Tuesday, November 6, 2018

With Uzoho Absent, Who Protects Nigeria's Goal?

It seems ages ago when Nigerians did not blink because a regular goalkeeper was injured. That was back during the era that Nigeria's three choices -- Vincent Enyeama, Augustine Ejide, and Dele Aiyenugba -- were all of international standard and each of them could be counted on to do a masterful job. However, that is now ages ago. Today, even the regular goalkeeper -- Francis Uzoho -- does not instill much confidence among Nigerian fans. This is in spite of the fact that Uzoho has clearly improved from his low point recorded during his first few games for Nigeria.

But with Uzoho ruled unavailable (due to injury) for a crucial AFCON qualifier in a few days in South Africa, the question about who replaces him is now critical. There are three goalkeepers invited for the contest -- Ikechukwu Ezenwa, Daniel Akpeyi, and Theophilus Afelokhai. In the paragraphs below, we share our views of each of them.

Ikechukwu Ezenwa
Ezenwa is Nigeria's second choice between the posts going by recent events. He was the man who stood in for Uzoho in a recent international in Monrovia (v Liberia) when Uzoho was unavailable. Ezenwa was third choice after Carl Ikeme exited the team on account of illness back in 2016 but Ezenwa soon rose to first choice after Akpeyi's poor performance. Ezenwa was often spectacular in the 2018 World Cup qualifying games against Cameroon but his poor play thereafter opened the door to Uzoho. Ezenwa has the most appearances (26 apps/conceding 0.46 per game) among the three goalkeepers available for the South African game largely because he is first choice for the home-based national team. On his good day, Ezenwa is a good shot stopper but struggles with crosses and can be rash with last ditch tackles against attackers that break through his defense. More troubling at this point is that he is not first choice at his club where he sits on the bench as No. 3 behind both Afelokhai and Fatau Dauda at Enyimba. His lack of match fitness could cost him the opportunity to start in South Africa if Coach Rohr maintains his outspoken believe that only match fit players should play in important games.


Daniel Akpeyi
Akpeyi is, perhaps, the most derided Nigerian player in recent memory. His antagonists are, arguably, overboard in their assessments of Akpeyi who continues to be a key player for his club -- Chippa United in South Africa. But Akpeyi's demeanor in goal, his frequent errors, as well as indecisiveness in cutting off crosses give his antagonists fuel for criticism. Worse still, Akpeyi has a statistic that sticks out like a sore thumb for Nigeria. In 10 games, Akpeyi is still to complete a game without conceding at least a goal (1.25 per game). Those are considered telling! He was considered unquestioned Nigeria's No. 2 goalkeeper behind Ikeme from 2015 to 2016. If Akpeyi had held his own end of the bargain after Ikeme fell ill in 2016, Akpeyi would have been Nigeria's No. 1 choice today. But he failed to do so. Now he is battling to keep a No. 3 spot, behind both Uzoho and Ezenwa. However, as fate would have it, he is again dealt with gold coins on the table. At familiar turf in South Africa and with match fitness in his favor, he is possibly the front runner to be between the posts for this upcoming game v South Africa. If Rohr calls his name as starter, would he engrave his name as No. 2 choice going forward? That is on the cards in South Africa. 


Theophilus Afelokhai
Afelokhai is no spring chicken. He has been a top local goalkeeper for more than a decade in Nigeria with a famed tenure at Kano Pillars. Though he is yet to make an official appearance for Nigeria, he is still considered one of the best at the local scene and has become the first choice at Enyimba where Ike Ezenwa sits on the bench. His match fitness should be a strength going into the South African game but Akpeyi has match fitness as well. Importantly, coach Rohr has his only principles which he appears to hold onto religiously. One of those principles is his belief that a foreign-based player, more often than not, is better than a Nigerian-based player.  This is perhaps one unstated reason why Uzoho, with very few first team appearances at his club, was catapulted to Nigeria's first choice over Ezenwa just before the World Cup. To counter Uzoho's lack of experience, Rohr detailed a goalkeeper coach to prepare Uzoho but did nothing of that sort for the locally-based Ezenwa. The point here is that Afelokhai will be nothing but training fodder in this upcoming match. It will take a miracle for Afelokhai to be between the posts in South Africa. That is as certain as day and night.

Therefore, the real choice here is between Rohr's current No. 2 Ikechukwu Ezenwa and Daniel Akpeyi who has the match fitness advantage that Coach Rohr has often put forward as a principle that he uses in selecting players. Thus, the Gernot Rohr's decision has to be about sticking with his conservative decision to use the next player in rank (Ezenwa) or to give the reins to the guy who is match fit (Akpeyi). What gives? We will see in South Africa.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Nigeria Takes A Step Into AFCON 2019

Nigeria's 3-2 win over Libya in Sfax, Tunisia means that Nigeria is virtually into the 2019 African Cup of Nations finals with just a win to spare. With a home game looming against Seychelles it will take a miracle to deny Nigeria. In fact, Nigeria can get to the final even before that home game.

In Sfax, Nigeria was clearly the better team in the opening half with ball possession that mystified the Libyans for the opening half hour. By the 70th minute, Nigeria had possessed the ball for more than 60% of the game. Although, Libya fought back gamely in the second half as Nigeria sought to protect its early 2-1 lead, Nigeria struck back to win 3-2 after conceding a Libyan equalizer.

Nigeria has to show that it can consistently play as it did in that opening half when Libya was completely outclassed and every Nigerian player was having an excellent day, bar the goalkeeper. The attacking play was especially dangerous with Ighalo presenting monumental problems for Libya and Musa and Iwobi playing really well. It looked then like Nigeria was about to feast on the Libyans until Nigeria took its foot off the domination, allowing the Libyans to feverishly comeback into the game. Until then, all the Libyans could provide was rough house play that threatened to put several players on the injury list.

Ultimately, Nigeria now has to think about wrapping this up in South Africa in the coming weeks. That is definitely possible. That this team has now found scoring much easier than it did a few months ago is testimony to the insertion of Iwobi's vision in the middle, the speed upfront, and the sudden invigoration of Ighalo in this last two games. That, if it is to continue, bodes well for this team not only in the coming qualifier in South Africa but next summer at the AFCON itself.

