Thursday, November 23, 2017

Race to Build a Memorable World Cup Team

The 2018 World Cup in Russia is barely seven months away but Nigeria's readiness to build a record-setting team remains largely unclear in spite of the recent 4-2 win over Argentina in an international friendly. By record-setting one refers to a team that would at least get to the quarter final stage in order to surpass previous performances by Nigeria at a World Cup (see Figure 1). The current team has qualified for the World Cup finals with one game to spare but, at times, left doubts about its ability to take serious positive steps at the World Cup in Russia.

This is not to slam the team. Not at all. After all, qualifying with a game to spare is no mean feat and dominating Argentina in a spectacular second half was indelible. However, Nigeria in doing so did not always dominate its opponents and, at times, there were some doubts. What Nigeria largely demonstrated was its clinical ability in front of goal, something that its opponents rarely matched. Take the 3-1 win over Algeria in Uyo, the game was much closer than the scoreline. The 4-0 win over Cameroon was much closer than the scoreline indicated and the Zambian game in Uyo saw the visitors an inch offside on a goal that could possibly have led to a draw. The bottomline is that while Nigeria won those games, the scorelines were often deceptive. In only one game did Nigeria put up a performance where the scoreline did not do favor or overestimate its play. That was the 1-1 draw in Yaounde where Nigeria was the better team and Cameroon rarely looked likely to score. Then the magnificent three-goal second half against Argentina in Krasnodar was no less than the team deserved.

However, it is now a 7-month race to build a team capable of emerging as one of the best eight teams at the 2018 World Cup. Though Nigeria's advanced forwards have not scored a lot of goals, the team has done well because goals have also come from the midfield. Arguably, playing against favored opponents may reduce the ability of midfielders to move into advanced positions in the field in order to score goals. Often the questions surrounding pace in the center of Nigeria's defense has meant that the defense plays further back with the midfield a bit withdrawn to provide cover. The alternative, when quick counters become difficult is that Nigeria must quickly identify advanced forwards who are more likely to get on the scoresheet. Besides Ighalo, there has been a problem finding others. Kelechi Iheanacho scores a bit but for Nigeria he has not demonstrated convincing ability to play at the most advanced forward position. Anthony Nwakaeme debuted in Constantine but did little to justify any confidence in his ability. Iwobi did the trick against Argentina but can he be trusted to be consistent in front of goal?

Though questions surround the attack, the midfield appears solid. Nigeria's midfield is as good as most of its counterparts any where else in the world. Rohr, unlike his predecessors, has focused on providing not just key personnel in the middle but also providing numbers there. The consequence is that he has developed solid starters and some bench players that can step up in case of any injury to a starter.  More importantly, he can employ them in his favorite 4-5-1/4-4-1-1 or the 3-5-2/3-4-1-2 he recently used in Krasnodar. Mikel Obi, is unquestionably the leader in the midfield. His technique on the ball is one of the best not just in Africa but also in the world. It is on his feet that Nigeria must look with hope if reaching the last eight is doable. Ndidi and Onazi are strong ball winners. However, both of them lack passing accuracy. Etebo brings better passing accuracy but his range of passing is questionable. Mikel Agu is an option from the bench but he is yet to produce a convincing performance on his appearances for the team. John Ogu will be fighting for one of the last spots to the World Cup. He wins the ball but is a step slower than his team mates and his range can be doubted. At the wide positions are a ton of players that include Victor Moses, Moses Simon, Alex Iwobi, Ahmed Musa, and Henry Onyekuru. Further, Rohr can use wing backs as he did against Argentina. However, the unit is good enough in spite of some weaknesses. Victor Moses is the most valuable of the lot and the most consistent. He has to play and be effective for any Nigerian chance to reach the final stage.

Defensively, the team has done well. However, there is this lingering doubt that this defense may be achieving results well above its real abilities. Individually, none of the players can be said to be outstanding but as a group they have been effective. Whether such effectiveness will continue at the World Cup is left to be seen, however. To the team's credit, Coach Rohr has worked to stock the squad with defenders of similar abilities meaning that in seven months time, an injury to one does not mean a major loss for the team.

At the goalkeeper position, the bottomline is Nigeria needs to recall experienced Vincent Enyeama in order to dream of reaching the last eight in Russia. Without him, a final eight or even getting out of the group phase might be too tall a task for the team. The current goalkeepers are just not on the same level of performance or confidence as Enyeama. This includes the new Nigerian favorite -- Francis Uzoho. He debuted in Krasnodar but produced just one save worthy of note as he was rarely tested by the Argentines. However, his height and his large wingspan make him appear assured both in the air and getting to balls shot away from his body. However, more of him needs to be seen for him to be anointed an assured goalkeeper for the team.

Table 1 below looks at the team's current personnel and grading their individual performances and estimating their individual impact on the team. NG grade is simply "No Grade" as there is little data to evaluate. Team impact ranges from 1 to 5 with 5 reflecting greatest impact on the team. A player reaching an impact of "?" means the impact is difficult to assess because of few appearances.

