Saturday, June 16, 2018

With Hopes Dimming, Silver Lining Remains Argentina 1 Iceland 1......

Nigeria's hopes heads towards a possible implosion after the 0-2 loss in Kaliningrad to Croatia but some how there is still a chance to grab a spot in the second phase of the World Cup because the other group game between Argentina and Iceland ended 1-1. Thus, with Nigeria bringing up the rear in the group, they are just a point out of second place. It may be thinking of the cup as half full but that is the best face after a disappointing loss to Croatia. Yet, to still hope to reach the second phase of this World Cup, Nigeria must now get favorable results in its next two games. However, Nigeria has never reached the second phase of the World Cup after losing the opening game but records are meant to be broken.

The loss to Croatia featured what has become a broken record for Nigeria if that term (Broken record) is still in use given that only the very old can remember what a broken record sounds like. But for Nigeria that broken record is conceding goals via set pieces, REPEATEDLY. Against Croatia, the two goals came from such sets. None came in open play. The first was gravely disappointing. Nigeria had conceded several set piece goals in preparatory games before the World Cup and Manager Gernot Rohr promised that the team would work on it. Yet, in the 31st minute, two players were left unmarked deep in the six yard box as a corner kick floated in. It seemed Nigeria would escape the danger when the low header from Croatia was certainly heading wide of the goal but unfortunately a lurking Oghenekaro Etebo re-directed it into his own net. It was a stain on Etebo's day, a day when he was just one of the few that showed up to play. The second goal was worse, in the 70th minute, in response to yet another cornerback, William Ekong was desperate to defend the set piece but he made a meal of it. He openly grabbed Croatia's Mandzuric and wrestled him down for an obvious penalty kick. At that moment, the game was clearly beyond Nigeria.

Manager Rohr must now win the next game in order for Nigeria avoid elimination in this group and it is against a fiercely organized Icelandic team that is the most deadly from set pieces. It would be a huge challenge, indeed. But he must produce the results or his stay in Nigeria is headed for an end point.

Here is how the players rated:

Francis Uzoho (23) -- 6.0 -- The worst was anticipated for him but he came out looking good. Not that he was busy because Croatia hardly produced any worthy shot at goal and he ended up making a magnificent 1 v 1 save in injury time.

Abdullahi Shehu (12) -- 6.1 -- Although largely villified before the game, he ended up producing some timely saves but again he did little going forward.

William Ekong (5) -- 6.1 -- He surely will have a nightmare watching his arm wrestling that ended Nigeria's hopes of coming back in this game. Beyond that, he had a stellar outing but that stuff must lead to a downgrade of his rating in this game.

Leon Balogun (5) -- 6.7 -- The best player in a Nigerian shirt. He defended quite well and had two shots at goal, one more than Ighalo and one more that Iheanacho, both strikers.

Brian Idowu (2) -- 6.0 -- He was average but defended stoutly. In the opening half, he left some gaps down his side in attempts to join the attack but that was not the reason for today's loss.

Wilfred Ndidi (4) -- 6.2 -- He did well busying himself in the game but again his passes were some times sub par and this was clearly not his best.

Oghenekaro Etebo (8) -- 6.4 -- He had a presence all game beyond the own goal that he conceded and he suffered several fouls.

Mikel Obi (cpt-10) -- 6.0 -- Mikel was a shadow of himself today. He provided very little movement in his position nor did he provide the support for the advanced forwards. Late in the game, it was sad to watch him stand instead of moving into space for a colleague seeking an outlet. That he was rescued by the coach with a substitution was not a surprise.

Alex Iwobi (18) -- 5.8 -- He may have been Nigeria's worst player on the day. This kid was becoming the MAN in the last few games but today he appeared overwhelmed by the game. It is the World Cup after all. Very early, his attempts at taking on defenders failed and his confidence went down hill.

Victor Moses (11) -- 6.5 -- Although Moses suffered several fouls, he appeared to be the only real threat for Nigeria going forward. Unfortunately, his efforts did not help results all day.

Jude Ighalo (9) -- 6.0 -- Jude was starved of service most of the day but he did little to find options to this problem. For Nigeria to do well Ighalo must have the needed service. He had just one shot all day and it was just a glancing header in the second half.

Ahmed Musa (7) -- 6.1 -- Ahmed may not have produced a goal chance but he put up 110% effort, far more than you could write about several of his colleagues.

Kelechi Iheanacho (14) -- 6.2 -- Kelechi played only 20 minutes but he produced a shot and found Musa for a half chance. It was an effort that Ighalo could not produce in 70 minutes of play.

Simmy Nwankwo (13) -- X -- He did not do enough to be rated.

Monday, June 11, 2018

How Willing is Rohr to Make Difficult Decisions?

Gernot Rohr has so far demonstrated a consistent streak of conservatism as Nigeria's manager. However, with four consecutive games without a win, that consistency is facing a major test because in front of him is a game that will go a long way to decide whether his job as Nigeria's manager continues after the World Cup. Rohr, as he did in Burkina Faso, has stood firm with his preferred 4-3-2-1 formation. However, his experiment with the 3-5-2 had unexpectedly provided his team with some vigor against major opponents such as Argentina and England. Is he now willing to switch to that formation against Croatia next Saturday as the World Cup begins for Nigeria? That is the test.

But it is not just switching to a 3-5-2 which, on paper, appears to be a better match against Croatia than the 4-3-2-1. The real test is re-thinking the personnel for that formation instead of force-feeding his current personnel from the 4-3-2-1 into the 3-5-2. There is no doubt that he has a number of players able to flex into multiple positions but the question is how best can he maximize their values? Presently, here is how Rohr has attempted to fit players into the 3-5-2:

------------------------------------------Uzoho------------------------------------------

---------Balogun-----------------------Ekong----------------------Ogu---------------


-------------------Ndidi------------------------------Iwobi------------------------------

Ebuehi---------------------------------Mikel Obi-------------------------------Idowu

-------------------Ighalo-----------------------------Vic Moses-------------------------


Two major problems have arisen with the above but one has to acknowledge that the team has done well in it, compared to the team's use of Rohr's preferred 4-3-2-1. Here, preference simply refers to how often the manager has used each formation. In any case, one of the problems has been scoring and Ighalo and Moses upfront offer very little change. None of those two players is prolific and Moses tends more often than not to hold onto the ball longer than necessary. Secondly, he isn't physical in holding on to a forward position. Ighalo, holds up the ball and moves well behind the defense but is prone to poor finishing.