Below is my rating of the players:

Francis Uzoho (23) -- 6.0 -- He was untested by Libya for more than half hour from the start but looked uncomfortable when called upon thereafter. He gave up more rebounds than a wall does and one of those led to Libya equalizing before Ighalo rescued Nigeria. Fortunately, Libya was not much of danger to Nigeria in the opening half and in the second, Nigeria defended with all its might.

Ola Aina (21) -- 6.5 -- Aina has the talent but sometimes he looks so unsure in this team. Today was another day when his play was not as assured as it should be, although he did have his moments. His weakness in the air nearly cost Nigeria a goal if Ekong did not rush in to concede a corner.

William Ekong (5) --7.0 -- William was the rock in the center defense as always providing a safety net in front of the goalkeeper.

Leon Balogun (6) --7.5 -- Today, Leon showed an improvement over his outing a few days ago in Uyo. He exuded confidence and broke up a few Libyan attacks that came his way. He was the busier center back in this game.

Jamilu Collins (3) -- 7.0 -- There is little doubt that Jamilu has solidified his position as a starter at left back with Idowu now a distant thought. Jamilu is so much assured and is seamless in his play.

Wilfred Ndidi (4) - 7.5 -- Wilfred was as solid as ever, breaking up the attack and his passing much improved.

Oghenekaro Etebo (8) -- 7.2 -- Etebo is clearly the busy bee of the Super Eagles midfield, always around the ball, either winning the ball or distributing. However, on a few occasions late passes almost undid a lot of his good work but he was so dominant in the opening half. Clearly, Etebo is the team's engine room.

Alex Iwobi (18) -- 7.5 -- Alex has brought energy behind the team's attack with his intricate passing. His exchange with Musa for Ighalo's 14th minute goal may be one of Nigeria's best ever goal from open play.

Ahmed Musa (cpt-7) -- 7.5 -- Absolutely fantastic opening half display with his passing, defending and his run. Then his interchange with Iwobi that led to Ighalo scoring was awesome. Also, Musa provided the assist for Ighalo's winner and scored himself from an Ighalo assist after outwitting three Libyan defenders.

Odion Ighalo (9) -- 8.0 -- He provided tireless running at the defense exploring acres of space left by the Libyans. Ighalo was a constant threat especially in the channel down the left in the opening half. His goal in the 14th minute was no less than he deserved and he capped it off with a winner and an assist thereafter.

Samuel Kalu (17) -- 6.2 -- Samuel was inexplicably quiet most of the game, especially in the opening half. This was unlike what we have seen from him in his first three games for Nigeria.

John Ogu (19) -- X - - He was not rated but easily won all his aerial contests and hardly put a foot wrong except for one moment when he lost the ball in a critical spot.

Henry Onyekuru (11) -- X  - Not rated. He had a few opportunities that came to nought.

Semi Ajayi (20) -- X -- Not rated.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

IGHALO Responds with a Hat Trick in Big Win.....

Nigeria 4 Libya 0 in Uyo, Nigeria. That was the score as Nigeria slides past Libya for second place in the African Cup of Nations (AFON) qualifiers. Of course, that was not the only headline from this game. The big one, in fact, is Odion Ighalo completing a hat trick. It was a surprise given his anemic goal scoring for the national team and the fact that his position as the starting striker was possibly under threat. His hat trick was the first three-goal day for a Nigerian national team player since Oduamadi’s three against the hapless Tahiti at the Confederations Cup in Belo Horizonte in 2013.

But it was not just about Ighalo. In fact, he benefitted from the enterprising display by Alex Iwobi who was invigorating as the most advanced midfielder centrally. It was Iwobi’s magnificent pass, cutting out multiple defenders that presented Ighalo with the opportunity. Iwobi was all over the field and his play was notable but as much as it was the difference maker in the second half, in the first he was at times uncertain of his new responsibilities.

The Libyans were not pushovers and though they gave up four goals the second game on Tuesday in Tunisia will not be a piece of cake. In fact, for a few occasions after Nigeria went ahead from the penalty spot, the Libyans did ask questions of the Nigerian team. Those questions were abundant in the game, but the Libyans did not always them. Instead, they are questions that must be asked of the Nigeria team and its players by fans, never mind the big win.  The most important is when would the Nigerian team be settled to the point that its football is seamless? Why didn’t the midfield take the game by the scruff until in the second half when the second goal had demoralized the Libyans? They are likely more.

It may well sound as if it is asking for too much. After all, Nigeria won big. But the point is that this team has enormous potential to do so much damage in the continent. We saw a glimpse today but there is so much promise.

Here is how the players rate, from 4-10 with 10 being the highest possible rating and 6 being average (ratings are a bit soft today).

Francis Uzoho (23) – 7.0 – He had little to do but pulled off at least one superior save in the opening half. For the rest of the game he saved superbly without giving up rebounds, which was a bane in his early career displays.

Abdullahi Shehu (12) – x – was not rated before he was off injured.

Jamilu Collins (3) – 7.2 -- What a marvelous first half display when going forward. In one instant, he took the great decision in lifting the ball beyond the goalie after a long 60-yard run but was denied by the bar. In the second half, however, he faded and did little going forward.

William Ekong (5) – 7.2 – As always, he was the heart of the defense covering up for errors made by others. Although he was cautioned for a desperate holding foul, it was the best that he could do in such circumstance with the attacker speeding alone towards goal.

Leon Balogun (6) – 6.5 – He had a largely quiet day. His passing out of the defense can be poor as shown, again, in this game. However, such passes did not prove costly today. Beyond those, he had a steady display.

Wilfred Ndidi (4) – 7.2 – Ndidi was good in the middle and was surprisingly eager to make several attempts at goal even though those attempts were widely off the mark.

Oghenekaro Etebo (8) – 7.5 – Etebo was very busy in the middle providing an outlet for the defenders. However, he has to get rid of the ball in a timely fashion instead of being caught repeatedly by the opponent and having the whistle as the saving grace. He ended up with having an attempt come off the post.

