Thursday, January 25, 2018

Popular Last Names Used by Super Eagles' Players?

Do you think you will get the answer correct if you are asked "What is the most common last name ever used by players of the Nigerian national team?" This was the question that I set out to answer by examining last names (Surnames) of players that have played for Nigeria since the first game in 1949. Note, however, that these last names are assumed accurate based on their frequent usage in the media. However, there are possibilities of errors. For instance, one of Nigeria's players goes by the names Kalu Orji and then Kalu Orji Okagbue. In this case, we have entered his last name as "Orji."

In any case, there are numerous last names that came up multiple times.  Because of this and lack of space, I decided to ditch last names shared by only two players and consider only those that had at least three entries.

Ultimately, the name with most multiple entries is not surprising if you think about it. The most common last name used is Mohammed (Table 1). It appears in 11 entries! The closest other last names were distant second at six entries each. Those last names are Ibrahim, Lawal, and Nwosu.

However, how many times players using those last names played for Nigeria is also insightful (Figure 1). Of the three, players with the last name "Lawal" have played a combined 208 times, "Nwosu" for 80 times and 'Ibrahim' for only 20 times. Players with the last name "Lawal" have been quite productive with only Dimeji playing less than 5 times for the country. Players with "Lawal" as last name have been the most productive (combined) as their 208 appearances outstrip the total of 111 appearances for players bearing the last name "Mohammed."

The next most common last name is Okoro with five entries each. Three other last names had four entries each -- Musa, Obi, and Uche. The number of last names that had three entries? 18 is the answer. See the table below for the entries and then the first names associated with each entry and the national team career span for each player. 

Saturday, January 13, 2018

World Cup Year: Status of Nigeria's Roster Depth

This is World Cup Year 2018 and Russia is quickly beckoning. Nigeria has reached the last 16 at three of five World Cup appearances but what does 2018 promise? While many believe that Nigeria is destined for a final 8 appearance, that will depend (at least in part) in Nigeria's ability to build substantive depth with quality players that can be easily called up into play without diminishing the on-field productivity of the team. Nigeria has not always demonstrated that depth and the question is whether the 2018 team is going to be different. 

I proceed to address the issue of depth in two major ways. The first is to qualitatively grade the team's unit in terms of individual players and the unit as a whole. Then go beyond assessing quality to assess experience playing for the team. I strongly believe that these types of assessments help in evaluating how good the team is and its prospects in Russia.

The Quality Factor

On quality, the key assessment is performance of players during games played so far by the team.

Goalkeeping: The quality at this position is thin and in spite of the technical team's efforts not much improvement has been demonstrated in this unit. Two of the current three top players in this unit -- Daniel Akpeyi and Ikpechukwu Ezenwa -- have not demonstrate quality on a consistent basis. Akpeyi, who started brilliantly in his international debut against South Africa in 2015, has turned remarkably into a panicky goalkeeper with penchant for errors. Ezenwa did brilliantly in two World Cup qualifiers against Cameroon but was shockingly poor in his last two "A" internationals. The third option, Francis Uzoho, is largely unknown with barely 45 minutes of play for the national team. His quality is a wild guess as he was barely tested in those 45 minutes. This crew of three goalkeepers will receive a grade of C going into the World Cup as none of them is convincing at the moment. However, if Nigeria returns veteran goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama and Uzoho shows exemplary quality in the upcoming friendlies the grade should be improved. 

Defense: Currently, the starters are Shehu, Ekong, Balogun, and Echiejile. The depth includes Ebuehi, Awaziem, and Aina/Idowu. Though the starters are not exactly world class, by any means of measurement, they are solid and average. The good news is that the depth includes players who can seamlessly substitute for the starters without any significant loss of quality. In fact, it is likely that Echiejile is being challenged for starting position by both Aina and Idowu. Ebuehi was a pleasant surprise in his stint against Argentina. Overall, the depth here is solid and should be good going into the World Cup. On this basis, the depth deserves an "A".