In the midfield, while Mikel and Iwobi are very good passers of the ball, Iwobi is more aggressive going forward, scores more, makes more valuable passes for scoring but is also turnover prone. Mikel is better in keeping possession and can make more accurate long passes and has the ability to recover the ball better. 

Can Rohr Pull the Strings and Would he?
It seems quite clear, that the jigsaw puzzle with the personnel in 3-5-2 is far from solved and with just a few days to the Croatia game, the question is whether Rohr is willing to tweak the personnel so it looks like this:

-----------------------------------------------Uzoho-----------------------------------------

------------Balogun-------------------------Ekong----------------------Ogu--------------

--------------------------Ndidi---------------------------Mikel Obi------------------------

Ebuehi-------------------------------------Iwobi---------------------------------Vic Moses

-------------------------------Ighalo-----------------------Iheanacho------------------------

Will Rohr move Mikel Obi to a deeper position in the middle and move Iwobi to a more advanced position given the characteristics that are already mentioned? Bear in mind that Mikel has stated publicly and several times that he prefers the more advanced position. Can Rohr put his feet down and make the switch any way? I doubt it or at least there is nothing to indicate that he will. Rohr's conservatism means that this change is still a long way off and may not be done during Rohr's managership of this team. Secondly, can he move Moses to the wing back position, a position (albeit on the right side) that Moses already plays at his club Chelsea? Again, I doubt it when one considers that Moses is not strong defensively when he plays for Nigeria but it is clear that he is capable of playing in that position and he provides a far better option than Idowu will ever provide. Then up front, Iheanacho can be offered some valuable minutes instead of the garbage minutes that he has recently received from the team. Yet, Iheanacho provides the best chance to score for Nigeria. He is far more clinical than any one else on the team, bar none.

Gernot Rohr is the manager. Gernot Rohr is the one faced with the hot seat on Saturday against Croatia. Gernot Rohr can make a big difference if he chooses to. The fact is: will he? 

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

The Revelations in the Czech Game.....

The 0-1 loss to Czech Republic revealed quite a bit about the Nigerian team going into the World Cup. Of course, the bottomline is that the four-game non-winning streak must be a concern now with just a few days to the important World Cup game against Croatia. The Czech game had the feel of practice in front of a sparse audience. That the referee called the game after just 89 minutes, when there was a logical expectation for added time, all but underlined the type of game it was.

To be sure, Nigerians dominated possession as they should against the scrappy and overly physical Czech team. There was little to write home about the Czechs. They were overmatched but in the end they claimed a famous win over a technically superior Nigerian team. This certainly must be a fundamental concern for Nigeria and its Coach Gernot Rohr. The much hyped 3-5-2 formation was used today for the full 90 minutes and it reminded everyone that formations do not by themselves win games. Further, despite Nigeria's domination in possession it is unclear how good the Nigerian team is because the Czechs were so poor on the ball. Croatia will be vastly different, for sure.

As for the revelations, it is striking that Nigeria's strikers lack the appropriate timing to run into space for the dangerous ball. That Ighalo was called off sides several times and Iheanacho once points to an issue that Nigeria needs to fix fast or face a humiliating World Cup in the coming weeks. Then it was also surprising that Nigeria barely looked threatening in spite of numerous corner kicks that came its way. Multiple times, the ball was overhit. When it wasn't, it was difficult for Nigeria to win the aerial duel. Yet the Czechs had barely a sniff at Nigeria's end but yet it was with one of those kicks that they decided the game. These details in a football game -- the timing of runs, the set pieces, among others -- certainly will be deciding factors, as is usually the case, at the World Cup. It will not be a case of merely the formation. Not at all. Additionally, how many times did Iheanacho fail at a set piece to lift the ball appropriately to seek the advantage that Nwankwo provides in the air in those last few minutes? Zero.

What is alarming is that a Nigerian team that appeared quite clinical at the World Cup qualifiers is now struggling to find a way to score. In the last five games and three goals, the scoring has depended on a penalty kick,  a rebound, and an auspicious assist during a scramble. No neatly worked goal, no set-piece, nothing that shows a team creative at the offensive end.

But this really is not the time to give up hope. These are just preparatory games but going behind against Croatia has suddenly become a major issue to worry about. Gernot Rohr, indeed, has a tough road ahead of him and the team. Here is how I saw the individual play.

Francis Uzoho (23) - 6.0 -- He was quite average today after a high from the England game. This is what Nigeria must live with, it is a matter of growing pains. Uzoho is quite strong in the air but his ball distribution continues to be a question.

Leon Balogun (6) -- 6.2 -- This game was a slight improvement on the England game but that is not stating much. He is getting comfortable on the ball but his once solid partnership with Ekong in the middle is showing some cracks that were evident in the opening half. Today, it was a partnership on the right side of a three-men defense.

William Ekong (5) -- 6.2 -- Ekong was as good as always. The confidence and the assurance that he will present the last ditch effort has not wavered. It was nothing spectacular today but then again the Czechs did very little going forward. 

John Ogu (19) -- 6.5 -- Ogu is certainly showing a lot on the left side of the defense but I still worry about his lack of pace. Today, he was again good and his abilities on the ball provide both confidence and options for the pass. 

Abdullahi Shehu (12) -- 6.0 -- Shehu has increasingly become unsettled with the competition provided by Tyronne Ebuehi. Again, he was subpar. Shehu surely can play much better but the reality is that he has not shown it in several games now.

Wilfred Ndidi (13) -- 6.1 -- I am glad to see this guy back and also in  his usual shirt number. However, it was clear that he has to work his way back. It was reported that he would play just an hour but he ended up playing the entire game. His game was not top notch today.