Alex Iwobi (18) – 8.5 –My man of the match. His passes were often creative and dangerous. Although the stats will have him with just an assist but if Ighalo had been clinical, it would have been more. His assist was remarkable with multiple Libyan defenders frozen out in one pass and Ighalo suddenly presented with just the goalkeeper to beat.

Ahmed Musa (7) – 6.5 – Ahmed Musa clearly seems more comfortable in the middle as the striker. Unfortunately, he was stuck out wide again and he was quiet until the spaces appeared in the second half as the Libyans streamed forward in search of a goal. He ended up providing an assist before being substituted.

Samuel Kalu (17) – 7.5 – This player is as nimble and as fast as any other that Nigeria has ever produced. Yet, he is stunningly individualistic. Yes, he finally had his goal but there were some decisions in both halves that would leave you shaking your head.

Odion Ighalo (9) – 8.0 – As they say “Three goals no be beans.” Ighalo’s hat trick definitely will be long remembered but he possibly could have had more if he was more clinical. Today, there is no doubt, he delivered! His second goal from iwobi’s assist was so well taken and so unlike the Ighalo of the past.

Ola Aina (21) – 7.0 – Ola came in early for injured Shehu and did reasonably well, especially defensively.  Although, it must be stated that he started in shaky mood, reacting slowly to passes but he ended up playing quite well.

Isaac Success (13) – X – Did not rate him but it is notably that he was stuck out wide when Onyekuru came into the game until the last two minutes or so.


Henry Onyekuru (11) – X – Not rated but had two opportunities in 10 minutes of play. He failed to convert those two but ended up picking out Kalu for a great goal .

Monday, October 8, 2018

Is Gernot Rohr Done with Rebuilding and Now Consolidating?

Nigeria's manager, Gernot Rohr, repeatedly informed the world that his team was one of the youngest, on average, at the 2018 World Cup. He touted that perspective before, at, and then after the World Cup. Rohr used it to suggest a reason why his team did not go beyond the group phase in Russia. But the reality is that Nigerians have previously experienced better and such an excuse should be taken with a dose of doubt. Gernot Rohr may not have gone past the Group phase at the World Cup but such an excuse will find him packing his bag out of Nigeria if the team fails to qualify for the 2019 African Cup of Nations in Cameroon.

Thus, instead of touting a perspective that leans on rebuilding, he has to demonstrate that his team is now beyond that or that it, at least, is transitioning to the consolidation phase in building a strong Nigerian team capable of becoming African champion again. Consolidation does not mean absence of new players but it does require a team playing with experience, confidence and a sense of urgency. That can be observed in two key areas: personnel and team strategy.

Team Personnel
Notably, team personnel has taken at least one major hit. Gernot Rohr has not received any favors from Victor Moses who chose to retire at his prime.Victor Moses was not an ordinary player on the Nigerian team. In fact, he had been for a while, the heart and soul of the team. It was on his shoulders that Nigeria became African champion in 2013 when his singular effort railroaded an obstinate Ethiopian team in a crucial group game that opened the road to the quarter finals. In the qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup, Victor Moses was again the driving force as the team qualified with a game to spare. That Moses would retire from international duty right after the World Cup is a huge blow.

But without Victor Moses and without the recuperating skipper Mikel Obi, there still should be no excuses for Rohr. He has now been on this job for 21 games and three years (2016, 2017, and 2018). This is the time to have a settled team, a team ready to win, and a team that should lean on its experience. That experience can be found among the on-field leaders of the team including at central defense, Wilfred Ndidi in the middle, and out wide with both Musa and Simon Moses. Even goalkeeper Francis Uzoho has now amassed reasonable experience at the World Cup and in the games leading to it (See Table 1 for data on team experience among the often used players in bold).

That Gernot Rohr continues to look for a reliable striker, three years into his appointment as national manager, is all on him. His decision to stick with Odion Ighalo since he was appointed manager cannot be blamed on a lack of talented Nigerian footballers. There are several Nigerian players who have delivered goals at the club level and they were available to be called up by the manager.






















Three years on, Nigeria continues to search for a pure play maker in the middle. That cannot be blamed on a lack of talent in a country where players of all abilities emerge regularly. If Rohr cannot find a reliable player at that position that is also on him and no one else.

However, the suggestion that Nigeria should change its team based on the performance of Nigerian players in Europe is a recipe for disaster. That simply assumes an unending phase of team rebuilding based on the concept of a pick up game. Historically, performance at a club in Europe does not assure similar performance at the national team level because of several factors that include different tactics, variation in player confidence, relationship with others in a different team, and much more. Players are not robots, they are subject to human vagaries.

Moreover and as is, national team training days are severely limited by FIFA rules and yet managers must find the time in such scarcity of training time to install tactics. To now do so by introducing new faces each time a player or players do well in Europe will be ridiculous.

Nigeria should now be moving into a consolidation phase of team building which requires stability in team personnel with introduction of significant new contributors on rare and absolutely needed occasions. That should be the way to build on team strength and chemistry rather than to rebuild and rebuild eternally.

The bottom line is that the excuses of rebuilding are no longer compelling. Rohr has to deliver in these two important games coming up against Libya within the next week. Any misstep definitely condemns Gernot Rohr to service elsewhere beyond the borders of Nigeria. These two games are indeed the major tests for Rohr. If he passes, he stays but if he fails, he packs his bags. Those are the likely outcomes.

Team Strategy
Gernot Rohr is conservative at the core and his coaching in Africa has largely depended on a vision of building a stealthy team that soaks up pressure and attacks quickly to surprise the opponent. This was his usual game plan as manager in Burkina Faso, Niger Republic, and in Gabon. It made sense then because those teams were usually underdogs against the giants in the continent. But does it make sense for Nigeria? Many would say no. However, Rohr used it to huge effects during the World Cup qualifiers against Cameroon. His preferred formation in this approach is usually a 4-5-0-1 (The zero added to stress the gap between the most advanced player and the rest) in ball recovery mode but a 4-4-1-1 or 4-2-3-1 with the ball. In this piece, I focus solely on base formations and do not go into specific tactics as those vary based on opponent tendencies.

