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.

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.