Mikel Obi (cpt-10) -- 7.0 -- Mikel clearly is the pass master. His ability was expressed against the Czechs as he bossed the middle. However, he (as well as others) in the middle must work out ways to make the quicker passes through the channels for the strikers instead of staying on the ball a tad longer.

Alex Iwobi (18) -- 6.8 -- Iwobi has clearly become more comfortable playing for Nigeria. He has now put up a strong list of consecutive games where he was one of the team's best players. He is not afraid to seek the ball and he usually makes the right decisions. He is one of the players that is aggressive with his passes.

Brian Idowu (2) -- 6.2 -- As a wing back, Idowu provides several advantages going forward but he just must hit his crosses better. He had an opportunity to score today but failed to hit his volley well.

Jude Ighalo (9) -- 6.0 -- Another routine and average day at the office. His timing of runs is certainly off and he is routinely accumulating off sides calls. In certain cases, he needs to trust that the ball will come through the space instead of running ahead of the pass decision.

Victor Moses (11) -- 6.8 -- Victor Moses was virtually a non-factor against England. Today, he was far more energetic and involved. It may be the sign that he is getting ready. However, he was surprised by the ball deep in the six-yard box and failed to take advantage (66th).

Tyrone Ebuehi (21) -- 6.3 -- Ebuehi has now outplayed Shehu in consecutive games. He may find himself starting against Croatia. His speed and decision making are increasingly evident. 

Simmy Nwankwo (22) -- 6.0 -- Simmy had to drop deep to get a feel of the ball. Apart from that, he presented no real threat in front of goal in the few minutes that he was on duty.

Uwa Echiejile (3) -- 6.0 -- Uwa was back on the field after making the squad but it is notable that he presented nothing of the attacking presence that preceded his entrance. However, he made no major mistakes either. 

Kelechi Iheanacho (14) -- 6.0 -- Kelechi's two opportunities on set pieces were poorly taken. He was unable to lift the ball to take advantage of the aerial presence of Nwankwo and instead had the front defender win the ball. He did nothing more in his appearance.

Ahmed Musa (7) - X -- Ahmed did nothing remarkable for the few minutes that he was on the field 

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Nigeria v England: My Observations

My observations are not focused on tactics or individual players but simply on how ready and prepared this team is. Yes, you may argue how that can be done without talking on tactics and individual technical issues. I will not argue that point with you but I believe this is not about all that -- it is about how psychologically ready this team is with the World Cup a couple of weeks away.

The first half of the England game was horrendous but even the second half has serious questions. Here, I point to four key issues that I observed.

1. All the Talk About Team Spirit in Camp Means Diddly if the On-Field Display is Poor. Before the start of this game, Skipper Mikel Obi spoke volumes about team spirit in camp and having the best preparation for a World Cup. Yet, it was awful watching them in that opening half today. The gulf in play was ocean-wide. Nigeria was chasing shadows all first half. It was an embarrassment.  Fortunately, it was just an international friendly. However, it was the worst display of the Nigerian national team since the 1980s, as far as I am concerned (First half).

2. Learned that Rohr Could Stamp his authority. After  the total embarrassment in the opening half, it was good to learn that Gernot Rohr could wreak havoc on the players and team. Perhaps we will soon learn what he told them at half time but his substitution of four players before the start of the second half spoke volumes. It was unusual for him. The substitutions were not about giving people playing time. He took off players whose first half displays were horrific. The only one spared may have been Victor Moses who was later taken off. Hopefully, Rohr changes the line up in the next game against Czech Republic to continue the message that you must give your all when you wear the Nigerian jersey and step onto that field.

3. The Few that Stepped Up. Alex Iwobi, Francis Uzoho, and John Ogu came to play. In my opinion, they were the few that were ready for this game. I had always read Ogu as slow and yes he is. However, today his ball recovery was impeccable and his defensive game was top notch. As for Uzoho, there is no question, as I stated after the Congo game, that he deserves the starting shirt. There should be no debate on this matter. Today, he stepped up. Yes, you may argue about the second goal but how about the saves that kept the margin respectable in that awful opening? It is best not to talk about the rest.

4. Can Nigeria Improve in Two Weeks? Perhaps, but the reality is that the team display in the last three games and especially today raises major questions about Gernot Rohr and his management. Make no mistake about this, friendly or no friendly. That first half display was just atrocious. If he really hopes to have a memorable World Cup then he must step up with work on this team not simply on its technical and tactical ability but on its psychological readiness for each game.

Those are just my observations. I really have nothing else to add.

Monday, May 28, 2018

After Congo: Who Has to Worry?

After the game against Congo DR, there are certainly a few players who have to worry about their status as the Nigerian team gradually heads to Russia for the World Cup. Playing before a capacity crowd today in Port Harcourt created a good atmosphere for the team but the poor state of the field hampered cohesive play. What resulted was a disjointed display, particularly in the midfield. One note is that this 1-1 tie with the Congolese was the first time the Nigeria National Team A failed to win a game in Port Harcourt.

In any case, the result does not matter as much as the opportunity to evaluate the players. To be honest, it is not the easiest of decisions for the coaching crew as several players fighting for a spot to Russia did not exactly distinguish themselves from competitors for those spots. 

Francis Uzoho in goal, however, displayed why he should be the starting goalkeeper. For the first time, he put up an astounding piece of work in-between Nigeria's goal posts. There should no longer be a debate as to who the No. 1 goalkeeper is. Not after this game against Congo. Uzoho was Nigeria's best player today.

At left back, the battle is between Ola Aina and the veteran Elderson Echiejile. Brian Idowu had long sealed the starting spot. So how did Elderson and Ola do? Elderson started the game and was just average although a rash tackle earned him a caution. Ola Aina, in the second half, showed more adventure going forward but then his problems in the air persist. Furthermore, his passes are not the best and he seemed to lose enthusiasm after conceding a needless penalty that led to the tie. This is going to be a tough decision for Rohr who is likely to drop Aina or Echiejile.

At the striker position? Well, there was a lot of hype and hollering about Simy Nwankwo before this game. He played well at the start of each half but then faded as each half went on. To my surprise, Junior Lokosa played extremely well in the opening half and may have threatened the chances of Nwankwo. Although, in the second half, Lokosa was notably quiet before being hauled off.

