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.