Friday, March 23, 2018

New Players Demonstrate their Value v Poland.....

Nigeria's new players, uninvolved in the country's World Cup qualifying games, sounded the warning that they are about to gate crash the World Cup party with valuable performances against Poland in Wroclaw. That Nigeria won 1-0 demonstrated its ability to compete among the best teams in the world. It was a competent performance in the opponent's den and the final result was no less than Nigeria deserved.

The new players -- Joel Obi, Francis Uzoho, and Brian Idowu -- notched up zero appearances during the qualifiers but against Poland they made a strong point to the managers. Their play indicates that it will be a difficult task to send them away from the impending World Cup. But the truth was that besides Joel Obi, the other two started in jittery mode and it would take the second half for them to calm their nerves and show exactly what they are made.

Beyond the individual performances, it is important to note that Nigeria's play was steady. Nigeria may not have controlled possession but they held their own in a disciplined display. Coach Rohr, in spite of issues with full-field pressing in the first half of the Argentina game, stuck with the pressing throughout the game with the most advanced forward providing the anchor point. Was it effective? Unlike the Argentina game, the press was effective as it forced the Poles to make several errors and they turned the ball over or were harried in their passes. The Poland keepers huffed the ball at least three times over the sideline as the Nigerian forwards turned on the pressure cooker. The fact that it worked in Wroclaw underlines the pace, quickness, and guile of the Nigerians that unsettled the host team.

Though there is more to discuss about this game, I leave that for much later. Below are the individual ratings of the players:

Scale: 1-10 with 6.0 as average.

Francis Uzoho (23) - 6.3 - Uzoho's above average rating is largely due to his second half display. He was on a 5.5 at the half after a jittery opening half when he was clearly unsure in spite of very little pressure. In the second, it was entirely different. He came off his line quickly and made a great save off a breaking Lewandowski early in the second.

Abdullahi Shehu (12) - 6.2 - Shehu had difficulty in the opening half dealing with wide attackers but settled quickly in the second half with a competent display before going out injured.

William Ekong (5) -- 7.5 -- Perhaps it was the captain's arm band but this maybe Ekong's best display for Nigeria. He was a rock in the middle and hardly put a foot wrong all day. No one was better on his team and he may have been the best player on both sides. 

Leon Balogun (6) -- 6.8 -- Leon put in a good display. He easily dominated aerial duels and provided cover when needed, especially in the first half when Idowu was clearly shaky.

Brian Idowu (24) - 6.0 -- The game started too fast and the stage too big for Brian. However, he may have saved his World Cup opportunity with a steady second half display after a poor opening half when his passes were unsure and his vision limited.

Wilfred Ndidi (13) -- 7.2 -- Ndidi was clearly Nigeria's best player in the first half when he controlled the midfield, providing both strength and outlet. In the second, he faded a bit but over all he was on his game. He made it clear that he remains an important player for Nigeria going into the World Cup. 

Joel Obi (25) -- 7.0 -- Joel was full of running and confidence in the midfield. Barring injury, he certainly will make the squad for the World Cup. He was always involved in Nigeria's play both attacking and during ball recovery.

Kelechi Iheanacho (14) -- 6.0 -- Kelechi started the game well and was helping with the pressure on the ball but as the game wore on he disappeared. It may not have been his best game but he certainly remains a critical player.

Victor Moses (11) -- 6.2 -- Victor was largely anonymous in the first half except when he periodically earned free kicks for the team. His dribbling into the box in the second half forced the Polish defenders to pull him down for a penalty kick that he converted. However, this was far from his best game for Nigeria.

Alex Iwobi (18) -- 6.2 -- Alex started quite well and was active even in the defensive phase of the game. However, like Iheanacho, he faded as the game went on before he was substituted.

Jude Ighalo (9) -- 6.2 -- Yes, many will wonder why he receives an above average rating here. The answer is that he deserves it. He led the pressure that forced the Polish defense into some turnovers and he was quite lively. Unfortunately, he had only one good shot at goal with a header from a 38th minute free kick that went wide.