Here is how I rated each player (0-10).

Francis Uzoho (23) -- 7.0 -- Today, Uzoho established clearly why he should be No.1. The debate should be over from now on. He was off his line quickly, played well on his feet as the last line of defense and controlled the aerial balls easily. Then he saved some point blank shots.

Tyronne Ebuehi (21) - 6.1 - Ebuehi had a good first half even though he was visibly tired and in the second half it appeared that he cramped and had to be replaced. Is this a fitness question? Perhaps.

Elderson Echiejile (3) -- 6.0 -- Elderson did nothing much that was notable but was steady. His rash tackle after just 21 minutes should count against him as it was a poor decision way off any danger. However, he made one spectacular stop in a 1 v 1 situation just before the half.

William Ekong (5) -- 6.5 -- Strong display by Ekong on this day but his slip deep in the box early  in the first half nearly presented a goal to the Congolese until Uzoho stuck out a foot to save. Today, he opened his scoring account for Nigeria.

Leon Balogun (6) -- 5.8 -- He was quite poor and unusually quiet. Maybe he was sick or unfit but his display was just subpar.

Ogenyi Onazi (cpt-17) -- 6.2 -- Onazi was busy and did well to win several balls but he still has a problem distributing the ball accurately.

Joel Obi (25) -- 6.0 -- Joel started like a house on fire being every place and in good time but he gradually faded.

Oghenekaro Etebo (8) -- 6.4 -- Etebo, in the middle, is good news but only if you want short passes all over the place. Beyond that, he rarely plays a really dangerous pass forward. That was exactly his first half today. In the second, he moved a bit to the left before Musa came in and out wide he proved more valuable.

Kelechi Iheanacho (14) -- 6.0 -- Kelechi was busy and ended up with the assist on Nigeria's goal. However, his passes are not accurate and his reaction defensively, when Nigeria does not have the ball, has to be a concern.

Junior Lokosa (15) -- 6.2 -- Lokosa was a surprise! I expected very little but his ability to protect the ball, to play the pass, and his confidence was evident. Lokosa, periodically, drifted to the center where he plays for Kano Pillars. He had a good debut but his second half was largely uneventful before he was replaced.

Simeon Nwankwo (26) -- 6.0 -- For a man as tall as Nwankwo, he has some neat footwork. He hit the post early in the first half and also came close with a header early in the second half. However, he seemed to fade late in each half. If he makes this team he would need to show more aggressive pressing on the ball. On one occasion he was and it almost produced a score from Etebo.

Substitutes
Alex Iwobi (18) -- 6.4 -- Iwobi came in and his passes made a huge difference. Additionally, he came close to scoring with a quick shot after the Congolese tied the game.

Ola Aina (2) -- 6.0 -- For Aina, the review is mixed. He started by providing much more attacking presence than Elderson did in the opening half. However, he gave up a needless penalty and it went down hill for him with stray passes.

Kenneth Omeruo (4) -- 6.0 -- Kenneth provided a stable display in the middle and had much better presence than Balogun did in the opening half. It is nice to watch him play like this after some poor displays in recent times.

Ahmed Musa (7) -- 6.2 -- Ahmed's speed is just too dangerous for defenses. Twice he used it to shake up the Congolese but he displayed, also, some fantastic technical skill and was present in the recovery phase as well.

Shehu Abdullahi (12) -- X -- Shehu came in to replace an injured Ebuehi but is not evaluated because of too few minutes on the field.


Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Junior and Simy Needing Prayers and Minutes

We now have a very good idea who Manager Gernot Rohr plans to take to Russia for the 2018 World Cup, barring injury. His decision to name 30 players for the World Cup camp has done little to disguise his final list. In reality, the only unknown is injury and Rohr's decision at just two positions. Rohr's tendencies, from his first day of appointment in Nigeria, is to be conservative and that has increased the predictability of Nigeria's final squad to Russia.

Only Two Spots Still Open
It is quite clear that 21 of the invited 30 players are already on Rohr's final list to Russia. The nine left are the likes of Dele Ajiboye, Stephen Eze, Ola Aina, Elderson Echiejile, Uche Agbo, Mikel Agu, John Ogu, Simy Nwankwo, and Junior Lokosa. It is among those that the final cut of seven players will come. But even then, we already know the five that are on the list of certain cuts. Those five are Dele Ajiboye, Stephen Eze, Uche Agbo, Mikel Agu, and Junior Lokosa. Of that list, Mikel Agu is probably the most painful when one considers that he was favored as a substitute in the key World Cup qualifying games against Cameroon. So what happened? The fact is he never took the chance firmly and John Ogu has since moved ahead of him in the pecking order. But even Ogu is not quite safe and we will explain in a moment.

No matter how this camp goes, it is certain that one notable player will be cut. Veterans Echiejile and John Ogu may face the cut but both of them can also be safe. How? First, they both can be safe if Rohr decides that Ola Aina, a relatively new member of the team, stays home in favor of Echiejile and if Rohr saves Ogu's blushes by considering Ahmed Musa as the third option at the most advanced forward position which in turn opens up a midfield spot for Ogu. 

Needing Prayers and Minutes: Junior and Simy
While it seems obvious that the invitations sent to Dele Ajiboye and Stephen Eze are meant to offer them a mere camp experience, it is quite different for the invitations extended to advanced forwards Junior Lokosa and Simy Nwankwo. I am convinced that Ajiboye has no chance to dethrone Rohr's favorite top three goalkeepers -- Francis Uzoho, Ike Ezenwa, and Daniel Akpeyi. All three will be at the World Cup ahead of Ajiboye, bar injury. If Ajiboye was being offered a fair chance to make the team he surely would have been involved in the March internationals. That he was not speaks volumes. He is now invited to keep the other three goalkeepers on their toes. Nothing else is expected from him.

Stephen Eze's invitation is similar. Although he was called up for the March internationals but he never played a minute of the two internationals. He is simply an injury insurance. That is not all bad considering that Leon Balogun is often hurt but it seems to me that he will not be the first choice to replace Balogun in the squad if Balogun was to go down. That spot is likely to go to one of Elderson and Ola Aina who is cut.