In the next few months, it seems, Nigeria's dreams for reaching the final eight will either get a boost or raise major doubts. The activities that would drive those emotions lie in the coaching crew's recruitment of important talent in the attack, a recall of Enyeama and/or development of Uzoho, and the tactical work on the team, particularly in defense. It is the thin line between just participating at the World Cup or creating  a team capable of setting a record worthy of memories at the event next June.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Victory Over Argentina is a Remarkable Comeback....

The 4-2 come back win in Russia against Argentina is an important marker. To come back from being 0-2 and being overrun by a top team like Argentina is remarkable. That should never be underestimated. Besides that marker, Rohr's decision to test the 3-5-2 formation is work in progress but there are indeed promises. As we saw after Nigeria went up 3-2, the defensive benefits from that formation proved important as it frustrated the Argentines repeatedly. It is likely that Rohr will call up that formation at critical moments at the World Cup.

But it must be clear that the 3-5-2 did not work very well at times. This was particularly clear with   Aina reluctant to join the attack and at times effectively rendering the system unbalanced on the left. Idowu's entry and his willingness to commit upfront created opportunities as the formation should, going forward. As for Aina's reluctance, is surprising because he had provided attacking promises in the game against Algeria. Although against Algeria, he had left the defense exposed in one of his moves upfront. Could that have led to his reluctance? I have no idea.

The 3-5-2 formation in the opening half was not static with Mikel and Iwobi frequently switching and in its ball recovery phase, Iwobi clearly was the one more likely to be withdrawn deep leaving Iheanacho advanced. Of course, Iwobi became the most advanced after Iheanacho's exit in the second half. Ultimately, Iwobi played his best game ever for Nigeria and Ebuehi was a pleasant revelation. Here is how I rated the players.

Daniel Akpeyi (1) -- 6.0 -- Made two blunders but overall was steady and made two important saves to keep the Argentines at bay. The first blunder appeared as if he perceived that Di Maria had been whistled off sides and he prepared to take the kick but as Aguero intervened, he picked up the ball leading to a ferric call. The second was a poor left foot clearance that could have cost Nigeria as it hit an attacker before going into throw in.

Chidozie Awaziem (20) - 5.8 -- Had a poor second half with some mind boggling tackles and then turning the ball over in dangerous position. In the first half he was left stranded allowing Otamendi a free header deep inside the box.

William Troost-Ekong (5) -- 7.0 -- Nigeria's best defender in this game. He was quick to cut off dangerous attacks and was business like as usual. Made several saves.

Leon Balogun (6) -- 6.0 -- Made a dangerous turnover in the opening half and then was beaten for pace leading to the second goal. Otherwise he had some good moments and was surprisingly confident on the ball against the South Americans.

Abdullahi Shehu (12) -- 6.0 -- Shehu was average in this game. Nothing remarkable except one important block of an Aguero attempt in the opening half.

Ola Aina (2) -- 6.0 -- This was an average game for him. Rarely joined the attack and his positioning in the opening half largely rendered the formation unbalanced down the left when going forward. However, he had some good defensive moments.

Wilfred Ndidi (19) -- 8. 0 -- Though Iwobi was very good but Ndidi was good from the opening minute to the last. He was the best player out there for long moments. His ability to recover the ball is growing every game. It was his ball recovery that led to Nigeria's equalizer early in the second half.

John Ogu (19) -- 6.4 -- Ogu was very confident and circulates the ball with quick one-twos. Rarely made a passing error in this game but otherwise was not very influential.

Mikel Obi (10) -- 6.5 -- Mikel had a good game and very confident on the ball as usual. However, as he tired it meant that his tracking back became more labored. His use in the system often felt like an interchange from a forward to midfield positioning.

Alex Iwobi (18) -- 8.0 -- This was Alex Iwobi's best game for Nigeria by far. He was still lively even when he was not seeing much of the ball in the opening half. He earned the foul that led to the free kick goal and then he scored a brace in the second half. His second goal was top quality as he embarrassed Mescherano before shooting craftily beyond the goalkeeper.

Kelechi Iheanacho (14) -- 6.5 -- Kelechi, apart from his masterful ferric goal late in the first half was largely anonymous. However, he exploded in the second half and provided two assists and could have scored a spectacular goal with a back flick in the second half.

Francis Uzoho (23) -- 6.3 -- Uzoho's debut was not much of a test but he exuded confidence. He was only called upon twice and he passed with flying colors. First he flicked a header over his goal and then he confidently punched a threatening lob off his goal area. Otherwise, it was a quiet debut.

Tyronne Ebuehi (17) -- 7.5 -- Tyrone was at the right place and at the right time at a every moment. This was a superb game for him both defending and going forward. He hardly put a foot wrong during his time in the game.

Kenneth Omeruo (4) -- 5.8 -- Was on for 30 minutes but was largely anonymous. In one moment he made an unforced concession into corner chesting the ball.

Brian Idowu (21) -- 6.3 -- He had a memorable debut. Came in and changed the play on the left by frequently joining the attack ending up putting Nigeria ahead for good with a well taken opportunity. He also defended very well late in the game.