Rohr's insistence in playing in the formations described above collapsed like a pack of cards when he met favored teams in the international friendlies before the World Cup. In the opening half in a friendly against England, Nigeria looked pedestrian. The change to three at the back and adding additional personnel in the middle (3-5-2 and/or 3-5-1-1 attacking and 5-3-1 defending) in the second half of that game created an entirely different result. Suddenly, Nigeria competed. Yet, it isn't a formation that Rohr favors.





The data in Table 2 and Figures 1 an 2 demonstrate outcomes from the use of a three-man and the four-man defense. Overall, Rohr has managed 21 games played by Nigeria but the game v Togo is not included in this dataset because the defensive formation was not witnessed. We calculate the use of 4-man defense in a total of 16 games including the opening half of the England (1-2) game. For the 3-man defense, we calculate 5 games including the same England game but in the second half. Importantly, the use of three in the defense has been against theoretically stronger teams but results have been better. The total games then is a theoretical 21 games because a game (v England) is calculated two times.
















Comparing the use of the two defensive formations present a problem because it is clear that the three-man defense has been used in much tougher games with four out of five against higher ranked opponents! Yet, its outcomes have largely been better than outcomes using a four-man defense. It presents the flexibility of having five players defend deeply and two advanced forwards when with the ball. With that formation, Nigeria has scored every 50 minutes compared to every 60 minutes in a four-man defense with a lone advanced forward. Unfortunately, this strategy with better outcome has not been used by Rohr against African opposition.

Against Libya, we shall see whether Rohr's tendency to stick with his four-man defense continues.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Notable Stats After Recent Super Eagles Games.....

International Games in September 2018 -- Nigeria played two international matches in September against Seychelles Islands and Liberia. Here are some statistical nuggets that emerge after those games.

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Nigeria's often-vilified goalkeeper, Daniel Akpeyi, has now played 10 games for the national team but is yet to keep a goal out in each of those 10 games. This is an infamous statistic that appears to support the fan backlash against Akpeyi. His current per game rate for conceding goals is at 1.25 per game.

Samuel Kalu debuted as an "A" team starter in a competitive match to join a list of nine players to do so for Nigeria in the last 10 years. The most recent player to do so is Anthony Nwakaeme against Algeria in a World Cup qualifier 2017.

Odion Ighalo converted a penalty award against Seychelles Islands to break his streak of eight (8) consecutive games without scoring for Nigeria. His goalscoring rate for Nigeria is a pedestrian 0.22 goals per game having scored just five times in 23 games. His penalty goal was his second such goal for Nigeria. His first penalty goal was against Chad in another AFCON qualifier in 2015.

Meanwhile, Kelechi Iheanacho who started off his Nigerian career with 8 goals in his first 14 appearances has now failed to score in his last nine games, a drought which has taken his goal scoring rate to a mere 0.35 goals per game.

Ahmed Musa opened scoring for Nigeria against Seychelles and now has 16 career goals to his credit to go along with his 11 assists in Nigeria's colors.

Kenneth Omeruo's yellow card earned against Seychelles is his 7th in 42 games for Nigeria, which pushes him to 17% likelihood of receiving a caution in any game he plays for Nigeria. This has just passed Onazi Ogenyi's 15% likelihood of a caution per game.

Gernot Rohr debuted six players during the two internationals played this break. That brings the number to 25 players who have debuted for Nigeria under his tenure. This is not a staggering number by any imagination as his rate of debuting players is 1.19 players per game, which trails the likes of Christian Chukwu (1.91) and Sunday Oliseh (1.91) but surpasses Stephen Keshi (1.15) and Clemens Westerhoff (1.03).
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Tuesday, September 4, 2018

THE MOST LOPSIDED NIGERIAN GAME APPROACHES. . .

On September 8, Nigeria plays its most lopsided encounter ever. Opponent? Seychelles in a 2019 African Cup of Nations (AFCON) qualifier in Victoria. Since Nigeria played its first game in 1949, it has never been involved in a mismatch as the Victoria game portends. Thus, the recent statement by Coach Gernot Rohr, that Nigeria cannot afford to lose in Victoria is a major understatement. The fact is that Nigeria must win and by a big margin. Anything else will be considered underwhelming. Already, one of Nigeria's group contenders for a place in the 2019 AFCON finals -- Libya -- has whipped Seychelles 5-1.

This game should not even be a contest. A low-populated archipelago, such as Seychelles, has no chance and for good reasons. Comparing both countries (see Table 1) informs you of all you need to know about the upcoming contest. What is realistic is that this is the game where the likes of Ighalo and Iheanacho should use in filling out their goal scoring statistics. Make no mistake about it. What we should be watching is whether Nigeria can set a new national team record of the largest away win margin. That record is currently 4-0 earned over Sudan in Omdurman in a 2002 World Cup qualifier. by end of the day on September 8 a new away winning margin might be set by the Super Eagles.

Let's just review the data on Table 1. Just under 100,000 people make up Seychelles. Slightly over 50% of them are males and just 36,000 are aged 15-64 years old. We do not have additional stats to indicate those who are footballers but it has to be much less because basketball is more popular in the country than football and obviously we do not expect males over 35 playing for the national team! Moreover, reports in the Nigerian media indicate that the Seychelles team had difficulty getting invited players from the country's 12 premier league clubs to join the national camp. This is the situation as Nigeria's team of fully professional players arrive largely from Europe.









Then take a look at FIFA ranking. Seychelles is number 188, a tad higher than the worst footballing countries in global football. At 188, Seychelles is only better than Djibouti, Eritrea, and Somalia in Africa. But then  think of this -- Eritrea's last game was in 2015 and its last point was in 2011. Somalia? It last earned a point in 2011. How about Djibouti? It has won just one game since 2011. You get the picture? That is the team that Nigeria faces in Victoria!