But the invitations to Junior Lokosa and Simy Nwankwo present an entirely different scenario. One of them could directly make the World Cup squad. Rohr has made no secret of his search for a third option at the most advanced striker position. He already has Ighalo and Iheanacho but who is the third? He has tried Ideye, Nwaekeme, Junior Ajayi, and Gabriel Okechukwu who all traditionally play in that spot. Obviously, Rohr has discarded all of them as is demonstrated on their non-invitation to this camp. Next up are Lokosa and Nwankwo. However, they need game minutes against Congo DR and England in order to directly make the squad. It will just be one of them and, thus, they are both in contest for this single spot that is open. But that this spot is open does not guarantee that one of them will be the guy. That is where they need prayers and not just performance. Rohr is perfectly able to fill that third spot by moving one of his wide midfielders -- Ahmed Musa or Alex Iwobi into the advanced position. He already did that in games with Iwobi (v Argentina) and Musa (v Serbia). Thus, that is a fall back position that Rohr is willing to use. It is also a decision that veteran John Ogu will prefer because such a decision grants him space on the team as a midfielder.

But what do Simy Nwankwo and Junior Lokosa bring to the table as the third option in the advanced position? Lokosa is currently scoring at a pace in Nigeria's league where he is on the verge of obliterating the current Nigerian league scoring record. It is at a scorching pace. Those who have watched him closely vouch for his hold up ability and predatory instincts but they also point to a poor first touch. That weakness can be quite haunting, especially at the World Cup level. Simy Nwankwo, on the other hand, uses his significant height advantage to bring a tactical option to the table, especially on set pieces that is valuable at a World Cup. Importantly, it is a value that Nigeria's other two strikers -- Iheanacho and Ighalo -- cannot offer. However, both Nwankwo and Lokosa both need enough minutes in the upcoming international friendlies to demonstrate their value or force Rohr to consider the option of Musa or Iwobi.

Conclusion
Surely, Nigeria's 23-player squad to the 2018 World Cup is almost decided with 21 of the places already taken, bar injuries. Nine of the players invited for camp are basically fighting for two spots on that roster. To be definitive, that fight for spots is decidedly between four players as five others are merely invited as training fodder.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Open Letter to Nigerians on Gernot Rohr with June in the Horizon

Dear Nigerians,

I write this letter because I know how hopeful you are with the 2018 World Cup around the corner. I know that you are hoping that the Nigerian squad will surpass the achievement of the 1994 team that finished in the Top 16 but saw a team that it humiliated (Bulgaria) finish among the Top 4. It was a year when Nigeria could have accomplished more and perhaps a last minute bravado by Roberto Baggio had much to do with the fact that Nigeria was eliminated then, so early. That the 1994 team was voted the most exciting of the teams at that World Cup tournament was not enough consolation.

But why does that history matter now? Is Gernot Rohr likely to do more for Nigeria in June? Those, surely, are the questions that linger in your minds. First let me assure you that the 1994 event matters? It has set a threshold by which every succeeding team is now judged. Finishing Top 16 is no longer the goal for us. I know that you bite your lips with the fact that Cameroon, Senegal, and Ghana have all done better with each finishing Top 8 at a World Cup. Thus, we know Top 8 isn't beyond our capabilities. In fact, our aim should be to surpass a Top 8 finish. So, why not Top 4? After all, South Korea reached the Top 4 in 2002 and would we accept a second fiddle to the Koreans? I think not.

I know that deep down you wish to win the World Cup. After all, no one should be going to Russia without playing to win the whole thing. I do not care that there is Brazil, Germany, Spain, and France. We have battled with some of them in the past and we have, on occasion, matched them pace for pace, strength for strength, guile for guile. Thus, they cannot be the only ones hoping to win the World Cup. We have hopes too.

But let the truth be told. Does Gernot Rohr give us the belief that we can compete with the best in the world? Rohr has created a team that generally grinds out a result. It is not a team, like in 1994, that dominates possession and play. Our strength, under Rohr, lies elsewhere. So as you watch the 2018 World Cup do not expect Nigeria to dominate Croatia and the like. What we are is a counter attacking team that expects to fly down the opponents' defensive flanks when we recover the ball. Thus, Victor Moses, Moses Simon, Alex Iwobi, and Ahmed Musa are key to what we do. It is on them that Rohr depends. But it also means that our defensive midfielders -- Ogenyi Onazi and Wilfred Ndidi -- carry a lot of responsibility. They are the ones who must recover the ball for the counter attacks to work.

But without a dominating team we should worry about our ability to score and our ability to keep the other team from scoring. It is that simple and yet those are two areas that Gernot Rohr has not made us confident in the last few months. With Nigerians scoring almost every match day in Europe, one is lulled into the dream that suiting up an effective striker should be a piece of cake. Yet, Rohr has not found a consistent striker. Except for Kelechi Iheanacho, who Rohr prefers to keep on the bench., who else do we have? Yes, I do realize that Jude Ighalo remains Rohr's favorite striker in spite of his poor conversion rate. Meanwhile, young Nigerian strikers in Europe are hitting the headlines and Rohr has simply ignored them. Who no know, go know for Russia.

In goal, Nigerians are forced to sweat it out in panic whenever the other team nears our box. Since Ikeme went on a sick bed, Rohr has yet to find a capable replacement. I am certain none of you has a modicum of confidence in Akpeyi, Ezenwa, Uzoho, and Alampasu. Yet they are the names that Rohr continues to mention with a few weeks to the World Cup. Vincent Enyeama, our certified best, is posting on Instagram and Twitter of his daily work after a long period of injury. He is already playing for Lille's reserves but yet no recall by Rohr.

I write these things because it is not like we have a dominating team but even this average team may yet find it difficult in Russia if its manager does not act. The opportunity to surpass the 1994 team is glidingly passing us by when there is time to make amends and make this team much stronger that it currently is. What is there to lose giving Enyeama a try out? What is there to lose giving several young Nigerian strikers a tryout? That is the question that Gernot Rohr should answer before a great opportunity is blown.

