Saturday, October 14, 2017

Gernot Rohr's Imprint Begins to Take Shape.......

Nigeria’s Coach Gernot Rohr may not have debuted any of the current starting players in the Super Eagles but he has made some key changes. Unfortunately, the media have rarely commented on these changes. I will comment on them by focusing on five key ones.

The formation and focus on defense first. Gernot has moved away from Nigeria’s most recently preferred use of the 4-3-3 as the base formation with a great deal of attention to attack. Instead, Rohr has chosen to play cautiously, with a base formation of 4-2-3-1 that changes, at times, to 4-5-1.  From these formations, particularly the 4-5-1, he relies on quick counters, using players wide, and widening passing lanes. His use of 4-5-1 in Yaounde, particularly, exposed what I believe Rohr will use at the World Cup against a favored opponent. The game in Yaounde has been, in my opinion, the most clinical display by Nigeria for years. Besides conceding an unforced penalty kick, Nigeria gave Cameroon few decent chances in front of goal and Nigeria closed down quickly and consistently. That is a recipe that we are likely to see more often at the World Cup.

Handing over the set pieces to Victor Moses. Over the years we have seen several players from Emmanuel Emenike, Moses Simon, Mikel Obi, Ahmed Musa, Kelechi Iheanacho, to Victor Moses assume set-piece duties for Nigeria. Even Rohr used Musa in his first game against Tanzania but that has changed when you closely watch Nigeria’s recent internationals. It is clear that Rohr has now handed that role, solely, to Victor Moses. Moses now takes both corner and free kicks. He is yet to score from one of them but he came close against Cameroon, forcing the keeper to a magnificent save and against Zambia he found Ndidi for a spectacular header. His precision and consistency taking these opportunities are self evident. Previously, Nigeria frequently over hit corner kicks and routinely frittered away free kicks.

Using Wilfred Ndidi for the throw-ins. The same thing has happened with taking throw-ins. It appears that the role is now strictly Wilfred Ndidi’s. This certainly keeps defenders free for defensive duties when the ball is quickly lost.  This also means that midfielders are free from routinely scampering back to cover deep for defenders who are far afield taking throw ins consequent to an opponent’s counter. In any case, Ndidi’s ability to launch the ball a great distance from points on the touchline or sideline, close to goal, provides an opportunity similar to a corner kick.

Building bench support. While Rohr has not debuted a starter yet, he has done well to expand number of bench players capable of filling the role of starters. For instance, Nigeria’s midfield and striker positions now have quality substitutes. In central defense, Awaziem has the potential to become a quality substitute as well. Of course, there are still positions where reserves are not quite up to par but the squad is gradually building capable personnel.

Depending largely on players developed abroad. The NFF President, Pinnick Amaju, encourages Rohr to build the national team around young players who have come from foreign-based academies. In recent times, Rohr’s starting eleven players barring recent absences due to sickness and injury respectively to Ikeme and Iwobi, included five such players! If Ola Aina takes over from Elderson Echiejile as widely anticipated, that would be six of eleven starters.

Rohr has, thus far, justified these changes by results that include qualification to the 2018 World Cup and a possible qualification to the 2019 African Cup of Nations. His work on team playing strategies and tactics along with developing the team’s personnel are beginning to regenerate Nigeria and to create potential for greater things. Much of his success will ultimately be measured by how far Nigeria goes at the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Iwobi Sends Nigeria to Russia....

Alex Iwobi, who had missed the crucial two games against Cameroon, returned against Zambia to send Nigeria to the 2018 World Cup in Russia. His solitary goal was all that was needed to shut up the Zambians. Iwobi had lost his starting spot and no one could argue that he had not played his best until today against the Zambians when his energy, runs, and his intelligent passing proved decisive. 

While Iwobi definitely was the man of the match, Leon Balogun again, was at the heart of Nigeria's defense. He is quickly emerging into the mold of great Nigerian center backs. Not only did he dominate at the heart of the defense over the Zambian striker but he frequently cleaned up mistakes by others. It was also a welcome sight to watch Ola Aina take his debut by the scruff and in one move down the left a cross provided by him spoke volumes. The days are now numbered for Elderson Echiejile on the left who started strong but was poor after half time.

This was not Nigeria's best performance by any measure but the fact that Nigeria was able to rally to win the game is the most important thing. For much of the game it seemed Nigeria, in spite of playing cautiously, looked vulnerable to high balls behind the center of the defense in the opening half. Twice Zambia got through. On the first they had the ball in the net but it was ruled offside. On the second, the Zambian attacker knocked Balogun down only to shoot hurriedly over the bar. Nigeria was indeed lucky but in the second half, the Nigerian midfield, particularly Ndidi, began to close down the long balls and Zambia had to shift to the wide attacking positions where Echiejile was repeatedly found wanting. Here are how the players rated (Firsthalf/Second half):

Ike Ezenwa (16) -- 6.0/6.0 -- He had only few moments to worry about when he had to deal with long range shots. Beyond that he was solid and stood his ground. He did nothing spectacular all day.

Abdullahi Shehu (12) -- 6.0/6.5 -- Shehu was average in the opening have but he went up by several notches after halftime both defensively and assisting in attack. He provided the assist for Iwobi's goal and what should have been his second assist was frittered away by Victor Moses.

Elderson Echiejile (3) -- 6.2/5.8 -- Elderson had one of his strong games in the opening half as he shut down the Zambians defensively. In the second half, it was a different story. He was run out of the stadium by the speedy Zambians and he began to accumulate errors before he was substituted on account of injury.