But let's give Seychelles some credit. Seychelles has certainly upset "Giants" previously. In 2004, Seychelles beat Zimbabwe in an AFCON qualifier 2-1 in Victoria and in 2006, the team upset Zambia with a 1-1 draw away in a 2006 World Cup qualifier. Seychelles will be hoping for a similar result against Nigeria. Even a close loss at home to Nigeria may be celebrated in Victoria. Make no mistake about that and deservedly so but for it to happen will be a monumental surprise and upset.

One thing for sure is that the 10,000 capacity stadium in Victoria will be filled and that will be almost half of the persons who live in the capital city Victoria.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Post-World Cup: Assessing Super Eagles. . .

The World Cup is over and done. What's next? Time to think about the 2019 African Cup of Nations (AFCON) and the long journey to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. Yes, I realize that there would be another Cup of Nations before 2022 but that isn't really as important now as the 2019 version.

There are things that we learned from the recent World Cup in Russia that come in handy as we take a look to what's next. For one, Nigeria's midfield commander in the last few years, Mikel Obi, is on a downward trajectory and while we expect him to be at the AFCON in 2019, that may not be the case in Qatar 2022. But this blog piece is not about Mikel but a position-by-position review about the team. The team, in terms of its character and then in terms of its personnel, bears another review. That is what this blog piece is about. So let's get started.

The Team: Character
As long as Coach Gernot Rohr remains coach it seems Nigeria is married to his much loved 4-2-3-1 as the base formation. Changes come slowly for the man. Yes, one should give him credit for trying the 3-5-2 and seeing some success with it but he continues to hesitate and continues to stick to his 4-2-3-1. Nevertheless, it is becoming clear that Nigeria has a load of international level midfielders than it does with international class defensive personnel. That should nudge Rohr towards using the 3-5-2 as the base formation. It provides him with better attacking width and then provides assistance defensively better than his current base does. However, old dogs rarely learn new tricks or atleast remember new tricks when in a live battle.

Nonetheless, one must acknowledge that even in the 3-5-2, Nigeria is yet to show that among its plethora of midfielders there is one with the pedigree to dominate at the most advanced position of that middle line. Oghenekaro Etebo does not appear to be that guy. Yes, he shows ability to hold the ball, to distribute it in limited spaces, and at times to take a crack at goal but how many goals has he assisted yet? The fact is that he has yet to show the ability to make a goalscoring pass, whether it is once in a while or consistently. The media have put forward Alex Iwobi and some have even mentioned his bloodlines to the great JJ Okocha. The fact, however, is that this is a mere wish. Alex has not shown that he can do this at his club- -- Arsenal -- and it is only speculative to claim that he can do so with Nigeria. However, one thing is clear -- he has better passing vision than Etebo. What is questioned is his ability to protect the ball in crowded areas and his ability to command the middle with confidence and consistency.

Are there new names at that position? Well some have called for Eberechi Eze on loan at Wycombe Wanderers from QPR in England. The ultimate question is will Rohr care enough to give him a chance? Same goes for Kelechi Nwakali who is still struggling playing lower league football. Ultimately, it does speak volumes that these are names that Nigeria is throwing up as heirs to the Okocha legacy. The fact is that Nigeria lacks, and have lacked for sometime, in developing a midfielder with the ball skills to dominate in advanced midfield spaces. It is a shame considering that this is a position that Nigeria had routinely churned out superior talents until the post-Okocha era.

The Team: Personnel
Goalkeeping: Although it seems Francis Uzoho will be the solid choice at goal after a good World Cup, this position is far from being a solid one for Nigeria. In the last couple of years, since Ikeme's diagnoses, this has been a weak spot until Uzoho's World Cup outing but with Ikeme now retired Nigeria needs to find at least one other goalkeeper that is sure to be with the team for the long haul. Even then, with Uzoho likely to spend a long time on his club's bench, his confidence and fitness is likely to erode.

Defense: Whether Nigeria plays four or three at the back, it seems that only Balogun and Ekong have demonstrated any consistency over a long period of time. Far more is needed here and that is going to be based on what Rohr thinks his base formation will be going forward. Perhaps, it is much simpler to use three at the back with Omeruo and Awaziem battling for the third spot. 

Midfield: This is Nigeria's deepest position with multiple players able to play confidently in this position. Obviously, the likes of Mikel Obi are short term considerations, which means that Rohr has to be looking for his replacement in the coming months and definitely after the AFCON in 2019. There are also a plethora of choices from players that did not participate at the World Cup including Mikel Agu, Nwakali, Joel Obi, and Eze. The challenges here are developing a highly skilled advanced midfielder for the future and re-stocking with other capable players.

Forward: Ahmed Musa's play, in both the Iceland and Argentina games at the World Cup, puts him in contention for one of the forward positions. Prior to the World Cup, I had speculated here that Musa may be considered for this position instead of the usual wide midfield position and Rohr did try him out as a forward against Serbia. However, Rohr appeared to have changed his mind after that game and then suddenly Nwankwo was listed as the third forward instead of Musa for the World Cup proper. However, adverse conditions, based on the poor opening result against Croatia, forced a Rohr change of heart and Musa's subsequent display must now put him as the key starter at this position. But the continued use of Nwankwo and Ighalo must now be open to questions when the likes of Sadiq, Onyekuru, and Awoniyi are knocking on the door. Furthermore, it seems that Iheanacho's future as a national team forward is going to be under serious evaluation in the coming months.

Conclusion
Gernot Rohr was dubbed a difference maker when he was appointed. After 19 games in-charge, Rohr's record is middling (see Table 1). One of Rohr's widely publicized statements was about the relative young age of the team. That was indeed a cop-out used at the World Cup but he cannot now use it at the AFCON nor can he use it at the 2022 World Cup if Rohr leads the team to Qatar. First, the team will be experienced going into the 2019 AFCON following its participation at the World Cup and in 2022, if most of the team remains intact, it should be one of the most experienced. Thus, as the saying goes: Mr. Rohr, it is time to put up or shut up.


  

Monday, July 16, 2018

Swag vs Everything Else My reflection on Nigeria vs Argentina.