Fellow Nigerians, this is crunch time and we are at the eleventh hour. I do not know about you but I must assume that you are at a point of despair. The March friendlies showed us what may be awaiting us in Russia. The taste is sour and I do not like it. For me, enough written for the wise. The cards are on Rohr's table.

Your sincerely,
Concerned Nigerian.

Monday, April 16, 2018

2018 v 1994: Let's Compare the teams......

Most Nigerians agree that the 1994 World Cup team may be the country's best. It remains the baseline by which every other Nigeria team is measured. Thus, the greatness of the 2018 team will be determined by how well it compares to 1994. In this piece, I look at several indices of comparison that include average age of the starting team, record in the World Cup qualifiers, average number of appearances for team starters, disciplinary record, and then a qualitative evaluation of teams.

Quantitative Comparison
Statistically, the 2018 team may be slightly better than the heralded 1994 version. This sounds like sacrilege. However, the numbers tell the tale. Of course, the 2018 team has not achieved any thing yet compared to the 1994 team that was ranked #5 in the world and was two minutes from a World Cup quarter final place.

The 2018 team completed the World Cup qualifiers without a loss, never mind the technical loss assigned within FIFA boardroom over the use of an ineligible player in the last game of the qualifiers. That loss-less campaign leads to an efficiency of 0.75 which is better than 0.71 achieved by the 1994 team (see Table 1). Moreover, the coach for the 2018 team, Gernot Rohr, has an efficiency score of 0.73 compared to Westerhoff's 0.66, in the year before the World Cup (Table 2). Sounds shocking but yet true. Both teams, however, are comparable on disciplinary issues with the 1994 team accumulating 13 cautions in its qualifying games and the 2018 team accumulating 14 (Table 1).

The 2018 team has been named among the youngest teams at the upcoming World Cup in Russia. In our comparison of starters, the 2018 team averages 25.82 years compared to the 26.36 years average for the 1994 team (Table 3). But that does not quite mean that the 2018 team is inexperienced. The statistical difference is actually less than 1.00 years. The 2018 team has seven of its starters at 25 years or older which is exactly the same for the 1994 team. However, only Mikel Obi is over 30 years old from the 2018 team compared to the 1994 team, which had two players over 30 years old (Rufai and Yekini) among starters. Nevertheless, experience is not solely based on age. It can also be based on number of appearances.

The 1994 team averaged 28.46 appearances before its first World Cup game while the 2018 team averages 25.46 appearances as of today. In essence, this year's team is a bit inexperienced based on number of appearances with two likely starters (Uzoho and Idowu) under five appearances each.



















Qualitative Comparison
In contrast to the quantitative measures above, it appears that the 1994 team is overwhelmingly better than the 2018 version when qualitative measures are discussed. How? Well, one thing for sure is the 1994 team had been built from about 2-3 years earlier and it was clearly the best team in Africa and its dominance was denoted by its #5 ranking in the world just before the World Cup. One cannot state the same for the 2018 team which has missed the last two African Cup for Nations (AFCON) and is not considered the best in Africa by any stretch of the imagination. It is currently ranked #47 in the world and #6 in Africa. These measures, including ranking, are considered qualitative given the fact that ranking and perception of the best team can be subjective, albeit reasonable.

The 1994 team, generally, played out of a 4-4-2 with the second striker slightly withdrawn to look like a 4-4-1-1 at times. That is different from the preferred 4-5-1 or 4-2-3-1 used by the current team under Rohr. It seems that each formation suits the personnel used by the managers. The 1994 team was a better attacking team whereas the current team prefers to attack in a counter.

A discussion of personnel has to begin with the goalkeeping position. What a huge difference between 1994 and now! The  1994 team had an assured goalkeeper who was very experienced.  In fact, he had the most experience among the team's starters. The opposite is now the case where the probable starting goalkeeper, Uzoho, is among players with least number of appearances. Therefore, comparing the 1994 goalkeeper Rufai to the 2018 version in Francis Uzoho is like comparing a quality product to a generic one.

Although such huge experience gap is absent defensively, the central defense for 1994 appears to be stronger in all aspects of the game compared to the 2018 central defensive pairing. However, Emenalo at left back for the 1994 team was not as proficient as any of the players who could possibly start at left back for the current team.

In midfield, the 1994 team was loaded with both wide players -- Finidi George and Emmanuel Amuneke -- extremely dangerous and Okocha at attacking mid and Oliseh defensively being among Nigeria's finest ever midfield players in their respective positions. Of course, Victor Moses on the current team does not take a back seat to any of the 1994 wide players, on the other wide position it is difficult to state the same. In the middle, the 2018 attacking player is skipper Mikel Obi who is a different player from Okocha but is equally as effective. Defensively, however, Onazi is not on a similar pedestal as Oliseh but Ndidi certainly is getting there, if only he improves his passes.

The 2018 team presents only one pure forward whereas the 1994 team used both Amokachi and Yekini. Both are demonstratively better than Jude Ighalo, who is the forward on the current team. Yekini was a prolific scorer and Ighalo can never be thought in the same vein.

Concluding
It seems to me that the 1994 team is better when measured on qualitative terms. Quantitatively, one cannot make the same claim. Thus, it might just be that the 2018 team demonstrates the adage that a team is far greater than the sum of its individual parts. For sure, the results in Russia will affirm whether the current team can be considered Nigeria's best ever team but it is not easy to dismiss the current team as non-starters. The team deserves its place at the World Cup and the results should go a long way in its claim for a position as Nigeria's finest.


Friday, April 6, 2018

Why Academy-Route Players Make it to Europe Ahead of NPFL Counterparts

There is a widely-held belief that players who choose to go through a Nigerian Football Academy, compared to those who play in Nigeria's top elite league, end up making it to teams in the Top Five European Leagues i.e. England, Spain, Germany, Italy, and France. If you closely watch transfer news from Nigeria, then this belief is more real than fiction. However, one question that is rarely asked is: Why is that the case? This is an important question for several reasons. (1) Nigerian players state often that their ultimate career goal is to play in Europe, (2) Transferring to a Top 5 European league symbolizes that the transferee is a better football player, (3) Transferring to a Top 5 European league increases opportunity for a better pay day and (4) Top 5 European League brings higher profile and visibility back in Nigeria. Thus, it is important to investigate and possibly confirm the above phenomenon.

