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.