By Aham Onyike (GUEST)

From Russia --- Crazy, but somehow by pure random chance, Nigeria and Argentina are in the same World Cup opening round group five times including the last four World Cups. The group seeding is by public lottery so there’s no easy collusion. It is more likely that it is divine intervention, particularly considering that one of our main attributes has become prayer warrior-ing. Along those suggestions of celestial influence, the question arises. Why even with prayers asking for blessings we keep getting Argentina in our group? Which kin blessing be dat? Maybe it’s because we have had belief in praying to win the World Cup since our 1985 U-17 World Cup triumph in China. That victory made us believers , which is the first step in the response from the Almighty. Those boys were supposed to graduate to the senior team and repeat their accomplishments at subsequent levels. Heaven is maybe telling us that we should focus on beating Argentina. And when we can overtake Argentina, hey. It’s wide open from there. We have had five chances to study them and defeat them. But we have lost all five times. I have been at four of the games. Hung out and kicked it with Argentinian fans, journalists, aspiring players, former players, among others. It provides insight on how they do it. Of course, same insight with our own Naija FA peeps and how we don't. 


So Swag vs Everything else?

Of course the Swag is Nigeria.
Among other attributes, Nigerians are self believers, love to be entertained and are aggressive. Mostly good qualities when properly harnessed as has been done at youth level. The best Nigerian junior teams have showcased a brand of football that is dazzling. Both bold and audacious, athletic, fast attacking football. Multiple players with tremendous flair. Reflective of the believed potential. Even with the understanding that age limit tournaments inherently cast questions about credibility, there is a capability in the Nigerian player to display those skills on a football pitch. So why are they not doing it at the senior level? The answer to that question is fleeting, for now but to me is the holy grail of Nigerian football. The talent is there. Consider that West African genes produced three of the four most expensive transfers of all time as of the end of the 2018 season. Those are Paul Pobgba, Kylian Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele. And Nigeria is the most populous country in the region by far. 

           The best Nigerian junior teams have
           showcased a brand of football that is 
           dazzling. Both bold and audacious, 
           athletic, fast attacking football.




The most positive attributes of the Nigerian persona that one will imagine will translate on the football pitch particularly flair are often displayed in abundance at the younger levels. Our senior teams on the other hand tend to lack that. Our players start off in Nigeria and finish in Europe. They have it at the junior level but by the time they spend time in Europe and return for the senior team they develop the earliest stages of rigor mortis. Obvious conclusion is that Europe is ascribed the blame and Mikel Obi is a prime example of the phenomena.

Argentina is the Everything else.
From what I can gather, Argentina develops talent from the lowest youth levels. Systems are in place to discover talent as young as five years old. They encourage their players from that age in an Argentine philosophy to develop skill but also to compete. There’s a passion, a drive. They do what they need to do on the pitch. But they start with off the pitch preparations. 
I remember, our "African world cup", 2010 in South Africa. As usual we were in the same group with Argentina. Prior to the tournament, the word from the Nigeria FA was that Johannesburg was like a second home to Nigerians. We expected the stadium to be like a game in Lagos. There was a shock walking to the stadium and seeing more Argentinians by far than Nigerians. We started assuring ourselves that we had somehow ended up on the Argentinian entrance and that once we got inside we will see brown faces in green. To our pure astonishment, we entered and saw even more non browns in their signature light blue and white. In our own backyard, hanging banners, flags, etc. As expected, it was even worse in Brazil because the game was in Porto Alegre which is close to the Argentina border allowing them to crossover like biblical locusts. But then Russia and we had de ja vu. An obvious hint at a disparity in football organization and a gap that shows levels of preparation, tradition, passion, middle class. You name it. We got swag and they got etcetera. Argentinians had sometimes three generations of fans including grandfathers that had not missed an Argentinian World Cup game since 1978. A fan told me that his dad brought him when he was a boy and now he was obligated to bring his sons. It means so much to them.

          Argentinians had sometimes three 
          generations of fans including grandfathers 
         that had not missed an Argentinian World 
         Cup game since 1978. 

Often times players embody their people. When I watch the NBA, I see Manu Ginobli as the epitome of the Argentine player. He just lays it down. Competitive, tough, combative, skillful. On the West African side the epitome currently is Joel Embiid confident, athletic, graceful, smart and potentially transcendent. Potentially. 


I recall being in St. Petersburg to watch the latest version of Nigeria vs Argentina. We were horribly outnumbered so much so that even Stevie Wonder would have seen it. Once again the stadium was like a home game for them. Intimidating. Also humorous that we bought three million jerseys while the Argentinians bought tickets. I proudly bought both. The stadium atmosphere was fervent. Qualification for the second round on the line. The Argentina fans were so intense they impacted the game with their passion, cheering or jeering as needed. The vigor lifted their players and probably affected the referees and to some extent our players just enough. It did not help that the NFF could not get the loud music making Nigerian supporters club into the stadium. Of course it also is a repeat failure because they were not there in Brazil or South Africa.

        Once again the stadium was like a home 
        game for them. Intimidating. Also humorous 
        that we bought three million jerseys while 
        the Argentinians bought tickets. I proudly 
        bought both. The stadium atmosphere was 
       fervent.



Our team played well. Certainly better organized than some of the previous Nigerian teams. So, Nigerians somehow assume that this experience will yield benefits in four years. But so did Cote D’Ivoire and Ghana after elimination in 2014. The real planning hopefully has started already. Though one wonders if it is realistic to expect all the other government system struggles and lack of planning we see in numerous other sectors and somehow have it different and better in sports, which matters less. So the answer to this problem once again comes down to fixing our government. Na wa. I tire. But if we no fix am, our pikins go dey also discuss potential, potential. In the meantime let’s start planning for 4 years both for world cup and elections. And if we can learn from Argentina and figure out how to beat them on and off the pitch, we will likely find the answers to those prayers.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Explaining the Balance of World Cup Teams.......

Why is it that a Spanish national team stacked with stars from Barcelona and Real Madrid could not eviscerate an Iranian team with players from little known clubs? Why is it that Japan is able to reach the second round of the World Cup while Poland ranked #8 went home in the opening round? How about Germany? These are legitimate questions that we not only ask at this World Cup but it is a question where there are no simple answers. Is it the coaches? What is it?