Method & Limitations
We use Nigerian news coverage of football labor transfers from Nigeria to foreign countries as source of data for this study. The data are drawn from the 2015 year to 2018, a total of four years. Of course, data from 2018 is much smaller than each of the other three years because the summer transfer is yet to take place. While this provides us quick and easy data, it is important to recognize that such data are unlikely to represent an exhaustive record of all football transferees within the studied period. For instance, we have 82 players in our data set from the studied period. Over 50% of those are players transferring directly from the Nigerian elite league within the studied period. However, we feel that are larger number of academy players may have also been transferred but are not captured by the Nigerian media.

In any case, and in spite of limitations, we believe that the method provides probably far more data than would have been necessary for an adequate sample. However, there is at least one other limitation. This one is based on degree of accuracy of each data point. By this, one refers to the fact that there may be a few reports that fail to provide all needed information.

Examined Data
A few things jump right up as data are examined. First, it is apparent that a small to negligible number of Nigerians transfer to the Top 5 leagues. It does not matter whether those players are from academies or from Nigeria's elite league. Examples from the last four years are Taiwo Awoniyi, Victor Osimhen, Orji Okonkwo, and Jack Ipalibo who went to England, Germany, Italy, and Spain respectively. Only Osimhen has progressed to the first team of the club that signed him -- Wolfsburg. Ipalibo is playing in the B squad of his team in Spain and both Awoniyi and Okonkwo are loaned out to other clubs. The rest of transferees from Nigeria are outside the Top 5 leagues (see Table 1).

Popular destination for Nigerian transferees are Scandinavian countries (Norway is most preferred), West Europe (most preferred is Belgium), or an East European country. In the data, bear in mind that transfers to Scandinavian countries are summed up in the West Europe dataset. Figure 1 shows that players from the academies mostly move to clubs in West Europe, compared to Figure 2, which indicates more focus on West Europe compared to African destinations.

For players from elite Nigerian leagues, the Middle East and other African countries are the traveling end posts. In 2015, players headed to Oman, Iran, and Qatar. In 2017, no less than three players from the league -- Anifowoshe (MFM), Daniel Etor (Rangers), and Ifeanyi Edeh (El Kanemi) -- all ended up at Omanian clubs. The African route is much traveled by Nigerian league players with destination points scattered all over the continent including Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Sudan, South Africa, Guinea, Libya, and Zambia (see Figure 2). Although, the African route is rarely traveled by players from the Nigerian academy, at least three such players ended up in Africa. In 2016, two academy players also moved to Mozambique.


What Did We Learn?
If the assumption is that the Top 5 European leagues represent quality transfer destination, then very few players move directly to such quality destination from Nigeria, whether they come from the Nigerian elite league or from academies. Most of the transferees to Europe end up in Scandinavia, Belgium, or East European countries. Those destinations, essentially, serve as a bridge to get to quality destinations. It is a route often used by academy players who are able to get into Europe more easily because their declared ages are often within the range where there is no immediate pressure to play for the senior squad of European clubs. Instead, they may start from the B squads or even club academies in Europe.

But such luxury of access for players coming from Nigerian academies are often not available to players coming from the Nigerian leagues. Why? Players from Nigerian elite league are expected to be the finished product and cannot be afforded time to develop in B teams or European club academies. They must be of the quality to make the senior squad of European clubs or are not signed at all. For such players, if Europe is not accessible, the bridge points can be found at clubs in the Middle East or in Africa.



Sunday, April 1, 2018

COUNTDOWN: Players Seeking Russia (March)

Last month, I began the blog by rating the percentage of likelihood of players making the Nigerian squad to the 2018 World Cup in Russia. 
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The categories are as follows: Highly Probable++ (80-100% likelihood), Possible+ (50-79%), Questionable?  (40-59%) and Doubtful?? (39% or less). Comments follow each category.
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Two international friendlies this month have unscrambled the categorization of players that was made in February. Some players have now moved up and some have gone down. This up and down movement is expected until the final 23 is picked in June. By this monthly process, it is highly probable that a large percentage of the 23 that would be named for the World Cup in Russia will be predictable.

March Squad Status of Players
The status of players this month, after the friendly internationals in Wroclaw and London, is presented below using the four categories identified above. Players in green are those who moved up and those in red are those who moved down from the previous month.

Highly Probable++
Victor Moses
Mikel Obi
William Ekong
Wilfred Ndidi

Last month, I had six players listed under this category but Iheanacho and Abdullahi move down following the international friendlies. Iheanacho was not convincing against Poland and Shehu’s performance was not truly outstanding and his grip at a starting spot may be loosening. Mikel maintains his spot in spite of his absence from the internationals this month. He remains the glue for the team. Ekong and Ndidi concretized their ratings as definite travelers to Russia.

Possible+
Alex Iwobi
Leon Balogun
Odion Ighalo
Onazi Ogenyi
Joel Obi
Francis Uzoho
Kelechi Iheanacho
Shehu Abdullahi

Uzoho moves up to this category based on his display against Poland and Serbia. Although he conceded twice in the Serbia game, it was evident that he is growing in confidence. Joel Obi was the boss in the Poland game and moves straight to this category after just that game. Against Serbia, he did not quite rise to the same level but his Poland display gives him a lot of consideration for Russia. Simon drops from this category. Besides those changes, this category remains similar to month. Although Onazi had a poor game against Poland and did not exactly set the Serbia game on fire, it is difficult to see him absent from the World Cup squad.