Ahmed Musa (7) -- 6.0 -- Musa came in and was on the left but completed the game as the most advanced player. He gave his usual effort but made two questionable decisions that made you shake your head. First he passed the ball to Iheanacho who was clearly in an offside position when there were better options (78th) and then he made the wrong choice in an 80th minute break by passing to Victor Moses who was crowded by four defenders when a better option existed on the left.

Ogenyi Onazi (17) -- 5.8 -- Onazi came in for Joel Obi in the second half and the difference was clear, at least on this day. He made several poor passes and it was an uncharacteristic day for him.

I did not rate the other four substitutes as they played only for a short period. Kenneth Omeruo who played for more than a quarter hour was rarely involved to receive a fair rating. Here are the four substitutes -- Omeruo, Ebuehi, Ogu, and Simon.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

What March Friendlies May Decide.......

Two games in March for Nigeria provides an opportunity to separate players currently vying for positions in the team. Two of those positions -- goalkeeping and left back -- are the most hotly contested. In each of those positions, three players compete not only for the starting spot but also for a place in the squad to the World Cup. While the final decisions on this issue may not come until the summer camp, it is quite likely that the international friendlies on March 23 and 27 would go a long way to assist the coaches in making decisions.It is possible that players may begin to separate themselves from the competition based on performance in one or both international friendlies. 

In this piece, we take a preliminary look at each player contesting for those positions and evaluate their current chances. Of course, the view shared here is simply my subjective view. However, such a view is based on watching them perform for the national team  and for those players who have barely played an international, their club performance assists in this evaluation.

This is one position where none of the contestants have particularly given the Nigerian fans a dose of confidence. In the past, except at the 1998 World Cup, the goalkeeping position had always been one of Nigeria's strongest. That is far from the case this time. Nevertheless, it is possible that one of the three contestants may begin to win the confidence of Nigerian fans with an impressive performance in the coming days. Of the three, Francis Uzoho has barely played. However, in 45 minutes of action against Argentina he earned praises but when those 45 minutes are put into context then Francis still has a lot more minutes to play in order to affirm his status as worthy of being the starter at the World Cup.

The other two players -- Akpeyi and Ezenwa -- have played enough games to give Nigerians an idea of what they are capable of doing. Ezenwa appears to be the front runner between the two. He concedes a goal after 171 minutes on average compared to Akpeyi who concedes a goal every 65 minutes (see Table 1). That is a world of difference! In fact, Ezenwa's average could even be much better if one took away the four conceded in one game when Nigeria was overrun by Ghana at the WAFU Cup. His rate of conceding a goal is quite good at the international level.

Ezenwa's biggest drawback is his tendency to lounge, with both feet, at a breakaway attacker. On the plus side, he oozes confidence and has sharp reflexes, at least sharper than his competition for the position. His real competition for the starting spot is Uzoho. Uzoho has a magnificent physique and his biggest advantage is his ability to control aerial balls which is a huge plus against international opposition. However, he is not exactly astute in timing his move off the goal area to confront oncoming breakaways nor is he quick to get down at balls.

Left Back
After 60 appearances, veteran left back Elderson Echiejile faces fierce competition for his position (see Table 2). His years of experience will not afford him any protection because it is clear that he has slowed down over the years. However, the fact remains that the performances by his competition -- Ola Aina and Brian Idowu -- have not exactly assured Echiejile's relegation to the bench. That might change after the two internationals this month. In a sense, this is a watershed moment for Echiejile as a Nigerian international.

But in the dark clouds and dark moments, a light still shines through for Echiejile. For one, he remains the most competent of the three defenders when it comes to winning aerial duels. That remains a strong aspect of Echiejile's game. Unfortunately, that isn't the only thing that Coach Rohr will expect from his left back. Both Aina and Idowu are better in one-and-one duels and better in joining the attack at critical moments.  As for pace, Echiejile is again trailing both Idowu and Aina.

The goalkeeping and left back positions remain the most vexing for Nigeria going into the March international friendlies. However, those internationals may provide answers and induce confidence in the two areas if a clear starter begins to emerge. That may be the most valuable outcome from the two upcoming internationals.