One of the things rarely discussed is how talent itself is distributed in football. Yet, this very distribution may well hold the answers that we seek. The frequent transfer of players from the periphery to Europe and from the "small" to "big" European clubs creates a sense that there is a gulf of talent difference between the periphery and Europe and between the "small" and "big" clubs of Europe. To be clear, several encounters at the club competition levels provide support for the assumptions of difference.

However, results at the World Cup often tend to demonstrate small and often negligible differences between national teams and between the players that we observe on the field and in spite of the "big" v "small" name coaches on display. So what may be responsible for this surprising situation? Let's bear in mind that the points made here are speculative and exploratory at best but they offer some insight that we should think about. Each of the three areas that I discuss below focus on critical factors in football today -- the talent available, building a team, and the tactical/strategy planning.

The Gaussian Distribution
The Gaussian distribution (also referred to as the Bell curve) provides a theoretical and visual distribution of how human traits and abilities are often distributed across large populations. This distributions holds true across research of various human traits and abilities including height, intelligence, among others. Football talent is one such ability where the Gaussian distribution can be assumed. So also is the distribution in coaching ability.















At the extremes of the distribution are rare and remarkable cases of high and low ability. In most tests, these extreme groups are less than 2% each. The rest of human ability are bunched moderately in the middle. Thus, in footballing talent, extremely few footballers are highly talented such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Messi, and perhaps Neymar. Most footballers, whether they play for Real Madrid, Hull City, or Anderlecht exhibit the ability that is bunched in the middle. The fact that a player is at Real Madrid and not at Hull City may be based on a coach's subjective evaluation or simply that such a player plays a certain role quite well and may well fail in another role. This also applies to coaching talent. Thus, beyond the very best footballers or coaches the difference between the rest of footballers (regardless of their clubs) may be insignificant or negligible.

Time Required to Build a Team
Additionally, the time required to build strong teams even under great coaches is much longer at national team levels than at clubs. Building a seamlessly effective team, whether it is an office team or a team of footballers, requires time together. It is time that is rare for building a national team. FIFA's statutes provide little time and in intermittent chunks for building a TEAM from a national selection. Without such adequate time, the advantages that accrues at the talent level may well be blunted at the team level. This, therefore, nullifies such advantages for the "big" teams and the "small" teams are able to compete better.

Increased Tactical Limitation to Free Play
But it isn't just the lack of time to build teams that harness the talent of individual players. There are now widespread frustrating tactics that present the "small" teams with advantages. For instance, the lax time-keeping in football is an opportunity offered to the "small" teams where minor delays of game in various areas are unrecoverable by match officials and reduce the actual playing time. Recent data from this World Cup showed in one match that the actually playing time in one game was 44 minutes! That is out of a possible 90 minutes!

Beyond the delays are the frustrating defense where a compact four-to-five-man line of deep defenders with a further line of shielding midfielders make it virtually impossible to score in open play down the middle of the field. Of course, attempting from the sides offer poorer angles and crosses offer contestable balls. These situations basically strengthen the defensive team. Worse still, such frustrating tactics disadvantage the offensive squad whose increasing search for an opening makes it susceptible to quick counters from a defensive team with pacy attackers.

Conclusion
Although there are other factors that have increased the strength of the supposedly "small" teams, the three mentioned above are critical explanations for the closing of gap between the "haves" and "have-nots" in World Cup play. Merely having your top players in Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester City, and the like provide little or negligible advantage in today's global national team encounters and has been somewhat demonstrated in World Cup play.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

World Cup 2018: What We Learned As the Curtain Closed

NIGERIA 1 ARGENTINA 2

When Argentina's Rojo rifled an 86th minute shot off a cross and beyond Nigeria to signal Nigeria's elimination from the 2018 World Cup, it forced a lot of thinking. Nigeria was less than 10 minutes away from an appearance in the Round of 16 and the boys had fought so hard for hope to evaporate at that very moment. That many Nigerian players sunk to the turf, after the inevitable final whistle to their World Cup, underlined how much they had wanted to do for their country. In the end, I cannot fault any one of those boys who fought for glory in that important game against Argentina.

For the first time in our regular meetings with Argentina in the World Cup, Nigeria held its own and was denied at the last moment and would also relive the fact that two penalty appeals against Argentina went to nought. There are those who would analyze the game ad infinitum and claim that tactical superiority decided this game. I certainly resist that thinking and ask you to read this. Games aren't always determined by tactics. This was a game of inches and chances and it was decided by variables beyond mere tactics.

Nevertheless, there will be those who point accusing fingers at Gernot Rohr, those who criticize Omeruo for Messi's goal, those who will call for Victor Moses to be axed over the Rojo goal, those who think that Uzoho should have saved both goals, and inevitably those that feel one flew over the cuckoo's nest in the believe that those who were not there (The Onyekurus, Aina, and others) would have saved the day. The reality is that all that demonstrate mere frustration and nothing more. The fact is Nigeria lost the game that it could have won if things had fallen a bit differently in this game of chances and inches. For me, it underlines the difficulty of getting past the barriers at the World Cup and against the traditional big teams. Ask Sweden after its loss to Germany, ask Costa Rica after the Brazil come back, and there will be additional teams to ask before this World Cup is over. It is a tough mountain to climb.

Although it was the third elimination for Nigeria at the group phase of a World Cup, there are several important things that we learned from this particular appearance. Here they are:

1. That Nigeria Can Compete At this Level: While we saw the 1994 team turn heads in Nigeria's inaugural at a World Cup, the 2018 version showed a team that could compete with the best. It may appear ridiculous to make this statement after the team failed to progress beyond the group phase. However, this team was indeed capable of doing more if it only had overcome a determined Argentine team. It had a squad that was built to be strong across the list of positions and players and these were the players who appear regularly in the elite leagues of Europe. Yet they had the heart and belief. That is always important.