Questionable?
Moses Simon
Brian Idowu
Ola Aina
Tyronne Ebuehi
Chiedozie Awaziem
Ikechukwu Ezenwa
Oghenekaro Etebo
Ahmed Musa

I was expecting Etebo to move up from this group but injury prevented him from playing in the two international friendlies and, thus, he stays in this category until the May camp. Idowu played well in the friendlies but not enough to assure himself of a place in the World Cup squad in the face of fierce competition. Moses Simon finds himself moving down to this category because of largely an inactive display at the friendlies. Ahmed Musa moves up to this category. Ahmed Musa is questionable but he may be the third striker for this team considering that he played in that position in the last minutes of the game in Wroclaw and started as striker in the game against Serbia. Although Musa was not outstanding in any of the two internationals, he did produce memorable moments in both the Poland and Serbia games where his speed assured a much needed consideration in the upcoming May camp.

Doubtful??
Elderson Echiejile
Mikel Agu
Kenneth Omeruo
Daniel Akpeyi
John Ogu
Uche Agbo
Stephen Eze
Junior Ajayi
Gabriel Okechukwu


Most players in this category were the same players who were listed under the category in February. However, some names have been dropped completely as their chances have even become much dimmer as the World Cup approaches. Eze, Ajayi, and Okechukwu are virtually headed for the door. Ajayi was the only one to play a few minutes against Serbia. The other two were not on the field and the handwriting could be on the wall for all three. Their only hope now is to be recalled to camp in May with another opportunity to impress in training and hopefully appear in the game against Congo DR. The same situation appears to be the case with Uche Agbo who always receives an invitation to camp, trains, and then remains rooted to the bench on match days.

Friday, March 23, 2018

New Players Demonstrate their Value v Poland.....

Nigeria's new players, uninvolved in the country's World Cup qualifying games, sounded the warning that they are about to gate crash the World Cup party with valuable performances against Poland in Wroclaw. That Nigeria won 1-0 demonstrated its ability to compete among the best teams in the world. It was a competent performance in the opponent's den and the final result was no less than Nigeria deserved.

The new players -- Joel Obi, Francis Uzoho, and Brian Idowu -- notched up zero appearances during the qualifiers but against Poland they made a strong point to the managers. Their play indicates that it will be a difficult task to send them away from the impending World Cup. But the truth was that besides Joel Obi, the other two started in jittery mode and it would take the second half for them to calm their nerves and show exactly what they are made.

Beyond the individual performances, it is important to note that Nigeria's play was steady. Nigeria may not have controlled possession but they held their own in a disciplined display. Coach Rohr, in spite of issues with full-field pressing in the first half of the Argentina game, stuck with the pressing throughout the game with the most advanced forward providing the anchor point. Was it effective? Unlike the Argentina game, the press was effective as it forced the Poles to make several errors and they turned the ball over or were harried in their passes. The Poland keepers huffed the ball at least three times over the sideline as the Nigerian forwards turned on the pressure cooker. The fact that it worked in Wroclaw underlines the pace, quickness, and guile of the Nigerians that unsettled the host team.

Though there is more to discuss about this game, I leave that for much later. Below are the individual ratings of the players:

Scale: 1-10 with 6.0 as average.

Francis Uzoho (23) - 6.3 - Uzoho's above average rating is largely due to his second half display. He was on a 5.5 at the half after a jittery opening half when he was clearly unsure in spite of very little pressure. In the second, it was entirely different. He came off his line quickly and made a great save off a breaking Lewandowski early in the second.

Abdullahi Shehu (12) - 6.2 - Shehu had difficulty in the opening half dealing with wide attackers but settled quickly in the second half with a competent display before going out injured.

William Ekong (5) -- 7.5 -- Perhaps it was the captain's arm band but this maybe Ekong's best display for Nigeria. He was a rock in the middle and hardly put a foot wrong all day. No one was better on his team and he may have been the best player on both sides. 

Leon Balogun (6) -- 6.8 -- Leon put in a good display. He easily dominated aerial duels and provided cover when needed, especially in the first half when Idowu was clearly shaky.

Brian Idowu (24) - 6.0 -- The game started too fast and the stage too big for Brian. However, he may have saved his World Cup opportunity with a steady second half display after a poor opening half when his passes were unsure and his vision limited.

Wilfred Ndidi (13) -- 7.2 -- Ndidi was clearly Nigeria's best player in the first half when he controlled the midfield, providing both strength and outlet. In the second, he faded a bit but over all he was on his game. He made it clear that he remains an important player for Nigeria going into the World Cup. 

Joel Obi (25) -- 7.0 -- Joel was full of running and confidence in the midfield. Barring injury, he certainly will make the squad for the World Cup. He was always involved in Nigeria's play both attacking and during ball recovery.

Kelechi Iheanacho (14) -- 6.0 -- Kelechi started the game well and was helping with the pressure on the ball but as the game wore on he disappeared. It may not have been his best game but he certainly remains a critical player.

Victor Moses (11) -- 6.2 -- Victor was largely anonymous in the first half except when he periodically earned free kicks for the team. His dribbling into the box in the second half forced the Polish defenders to pull him down for a penalty kick that he converted. However, this was far from his best game for Nigeria.

Alex Iwobi (18) -- 6.2 -- Alex started quite well and was active even in the defensive phase of the game. However, like Iheanacho, he faded as the game went on before he was substituted.

Jude Ighalo (9) -- 6.2 -- Yes, many will wonder why he receives an above average rating here. The answer is that he deserves it. He led the pressure that forced the Polish defense into some turnovers and he was quite lively. Unfortunately, he had only one good shot at goal with a header from a 38th minute free kick that went wide.

Substitutes
Ahmed Musa (7) -- 6.0 -- Musa came in and was on the left but completed the game as the most advanced player. He gave his usual effort but made two questionable decisions that made you shake your head. First he passed the ball to Iheanacho who was clearly in an offside position when there were better options (78th) and then he made the wrong choice in an 80th minute break by passing to Victor Moses who was crowded by four defenders when a better option existed on the left.

Ogenyi Onazi (17) -- 5.8 -- Onazi came in for Joel Obi in the second half and the difference was clear, at least on this day. He made several poor passes and it was an uncharacteristic day for him.

I did not rate the other four substitutes as they played only for a short period. Kenneth Omeruo who played for more than a quarter hour was rarely involved to receive a fair rating. Here are the four substitutes -- Omeruo, Ebuehi, Ogu, and Simon.