Midfield: The starters are Onazi, Ndidi, Mikel, Simon, and Vic Moses. The depth includes Etebo, Ogu, Mikel Agu, Iwobi, and Musa. Of course, not all of them will eventually make the trip to Russia. Beyond projecting who makes or does not make the World Cup squad, lets discuss those that we have listed above. Simon is not a sure starter as his position is shared with Iwobi. The depth is not as good as the starting unit because while Iwobi and Etebo can seamlessly step into the midfield, one cannot confidently say the same for the other three. Musa's regression has been surprising, both at the club and national team levels. Pointedly, his confidence running at defenses has significantly slipped. Ogu's range of operation is limited and Mikel Agu has not exactly shown why he is called on as a substitute in critical games. The depth here is no better than a B grade.

Forwards: Nigeria usually plays one player in advanced position since the arrival of Rohr who rarely dresses two advanced forwards. Presently, Jude Ighalo is the preferred forward but his goal productivity has not been impressive although other aspects of his play are quite encouraging. The depth currently is Kelechi Iheanacho who's match fitness is doubtful, considering his lack of playing opportunities at his club. However, Iheanacho has rarely disappointed as he is certainly one of the most clinical forwards anywhere in the world. His problems are in other aspects of the game. Beyond Iheanacho, Nigeria is still groping. Kayode Olanrewaju tried but has not impressed, Nwakaeme was put to test in Algeria but failed, next up is veteran Obafemi Martins if rumors are to be believed. Ultimately, that third advanced forward is far from decided. Thus, the depth here is a B-.

The Experience Factor

Table 1 quantifies experience in terms of both number of appearances and minutes played. In this case, experience is focused on national team match play, which is critical because appropriate experience is playing with national team mates.

Goalkeeping: This unit is not only where the least quality exists but it is also where the least experience lies. Yet, it is a place where experience matters since it is arguably the most critical position where an error can be extremely punishing. Unfortunately, this unit has players who have spent less time with the rest of other players in the national team. Again, the experience grade here is a "C" with the only good outlook being the minutes played, on the average. 

Defense: Experience in this unit is reasonable with an average of over 15 games even though this may have been skewed by the large number of minutes credited to one player (Echiejile) who is likely battling to make the World Cup squad. Overall, the distribution of appearances is skewed with the starters playing a lot and the depth players playing a few. This differential means a grade of "B-" is not out of place. These depth players need more minutes in the run-up to the World Cup in order to accumulate match readiness.

Midfield: Experience here is quite impressive -- 30 games average and 70 minutes per game across  ten players. This is outstanding experience in depth. Of the ten players, only one has not played at least 10 games. Obviously, experience in this unit may be one of the best across any of the teams that will be at the World Cup in Russia. This surely is an "A" grade.

Forwards: Experience between the two players is strong and would even be better if a veteran like Obafemi Martins or Brown Ideye gets back into the squad. For now, the averages are based on just Ighalo and Iheanacho on the one hand and those two plus an entirely new addition like uncapped Sarenzen Bazee on the other hand. The grade is a more difficult decision because of increased uncertainty. However, one settles with a "B" grade.

So What Does It Mean?

Overall, the team has built, already, substantive depth in the midfield and the same could be said about the forward position if a quality veteran is added to the team. The defense could also represent an area of strong depth if the upcoming international friendlies are used to provide match readiness for defenders that have appeared sparingly for the team. These appearances will be vital in World Cup play. The goalkeeper position is a serious problem but one that can be ameliorated with the return of Vincent Enyeama and the use of friendlies to strengthen Uzoho's experience and assure his quality. Ultimately, the status of the team's depth is encouraging but invitation of few quality veterans and strategic use of friendlies will provide great opportunities for this team.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Sizing Up Key Eagles in a World Cup Year

We are barely six months to the start of the 2018 World Cup with hopes that Nigeria will finally break pat the Round of 16 hurdle. Sure, you are perhaps left wondering why one is writing about breaking past the Round of 16 hurdle when the team isn't guaranteed of coming out of its group. But does it really matter? It might be the case that it isn't guaranteed but that should not stop Nigerians from dreaming and hoping. After all, the 2018 team is as good as any that Nigeria has produced in recent times. Its march through the World Cup qualifiers is a pointer to that. It was one of Nigeria's toughest World Cup qualifiers. The now revered 1994 team did not have as tough a schedule and needed all games to get to the World Cup finals in the USA. The 2018 team did not just impress with results but put out an exclamation point with the way the team dominated and before the last day it had already qualified.

