Tuesday, December 19, 2017

2017 Annual Report for Nigeria's Football

This is the second The Fan's Annual Report for Nigerian Football (The inaugural version can be found here). Similar to the previous report, this one will grade five units (see below) and the cumulative grades will inform the total grade for Nigeria's football:

1. Youth Football
2. Women Football
3. Local Professional Football.
4. Football Administration.
5. The Super Eagles.

Additionally, the 2017 individual and team data for Nigerian football is presented along with recognition of selected individual accomplishments.

2017 has been a barren year for Nigerian youth football, at least at the international level. The failures, at the qualifying stages, in the previous years meant Nigeria was absent from both African and World phases of the age grade tournaments. Locally, the NPFL organized an exciting youth tournament for club academies and there were other youth tournaments. Overall, however, it was an unusually down year.
Grade: D based largely on sustained and new local tournaments alone. This could easily have been an F grade based on absences at the international level.

Women football mirrored youth football in the same year. Nigeria was absent in international tournaments throughout 2017. Furthermore, the U17 national team did not kick a ball in international competition until December against Ethiopia. Even then, they beat a lowly-placed Ethiopia on away goals with 0-0 at home and 1-1 away. Not exactly what is usually expected from a Nigerian women team. The senior national team "Falcons" has been inactive since winning the African Championship in 2016 in Cameroon. The U20 team beat both Tanzania and Morocco in the African qualifying phase for the U20 Women's World Cup. Locally, women football has been stagnant with a largely absent sponsorship, lukewarm national competitions, and poor financial support. Nigeria's women teams may be at the cusp of a major decline.
Grade: C- based on international qualifying performance by the U17 and U20 teams. It is a down year, no doubt.

Local elite football is clearly on the upswing in terms of media attention, sponsorship, among others. This year, a goal in the league was celebrated among the world's best by the American sports conglomerate ESPN. However, the issue of always win at home and lose away among the 20 teams continue to plague the league. Fans are re-embracing the league, in the main. However, performance at the continental level by the league's elite team has been abysmal at best. For the second year running, only one of four representatives reached the league phase of African competitions.

Grade: B- based on poorer than expected performance for the year. The continued weak continental results is a significant consideration here.

Nigerian football administration claims World Cup qualification for its flagship team -- Super Eagles. That is indeed laudable but administration grade is based on more factors than just performance of the national teams. Fortunately, football administration had a good year in acquiring a major sponsorship with AITEO to pay coaches. Then it reached a World Cup bonus agreement with the national team long before the start of competition in Russia. Importantly, the administration also provided great results in political muscling by securing significant clout at the continental level where its President won elections to CAF Executive Committee and became a key player in ending the Issa Hayatou era.  All the above indicated at least an A- grade in spite of failures at the women and youth competition levels. However, all that was soured with the administrative bungling that led to FIFA sanctioning the country for using an ineligible player in a competitive game.

Grade: B+ is, therefore, the grade based on progress with sponsorship and accruing important political leverage at the continental level but also recognizing problems noted above.

Super Eagles qualified for the 2018 World Cup with a game to spare. The team was strong throughout the qualifiers and soundly thrashed its erstwhile nemesis Cameroon 4-0 in a critical game and it went unbeaten in the World Cup qualifiers. In addition, the team humiliated highly rated Argentina 4-2 in an international friendly. However, 2017 was not all rosy. The opening game of the AFCON qualifiers ended in a shock home loss to South Africa. That was a blemish that stained the national team in 2017.

Grade: A- based on great run in the World Cup qualifiers and the beat down of Argentina. But those accomplishments are tempered by a shock home loss in the AFCON qualifier.

Below are grades for specific units of the national team:

Goalkeeping: This was the problematic position for much of 2017. Ikeme's unavailability on account of sickness was problematic as Daniel Akpeyi's performance was well below par. Additionally, Ezenwa replacing Akpeyi provided early succor before a horrendous display in Algeria. Grade is C.

Defense: This was a particularly vexing unit in 2016 but was greatly stabilized much of 2017. The central defenders Ekong and Balogun grew into a stable and reliable unit. Abdullah Shehu on the right was consistent. However, Echiejile on the left still has shaky moments especially against pacy opponents. Indeed, it is a unit that has grown. Grade is B.

Midfield: This is, perhaps, the most stable unit for the team. Ndidi and Onazi at the base have been solid and largely disciplined, while skipper Mikel Obi is still able to play at an elite level. At the wide midfield are Simon and Victor Moses who provide the guile and pace. This is the unit that often decides whether Nigeria wins or loses a game. Grade is A-.