William Troost-Ekong (5) -- 5.9/6.1 -- William had an average day defensively. He won, in large part, his defensive battles but had a difficult opening half dealing with balls behind the defense and had one atrocious pass that put Nigeria in deep danger after only 14 minutes.

Leon Balogun (6) -- 6.5/6.8 -- Leon was Nigeria's defensive hero just as he was in the two games against Cameroon. He was always available cleaning up errors by others and in this game he showed increasing confidence taking the ball from defense into attack.

Ogenyi Onazi (17) -- 6.1/0.0 -- Played just about half an hour before going off injured. However, by then, he was doing his work recovering the ball on defense. 

Wilfred Ndidi (4) -- 6.0/6.3 -- Wilfred covers more grass than any other player. In this game, he won more than he share of the ball in the middle and came close to scoring with a magnificent header from Victor Moses' cross. However, Wilfred turned the ball over multiple times and his timing when he had the ball was not exactly what it is usually.

Mikel Obi (cpt-10) -- 6.2/6.5 -- Mikel Obi finished the game something he rarely does in recent days. He was the calming influence in the middle and his ball control was impeccable as usual. He bore the brunt of several fouls by Zambia.

Moses Simon (15) -- 6.0/6.0 -- Simon had a few remarkable runs down the right after he switched with Victor Moses beyond the first quarter of an hour. Simon had a relatively good game and tracked back repeatedly. That he was substituted was more about introducing a change of pace into the game than it was a reflection on his play.

Victor Moses (11) --6.5/6.5 -- Victor Moses always comes to play and he did so for most of this game except for the early second half when he seemed out of it. His pace, as usual was deadly but his finishing took a vacation in this game.

Odion Ighalo (9) -- 6.0/6.0 -- Odion had a good game but he was not as active as he usually is but still won a fair share of the ball against the strong centre backs of Zambia.

Mikel Agu (21) -- 5.8/6.0 -- Mikel had his first extended play in competitive games for Nigeria after he replaced Onazi in the opening half. It could have been nerves but his tackles were poorly timed and he deservedly received a caution and his passes were late leading to Victor Moses visibly complaining in one case. However, he did improve in the second half.

Alex Iwobi (18) -- 0/6.8 -- Alex came into the game and promptly changed it with his play. Not only did he finish up with a good goal but he was involved in the exquisite passing that preceded it. He played confidently, unlike his recent games for Nigeria. 

Ola Aina (2) -- 0/ 6.0 -- Ola barely played enough to be rated but he was involved in one remarkable play on the left that portended a future place on the starting team. It was indeed a good debut for him. More expected in the future.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Unlocking Nigeria v Zambia: The Keys......

These five keys will decide the Nigeria v Zambia qualifier Saturday. Nigeria is at home in Uyo but unmistakably, the team that is under greater pressure will be Zambia. Zambia must earn a point or three away from home to have a chance of qualifying for their first World Cup. A point only provides a dim chance! Thus, a win is preferred and to win away in Nigeria requires a high level of motivation. Nigeria can qualify in Uyo on Saturday or wait to do so in Algeria in the next month. That should be motivation for Nigeria but not necessarily one that induces extreme pressure.
1.              Victor Moses starts at the top of his game. Moses has become the barometer for Nigeria. When he plays well, Nigeria always has a big chance and Nigeria is yet to lose a home game played by Moses. Zambia will clearly strategize to take both Moses and Mikel Obi off their game but planning to do so is a big difference from actually succeeding in doing so.
2.              The first goal will decide whether Nigeria qualifies Saturday or is forced to wait. If Nigeria scores first, Zambia will surrender. If Zambia scores first, Nigeria’s best result could be a draw. That is how important that first goal will be for both sides. Further, that opening goal should come in the opening half.
3.              Nigeria’s defense is critical in this game. If it is 90% as disciplined as it was against Cameroon, it will assure that Nigeria does not concede against the quick Zambian attack and provide opportunity for Nigeria to get to the World Cup. That defense was crucial against Cameroon, providing few openings for Cameroon to shoot at goal, ceaselessly and quickly closing down on Cameroon attackers in dangerous areas.
4.              That Ndidi and Onazi provide adequate cover for Nigeria’s defense. They were amazing in both Cameroon’s games and Nigeria needs both of them, not just one, to do well against Zambia. Both win a lot of balls and help distribute to more advanced players. Opportunities to win balls against Zambia will be there as Zambia is not adept at ball possession. Those two players are Nigeria’s unsung players.
5.              Nigeria winning set pieces, including flag kicks, could decide the game. Zambia usually concedes set pieces in bunches and Nigeria needs set pieces to threaten goalkeeper Mweene. Yes, Nigeria has not scored much from such opportunities, I the past, but has been close and one such opportunity may be converted against Zambia to decide this critical game.

These five keys will decide the Nigeria v Zambia qualifier Saturday. Nigeria is at home in Uyo but unmistakably, the team that is under greater pressure will be Zambia. Zambia must earn a point or three away from home to have a chance of qualifying for their first World Cup. A point only provides a dim chance! Thus, a win is preferred and to win away in Nigeria requires a high level of motivation. Nigeria can qualify in Uyo on Saturday or wait to do so in Algeria in the next month. That should be motivation for Nigeria but not necessarily one that induces extreme pressure.