Several of the players who led the 2018 team are expected to be present in Russia in June, barring injury. This piece is designed to evaluate players who played significant minutes during the qualifiers and compare them to help us review what they are good at and what their weaknesses are. This comparison is by no means a scientific exercise but it is one that is informed from deeply watching the team and observing the contribution of individual players. In a sense, it is subjective but yet informed. I leave out one critical player -- Victor Moses. Victor was, by far, better than any other player in his or similar position on the team. It provides little value to compare him with any other. Thus, I decline to do so. He gets a pass. Here are the comparisons of the other significant players on the team starting from the defensive side of the ball.

Leon Balogun v William Ekong
Both Leon and William appear interchangeable in the middle of the defense but if you look closely, there is at least one remarkable difference. Of course, each is comfortable in the air. Each prefers to kick the ball to the sixth row than take risks. For them it is safety first. They each do not seem entirely comfortable with the ball at their feet for any significant length of time but Balogun has shown more significant improvement distributing the ball from defense. On the other hand, I trust Ekong's pace more than I trust Balogun's.

Ola Aina v Elderson Echiejile
Ola Aina's arrival to the national team led to many singing requiem for Echiejile's starting spot. However, I do not believe Echiejile will give up that spot as easily as some may believe. After all, he is much better in the air and it isn't even close. The big problem for him, however, is multiple. The young Aina is equipped with pace, more attacking presence, and appears more comfortable in one v one confrontations. Will Echiejile's experience be a value? I am not so sure.

Mikel Obi v Wilfred Ndidi
Do not be deceived by preponderant check marks under Ndidi's name, Mikel is still the guy who makes Nigeria's midfield click. He is the master, the general, and the overseer. His game tempo and attitude decides whether Nigeria has a chance or not. However, Ndidi is rapidly improving and that is defined by his advantages in several aspects of midfield play. The most compelling part of his game is his range, his ability to cover a vast area of the field, his selflessness, and his effort.

Ogenyi Onazi v Wilfred Ndidi
Mindfully, it appears that Ndidi has passed Onazi on the Nigerian midfield hierarchy. The description of Ndidi's game above states it all. However, as the table shows, Onazi is no slouch. His range is similar to Ndidi's and his weakness - passing accuracy - also plagues Ndidi. They are quite similar but Ndidi gets the nod based on superior presence in the air and invention of scoring opportunities.

Moses Simon v Alex Iwobi
The contests at the two wide positions have been effectively reduced to one position with Victor Moses the automatic choice at one. The contest for the other is between the fan-favorite Alex Iwobi and Moses Simon. Simon is a set-piece guru and can easily go around any marker. Moreover, he is committed to ball recovery, an important aspect of what coach Rohr demands of his players. Iwobi, on his good day, can easily be one of the very best players on the team and his vision is only matched by Mikel Obi. Iwobi can visualize a play develop multiple steps before it actually occurs. That is a rare gift.

Kelechi Iheanacho v Odion Ighalo
Iheanacho is Nigeria's most prolific striker since all-time great, Rashidi Yekini. Yet, there is enough deficiencies in his game that deny him the starting spot. His counterpart, Odion Ighalo, does several things better. Though Odion is not as clinical in front of goal as Kelechi, he can hold off strong defensive challenges with his body and his runs behind the defense provide passing lanes for midfielders. Unfortunately, Nigeria has not been able to find in one player the good parts of Ighalo and Iheanacho.

While these are comparisons between players, it is not one that is designed to predict who may or may not make the World Cup squad. Instead, it is focused on comparing those in contention for particular positions and comparing others who play within the same team unit. Ultimately, it is about ascertaining the quality of those who will be representing Nigeria at the 2018 World Cup, barring injuries and surprise cuts.