Ahmed Musa (7) -- 6.0 --  Musa was in the game for 20 minutes and his effort was high both defending and attacking. Then he assisted Nigeria's fourth goal.  Beyond those, there was nothing else that was remarkable.

Kayode Olanrewaju (9) -- X -- Was not evaluated in only five minutes of play.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Nigeria Remains Unbeaten on the Road to the World Cup

Nigeria ended its World Cup qualifying schedule, again, unbeaten after a 1-1 draw against Algeria in Constantine. It was a game that would be quickly forgotten. It produced very little fireworks and had large stages of unorganized play by both teams. The field was atrocious with the ball bouncing unpredictably and passing by both teams was just as unpredictable. While it is easy to blame the poor field, the fact that several key players were missing on both sides may well have been significant in producing the poor display for a game that was supposedly a competitive encounter.

Nigeria had already qualified for the World Cup and, thus, this game was equivalent to an international friendly. It ended up even looking worse. However, it was enough to provide some insight on those who were on the field. Here are my thoughts:

Ikechukwu Ezenwa (16) -- 5.5 -- This was a horrific game for Ezenwa. In the first half, the Algerians had little to threaten him but his unreadiness was exposed in the second half. First, he clawed at a high ball to concede a cornerback (60th), then he failed to strongly grip another, and then dived and completely missed a cross to offer the Algerians a big chance from just about five yards out (67th).

Abdullahi Shehu (12) -- 6.4 -- Shehu had another confident outing and won numerous one-and-one encounters. Though, he was called for the penalty kick that led to the Algerian goal but the call was a controversial one. Shehu is gradually solidify his grip on the problematic right back position.

Ola Aina (2) -- 6.2 -- Aina had a reasonably good game and his one and one defending against Mahrez was a plus. It is quite obvious that he has the pace to keep up with fast attackers and the ability to contribute going forward. However, his ability to win contested high balls is definitely an issue and it showed in this game. Additionally, he has to make the right reads on when to join the attack. Overall, a good game.

William Troost-Ekong (5) -- 6.3 -- William is almost always a good decision maker at the heart of Nigeria's defense and he proved that today. He was very reliable cleaning up in defense.

Leon Balogun (cpt-6) -- 6.2 -- Leon captained the team today and started very jittery. It appeared that he was having monumental problems controlling the ball on the poor field but he played much better after a rather uncertain start to his day.

Oghenekaro Etebo (8) -- 6.2 -- This was thought to be an opportunity for Etebo to impress and force a consideration as a starter. He played well but not enough to win such a consideration. He was around the ball but most of his passes were just about five yards out and very little inventiveness to stretch the play with longer passes. Defensively, he won his share of balls.

John Ogu (19) -- 6.0 -- Ogu scored Nigeria's goal with a remarkable shot from 25 yards out but beyond that his play was unremarkable. He will surely be on the very edge fighting for the last spots to make the World Cup team.

Wilfred Ndidi (13) -- 7.0 -- Ndidi was all over the field in the opening half and I had him rated 7.5 but that fell off in the second half. However, it was clear that he was head and shoulders above the other midfielders. This guy recovers the ball more than anyone else on Nigeria's team. However, he also has a tendency to turn the ball over.

Alex Iwobi (18) -- 6.0 -- Iwobi was largely anonymous playing on the wide left of the midfield in the opening half. He was slightly better on the right after halftime before he was replaced. Alex had a big opportunity in the second half but fumbled his final ball as the poor field produced an unusual bounce forcing him to make a cross off his shin.

Anthony Nwaekeme (22) -- 6.0 -- He reminded me of a young Yakubu Aiyegbeni, running all day. However, for such a big fellow it is surprising that he hits the ball softly in front of goal. He will get another chance against Argentina but Ighalo will not be having any sleepless nights.

Kelechi Iheanacho (14) -- 6.2 -- Kelechi had his moments and was very good with his set pieces into the box. In the 40th minute he played a set-piece to Etebo but slipped on the poor field as Etebo set him free on the right. This combination set piece was a feature in a 2016victory over Tanzania where he and Musa combined on it a few times. This time the field prevented a good outcome in that exchange with Etebo. 

Onyekuru (11) -- 5.8 -- He was anonymous in the 20 minutes that he was on. However, in one single play (85th) he did remind everyone why he had been scoring in Europe. One turn to his right, dismissed an Algerian defender but his low shot was deflected into corner. Beyond that, nothing else was remarkable.

Ahmed Musa (7) -- x -- Musa was on the field for just 10 minutes and is unrated.

Coaching Crew -- 5.5 -- This game was poor on both sides. One has to credit the crew because Nigeria qualified and the team finished the qualifiers unbeaten. Both are admirable achievements. However, the team v Algeria played poorly for a large part of the game. If this was a 'friendly' why did the crew not use the opportunity to use up three substitution spots? Why did it take so long to bring in replacements? At this rate, some of the rarely used players may end up not playing against Argentina on Tuesday.