Forward: Here, the idea is to evaluate players that often join the attack whether or not they are largely designated as midfielders. The most advanced player is Odion Ighlo and at times Kelechi Iheanacho. The unit has scored regularly and continues to position players for goal scoring opportunities. Grade is B. This grade is a step back from 2016. 

Bench: The bench has been built up slowly with Etebo, Ahmed Musa, and Kelechi Iheanacho now considered options on the bench. These are players who could easily start on this team. This level of bench strength is a major consideration in the Grade of B+

Coaching: Gernot Rohr, beyond the stunning home loss to South Africa, has been impressive. The dismantling of Cameroon with a virtuoso performance both in Uyo and Yaounde was telling. The quick counter attacking of the team and disciplined performance defensively bodes well for the team's future. The zenith of the coaching team's performance was the changing of formation against Argentina and still winning 4-2. This is certainly a A- grade. It could well have been a higher grade if South Africa did not happen.


The over all grade for Nigerian football in 2017 is B. This is based on unit grades that were A-, B+, B-, C-, and D. In 2016, Nigerian football received an over all grade of B- and thus this year is an improvement. That improvement is, however, uneven. The Super Eagles received A- grade compared to last year when none of the units received better than a B+ grade. However, youth and women football declined and that is reflected in this year's grades.

The data include results of the home-based national team that played in the WAFU Cup in Ghana. This may explain the drop in efficiency from 0.67 in 2016 to 0.58 this year. The 'A' national team lost one game all year, at home to South Africa, but had a very good year qualifying for the World Cup and raising hopes of an excellent 2018 at the World Cup in Russia. Table is included below:

Goalkeeper Ikechukwu Ezenwa led in both minutes and number of appearances, courtesy of appearing for both the 'A' national team and the home-based team (see table below). Iheanacho scored another four goals in 2017, as he did the previous year. It is an amazing total for him in 2017, considering that he started most games from the bench. His two assists tied Alex Iwobi for the lead in the national team.

There is no surprise that Victor Moses leads as the best player ahead of Mikel Obi and Leon Balogun who also played excellently. Moses was instrumental in leading the national team to World Cup qualification. The BEST NEW PLAYER was a toss up between Ola Aina and Hafeez Aremu. Aina, by virtue of appearing for the 'A' national team, gets the nod but Aremu definitely showed quality with his performance at the WAFU Cup. Leon Balogun has been a feature in the national team but he is named the EMERGING STAR because in 2017 he took the next step of not just being a starter on the team but becoming one of the best players of the team. See the table below.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Realities of Nigeria's World Cup Group......

Ambivalence pervades analyses of Nigeria's 2018 World Cup group. For some, this is definitely a group where Nigeria is certain to finish among the qualifying two teams. For others, the ranking states otherwise and both Argentina and Croatia should keep Nigeria out. The uncertainty among analysts about the likely outcome in the group has led some to christen it the Group of Death even though there are surely much stronger groups from top to bottom. My analysis is not so much to claim that I have a crystal ball. Instead, it is to provide some insight, another perspective, or fresh thinking beyond just results achieved by each team in the group. In doing so, I intend to examine the draw, the schedule of games, and then the teams. I believe those three areas are critical in gaining insight on what could happen in June in Russia.

The Draw

The draw on December 1 was certainly not what Nigeria hoped for but it was not the worst case scenario either. In a sense, the best possible draw for Nigeria was to be the African team in Group A where Russia is seeded. That would have been an easier group, at least on paper. But it didn't happen. Instead, Nigeria was drawn in Group B with Argentina, Croatia, and Iceland. It is a much tougher group but certainly easier than a worst case scenario that may have put Nigeria in a possible group with Germany and Spain! Thus, Nigeria escaped with a draw that gives it a reasonable chance to get to the Round of 16. After all to achieve great things at the World Cup you must first make it out of the group. After that, any thing is possible. That is thumbs up for Nigeria's chances come June.

Schedule of Games

Theoretically, it is always best to encounter the top seeded team in the final round of group games. The reasoning is that the top seed will come into that game already qualified and may rest some of its top players. But that is if the top seed has taken care of business in its first two games! That is a big IF because the top seed may disappoint in one of those earlier games and, thus, not always qualify before the final round of group games. 

Second, it is best to play against the weakest team in the group in the second round of games rather than the first round. Why? Settling for a draw in the usually nervy opener provides an easier game to take maximum points in the second. 

