 7.5 -- Victor Moses was Nigeria's most dangerous player going forward and his set pieces may not have led to a goal but they were dangerous. He almost put one away in the second half. Nigeria has only lost three games that Victor Moses started and that has to tell you something.

Odion Ighalo (9) -- 6.3 -- Though Ighalo was largely alone upfront chasing the ball all day, he had another good game against Cameroon. This is certainly Nigeria's best option, thus far, with his back towards goal and holding up play. In this game, he was dangerous all through the opening half but faded in the second.

Moses Simon (15) -- 6.2 -- Who says that Simon does not defend? Simon was very focused on his midfield duty today when Nigeria had the ball and when it was time for ball recovery. Then he took his opportunity to score very well with a snap shot.

Mikel Agu (21) -- 6.0 -- Mikel Agu is gradually getting comfortable but his display was average doing the simply things. He gets into trouble trying to do more as was shown in one play about five minutes after he entered the game. Then he miscued one pass that would have set Victor Moses free to the left.

Oghenekaro Etebo (8) -- X -- Not rated. Too few minutes.

Kelechi Iheanacho (14) -- X -- Not rated. Few minutes.

Coach Gernot Rohr -- 8.0 -- Rohr has my top rating for this game. He came to this game, played the game perfectly and earned a needed result. Rohr had the team playing with excellent discipline and for the second game in a row he nullified Cameroon's wide play.

Friday, September 1, 2017

4-0, such an unexpected Gift........

Nigeria imposed a heavy 4-0 defeat on Cameroon in the most unexpected manner in Uyo today. No one expected such a wide margin of victory for either side. The margin, to be sure, never reflected the run of play. It was a World Cup qualifier alright and in such a critical game the team with the better chances usually wins and so was the case in Uyo.

Surprisingly, Nigeria was on its back foot early. Where one expected Nigeria to take control and Cameroon to rely on counters, it was the opposite that occurred. In the end, Cameroon would likely regret the effrontery of attacking Nigeria on Nigeria's home ground. The decision to take it to the Nigerians opened up spaces at the back that Nigeria repeatedly exploited. It is noteworthy that none of Nigeria's goals came from any sustained pressure on Cameroon. Instead, they came from break aways or in one case a set-piece after yet another break away.

Nigeria did overcome, to a large extent, the early striction that Cameroon imposed. But even then, Nigeria's control was in spurts. In the end, spurts or not, taking the three points is all that matters. It was an unforgettable result against a team that had been remarkably successful against Nigeria in crucial games. Uyo, the cursed ground and all, provided a location for celebration of a massive win.

Nigeria's story of this victory will revolve around multiple figures and frames. First, the return of captain Mikel Obi and Victor Moses who had both been absent in the disappointing loss to South Africa. Today, both of them were big. Each ended with a goal and assist before leaving the field under loud cheers. Second, the goalkeeping of Ikechukwu Ezenwa. Yes, a local-based player but his demonstration of comfort, competence, confidence, and control was a wide departure from the fidgeting Akpeyi that he replaced.

Now, the 2018 World Cup clearly beckons, a draw at least in Cameroon on Monday will make it much clearer but surely the gate to Russia is quickly closing in the face of Nigeria's opponents. This qualifier is becoming a one team race to the finish line. Below is how the player's rated:

Ikechukwu Ezenwa (1) -- 6.3 -- Confident goalkeeping most of the day. A positive departure from Akpeyi. Ezenwa's star is surely rising.

Abdullahi Shehu (12) --6.0 -- Shehu was average all day. It appeared that he was instructed to be far more disciplined defending than he usually does. Not much help in attacking. It was important because he helped curtail the rampaging Cameroonians who typically exploit wide areas.

Elderson Echiejile (3) -- 6.0 -- Started poorly on the left as Cameroon explored down his flank but he was improved after the early moments and was solid in the end.

William Ekong (5) -- 6.0 -- He had a few shaky moments on the ball which is usual for him but otherwise he had an average day at the office.

Leon Balogun (6) -- 7.0 -- This is unquestionably the leader of the defense. Stood tall and dominated his encounters with superb play all day. No other defender was even close on either side of the ball.

Ogenyi Onazi (17) -- 6.0 -- Average today as it was difficult having any serious grip in the midfield because of Cameroon's ball possession. However, he did his bit and ended with an assist.

Wilfred Ndidi (4) -- 6.1 -- He was the slightly better partner in defensive midfield but only slightly. It was a tough day in the midfield as I mentioned earlier for this unit.

Mikel Obi (10) -- 7.0 -- Mikel demonstrated why he is Nigeria's talisman. In spite of a tough midfield, he stood his ground and was clearly the best in the middle. He scored and provided an indelible assist on the opening goal. It was an assist that reminded many of the one he provided against Burkina Faso (to Emenike) at the 2013 AFCON.

Moses Simon (15) -- 6.0 -- Simon reduced the frills in his play for this game and provided an exquisite assist with a one-two play with Victor Moses.

Jude Ighalo (9) -- 6.3 -- Ighalo's strength was telling against Cameroon and he took his goal well,  powering against Ngadeu before left-footing the ball into the corner. It is telling that Cameroon's central defenders were both cautioned on fouls against Ighalo and those cautions may have helped soften the physical play against Nigerian players.

Victor Moses (11) -- 6.8 -- Victor Moses' runs on the defense were critical. He missed an early opportunity but his run was largely the decisive action that led to Nigeria's third goal, which he eventually tucked away. Moses has only lost three games in Nigeria's colors when he starts the game.

Kelechi Iheanacho (14) -- 6.2 -- Iheanacho entered the game in the second half and became one of the most involved players on the field. He then scored the fourth goal to underline his deadliness in front of goal.

Mikel Agu (21) -- 6.0 -- Agu was average in the game but did enough to help protect the huge lead.

Ahmed Musa (7) -- X -- Did not play enough to be rated.

Coaches -- 7.0 -- The decision to cut out the wide play of Cameroon in attack was very important as it put the lock on players like Bassagog. Furthermore, having faith on Ighalo to lead the attack was a brilliant move that, perhaps, won the game as Ighalo earned two fouls and two cautions to soften the physical Cameroon defense. Additionally, Rohr had the players that could quickly play the counter even though one wonders if he expected the game to go that way.