2.  Time to Rethink Coaching Tenure: For years, my view has been to avoid the firing of coaches at every slip in competition. Surely, there will be demands for the coaching crew to be let go and this will be the song as the federation election approaches. However, I continue to believe that Nigeria will do much better by granting our coaches longer tenure to blood talents rather than the current tendency to fire at every loss. Yes, this coaching crew has been quite conservative but it has also shown that it can make drastic changes to move the team forward. All it has to change is to act quicker that it currently does.

3.  Nigeria Can Build A Stronger Team Going Forward: There are several youngsters waiting to break into this team. They include Taiwo Awoniyi and Sadiq Umar. Then we have those who barely missed the cut to this World Cup including Ola Aina and Henry Onyekuru. These youngsters are likely to play bigger roles in the upcoming Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON). They  represent the future and one hopes that the coach can begin to blend them into the team with the likes of Echiejile headed for the exit after a long and fruitful career. The status of skipper Mikel Obi is unknown at this point but his future replacement should be in the pipeline if Iwobi isn't that guy.

4.  Musa's Pace Matters: For months and even years, Ahmed Musa has borne the height of criticism on this team. However, Musa's pace is excruciating that it provides great advantages to the team when space is available. He was unplayable in the Iceland game and he gave Argentina fits as he did four years ago. This guy is an asset and maybe Nigeria's most dangerous forward when he comes to play. That should now be recognized by those, in the Nigerian media, who had resolutely denied Musa's impact.

5.  Uzoho Arrives: For months, we had all wondered about Nigeria's goalkeeping with Ikeme ailing in the hospital. That the coaching crew made the point to use Francis Uzoho was shocking at some level. However, the coaching crew provided Uzoho with coaching support that paid off at the World Cup. Uzoho is definitely a major piece of the team going forward. His control in the air is a major welcome.

6.  Administrative Organization is Possible: This was a peaceful preparation to the World Cup. The international friendlies came off as planned, the players were paid, and the team had good media publicity about its preparation going into the World Cup. That is definitely alien to a Nigerian team before a World Cup. No fights between players and administrators! So, such efficient and effective organization is possible? One hopes that this marks the beginning of such organization going forward. 

Friday, June 22, 2018

"Big Game" Musa Restores Nigeria's Hope....

Ahmed Musa, so often derided by Nigerian fans, once again proved why he is so critical. He scored a brace and had a third come off the bar as Nigeria outclassed Iceland 2-0 to restore hope of reaching the Round of 16 of the 2018 World Cup in Russia. There were those who even questioned Musa's inclusion in Nigeria's final 23-man squad to the World Cup. Then others questioned the coach's decision to restore him to the starting position in this game against Iceland. But few of them would ask further questions after he single handedly destroyed Iceland.

Nigeria was lethargic in the opening half. It was all possession for Nigeria but without a single shot at goal compared to Iceland's six in the opening half. The performance was mystifying considering the urgency needed to worry Iceland. But in the opening minute of the second half, Nigeria signaled two important changes. The first was that Coach Rohr hauled off an uninventive Idowu and installed a more attacking option in Tyrone Ebuehi. Then in the first move, Etebo exploded through the middle to hit a weak grounder that was easily saved by the goalkeeper. It was Nigeria's first shot of the game but it was very important because it signaled a change in attitude.

But before the sudden attitude change, Nigeria had demonstrated loudly that it could cope with Iceland's aerial threats as it held its own against Iceland's corner kicks and long throw-ins. Clearly, the introduction of Omeruo helped as it was an added man who could compete and duel aerially. 

In the second half, as Nigeria increased the pace it was surely a matter of time. That goal arrived four minutes into the second half when Musa scored a world class goal with a superb control of Moses' cross before hitting viciously into the net. Then in the 74th minute he hit another spectacular shot against the bar. But he was not finished. A minute later, he broke speedily into the left side of the box leaving a defender in his wake and then left the goalkeeper sprawling in a quick dribble before hitting another shot into the net. It was a goal that surely will be shown over and over again in the future. Musa had certainly reminded Nigerians today of what he is worth when the big game is in front of the team.

Here is my rating of the players:

Francis Uzoho (23) -- 6.8 -- Did not put one foot wrong. In the first half, he kept Nigeria in the game with some saves. Uzoho is turning into a main stay for this team even beyond this World Cup.

Leon Balogun (6) -- 7.0 -- Leon had another very good day. He won the aerial duels and had the time to join the attack. In addition, he came very close with a header from a corner kick.

William Ekong (5) -- 6.2 -- William was very good in the air and produced an assuring display at the back.

Kenneth Omeruo (22) -- 6.2 -- Kenneth was not taking any chances today. He was ready to boot the ball a mile away and was winning several aerial duels. However, he had one mental mistake when he lost the ball deep in his box when it would have been easier to clear and it led to Ebuehi conceding a penalty kick.

Victor Moses (11) -- 6.5 -- Victor was good especially in the second half when he gave Icelandic defenders much to think about. He ended the day with an assistant on Musa's first goal.

Brian Idowu (2) -- 5.9 -- Brian was not sure of his play today and did not do much to help the attack on the left and he was correctly pulled off in the beginning of the second half.

Wilfred Ndidi (4) -- 6.4 -- Ndidi was again busy in the ball recovery phase and did well joining the attack as well.  This is essentially a consistent display.

Mikel Obi (10) -- 6.8 -- Obi was withdrawn deep for this game and he seemed to have lost very little. He dominated the ball and bossed the game from deep. His late hand injury may yet be a major issue if it leads to his absence from the Argentina game.

Oghenekaro Etebo (8) -- 6.4 -- Another outstanding display moving the team forward. His energy is the kick that moved this team forward even in the mostly lethargic opening half.

Ahmed Musa (7) -- 9.0 -- Outstanding display when Nigeria needed it. Even in the first half when the team could not get through he showed consistent effort and determination before his second half explosion.

Kelechi Iheanacho (14) -- 6.0 -- Kelechi had an average game but he does bring consistent threat at the striker position.

Tyrone Ebuehi (21) - 6.1 -- Tyrone came in and had a better game than Idowu. Yes, he gave up an inadvertent penalty kick but his play was assuring on the left.

Odion Ighalo (9) -- X -- Not rated.

Alex Iwobi (18) -- X -- Not rated.