For Nigeria, the scheduling of games broke perfectly. Nigeria plays Iceland in the second round and the thinking is that Iceland may be the weakest team in the group in spite of the fact that it is ranked ahead of Nigeria. Then, Nigeria does not play top seed Argentina until the final round. 

However, this is all theoretical. Nigeria had a somewhat similar schedule at the 2014 World Cup but instead of beginning with expected victory against Iran, it stumbled before beating Bosnia in the second round and had to sweat on Bosnia v Iran game before sneaking into the Round of 16. In any case, the schedule is much better than having to face the top seed first and then scrambling to qualify in the later games if it loses the opener against the top seed. Again, another thumbs up for Nigeria.

The Teams

While it appears that Nigeria has a very good chance of qualifying, one must acknowledge that Nigeria is the lowest seeded team in the group, which means that it is theoretically expected to finish at the bottom of the group. However, on-field play can trump the ranking of teams. At least, that is what Nigeria must think. In that case, lets examine the teams in the group and their strengths.

Argentina. This is the top team in the group and a usual group mate of Nigeria. Argentina  and Nigeria have been in the same group in five of Nigeria's six World Cup appearances. Dreadfully, Argentina has always beaten Nigeria at the World Cup. However, Nigeria beat Argentina 4-2 recently to derive a psychological up lift. But how much would such uplift count when both teams meet in Russia? Notably, while both teams missed top stars during that 4-2 game, Argentina was without the World's best player Lionel Messi who surely will be on the field in Russia. Messi is a player who can significantly impact a game more than any other player in the world. Thus, that 4-2 victory may be meaningless come June. Make no mistake about that. With Aguero, and probably a returning Higuain, running ceaselessly behind the defense, Messi has the guile to either locate their runs or take on the defense by himself. Nevertheless, Nigeria has a good chance to earn a point or three in the game if its defense and midfield are disciplined. It will be a difficult game for Nigeria.

Croatia. Croatia certainly expects to qualify as one of the best two teams in the group and has the star names to support this expectation. This is a team that has been troubled for a while and has made several coaching changes as it sought to produce results that reflect its potential. While Croatia beat Spain at the Euro in 2016, it has drawn with likes of Finland and lost to Iceland. The midfield may be one of the best in the world but the reality is that this team needs loads of attempts to score. It is not a clinical team up front and certainly not as clinical as Nigeria's team. Mandzukic has a reasonable goal scoring ratio, but he is at the end of his career and so are most of the team's top players. This World Cup is probably their last hurray. Their recent 4-1 win over a poor Greek team is an aberration after difficult games in recent times. Its defense is also suspect but definitely good enough to compete against any of the teams in the group. Croatia has never played against Nigeria but it must be remembered that it destroyed Cameron 4-0 in its only victory at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. 

Iceland. Nigeria has only met Iceland once, losing 0-3 in a second of a two-game Scandinavian tour in 1981. Nigeria had tied Norway 2-2 in the opening game of that tour with amateur players. But then Iceland was not exactly a powerhouse at the time. However, Iceland has developed rapidly building all-season fields that provide year-round play for its players and has developed numerous top grade local coaches that belie its low population. Results have followed, including a defeat of England at the European Championships in 2016 and beating Croatia in the World Cup qualifiers. Nevertheless, Iceland lacks players playing at the top leagues in Europe but it has not mattered as it has been coached into a disciplined outfit that is difficult to break down. Iceland is a dark horse that may be underestimated but it certainly can make noise in this group.

Nigeria. While each of the other teams in the group can be beaten, they each can also beat Nigeria. Nigeria, surely, will be an underdog in games against Argentina and Croatia. Against Iceland, Nigeria will be expected to dominate the ball and will have the difficult task of breaking down a sturdy Icelandic team. The keys in this group for Nigeria will be a defense that is alert to forwards making runs behind the defensive line. This means that Nigeria must avoid playing a high line and avoid pressuring the opponent very high because those may cause exploitable gaps in its own dangerous areas. Nevertheless, there are other issues. Against Croatia, particularly, the experimental 3-5-2 may not be the appropriate option. Instead, a more defensibly solid 4-5-1 should be preferred with a quick forward and quick wide midfielders. Against both Argentina and Iceland, the 3-5-2 may be preferred but for different reasons. Against Argentina, the 3-5-2 is more effective as an adapted 3-5-1-1 and compacting the spine of the formation, which is critical. Further, it would help to deny Messi in the middle with two defensive midfielders playing deeper than usual. Up front, the wide backs and forwards provide pace against an aging defense. Against Iceland, Nigeria will more likely have the initiative with a traditional 3-5-2 and would need the spaces wide to help break down a likely compact Iceland on the day.