Monday, April 16, 2018

2018 v 1994: Let's Compare the teams......

Most Nigerians agree that the 1994 World Cup team may be the country's best. It remains the baseline by which every other Nigeria team is measured. Thus, the greatness of the 2018 team will be determined by how well it compares to 1994. In this piece, I look at several indices of comparison that include average age of the starting team, record in the World Cup qualifiers, average number of appearances for team starters, disciplinary record, and then a qualitative evaluation of teams.

Quantitative Comparison
Statistically, the 2018 team may be slightly better than the heralded 1994 version. This sounds like sacrilege. However, the numbers tell the tale. Of course, the 2018 team has not achieved any thing yet compared to the 1994 team that was ranked #5 in the world and was two minutes from a World Cup quarter final place.

The 2018 team completed the World Cup qualifiers without a loss, never mind the technical loss assigned within FIFA boardroom over the use of an ineligible player in the last game of the qualifiers. That loss-less campaign leads to an efficiency of 0.75 which is better than 0.71 achieved by the 1994 team (see Table 1). Moreover, the coach for the 2018 team, Gernot Rohr, has an efficiency score of 0.73 compared to Westerhoff's 0.66, in the year before the World Cup (Table 2). Sounds shocking but yet true. Both teams, however, are comparable on disciplinary issues with the 1994 team accumulating 13 cautions in its qualifying games and the 2018 team accumulating 14 (Table 1).

The 2018 team has been named among the youngest teams at the upcoming World Cup in Russia. In our comparison of starters, the 2018 team averages 25.82 years compared to the 26.36 years average for the 1994 team (Table 3). But that does not quite mean that the 2018 team is inexperienced. The statistical difference is actually less than 1.00 years. The 2018 team has seven of its starters at 25 years or older which is exactly the same for the 1994 team. However, only Mikel Obi is over 30 years old from the 2018 team compared to the 1994 team, which had two players over 30 years old (Rufai and Yekini) among starters. Nevertheless, experience is not solely based on age. It can also be based on number of appearances.

The 1994 team averaged 28.46 appearances before its first World Cup game while the 2018 team averages 25.46 appearances as of today. In essence, this year's team is a bit inexperienced based on number of appearances with two likely starters (Uzoho and Idowu) under five appearances each.

Qualitative Comparison
In contrast to the quantitative measures above, it appears that the 1994 team is overwhelmingly better than the 2018 version when qualitative measures are discussed. How? Well, one thing for sure is the 1994 team had been built from about 2-3 years earlier and it was clearly the best team in Africa and its dominance was denoted by its #5 ranking in the world just before the World Cup. One cannot state the same for the 2018 team which has missed the last two African Cup for Nations (AFCON) and is not considered the best in Africa by any stretch of the imagination. It is currently ranked #47 in the world and #6 in Africa. These measures, including ranking, are considered qualitative given the fact that ranking and perception of the best team can be subjective, albeit reasonable.

The 1994 team, generally, played out of a 4-4-2 with the second striker slightly withdrawn to look like a 4-4-1-1 at times. That is different from the preferred 4-5-1 or 4-2-3-1 used by the current team under Rohr. It seems that each formation suits the personnel used by the managers. The 1994 team was a better attacking team whereas the current team prefers to attack in a counter.

A discussion of personnel has to begin with the goalkeeping position. What a huge difference between 1994 and now! The  1994 team had an assured goalkeeper who was very experienced.  In fact, he had the most experience among the team's starters. The opposite is now the case where the probable starting goalkeeper, Uzoho, is among players with least number of appearances. Therefore, comparing the 1994 goalkeeper Rufai to the 2018 version in Francis Uzoho is like comparing a quality product to a generic one.

Although such huge experience gap is absent defensively, the central defense for 1994 appears to be stronger in all aspects of the game compared to the 2018 central defensive pairing. However, Emenalo at left back for the 1994 team was not as proficient as any of the players who could possibly start at left back for the current team.

In midfield, the 1994 team was loaded with both wide players -- Finidi George and Emmanuel Amuneke -- extremely dangerous and Okocha at attacking mid and Oliseh defensively being among Nigeria's finest ever midfield players in their respective positions. Of course, Victor Moses on the current team does not take a back seat to any of the 1994 wide players, on the other wide position it is difficult to state the same. In the middle, the 2018 attacking player is skipper Mikel Obi who is a different player from Okocha but is equally as effective. Defensively, however, Onazi is not on a similar pedestal as Oliseh but Ndidi certainly is getting there, if only he improves his passes.

The 2018 team presents only one pure forward whereas the 1994 team used both Amokachi and Yekini. Both are demonstratively better than Jude Ighalo, who is the forward on the current team. Yekini was a prolific scorer and Ighalo can never be thought in the same vein.

It seems to me that the 1994 team is better when measured on qualitative terms. Quantitatively, one cannot make the same claim. Thus, it might just be that the 2018 team demonstrates the adage that a team is far greater than the sum of its individual parts. For sure, the results in Russia will affirm whether the current team can be considered Nigeria's best ever team but it is not easy to dismiss the current team as non-starters. The team deserves its place at the World Cup and the results should go a long way in its claim for a position as Nigeria's finest.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Why Academy-Route Players Make it to Europe Ahead of NPFL Counterparts

There is a widely-held belief that players who choose to go through a Nigerian Football Academy, compared to those who play in Nigeria's top elite league, end up making it to teams in the Top Five European Leagues i.e. England, Spain, Germany, Italy, and France. If you closely watch transfer news from Nigeria, then this belief is more real than fiction. However, one question that is rarely asked is: Why is that the case? This is an important question for several reasons. (1) Nigerian players state often that their ultimate career goal is to play in Europe, (2) Transferring to a Top 5 European league symbolizes that the transferee is a better football player, (3) Transferring to a Top 5 European league increases opportunity for a better pay day and (4) Top 5 European League brings higher profile and visibility back in Nigeria. Thus, it is important to investigate and possibly confirm the above phenomenon.

Method & Limitations
We use Nigerian news coverage of football labor transfers from Nigeria to foreign countries as source of data for this study. The data are drawn from the 2015 year to 2018, a total of four years. Of course, data from 2018 is much smaller than each of the other three years because the summer transfer is yet to take place. While this provides us quick and easy data, it is important to recognize that such data are unlikely to represent an exhaustive record of all football transferees within the studied period. For instance, we have 82 players in our data set from the studied period. Over 50% of those are players transferring directly from the Nigerian elite league within the studied period. However, we feel that are larger number of academy players may have also been transferred but are not captured by the Nigerian media.

In any case, and in spite of limitations, we believe that the method provides probably far more data than would have been necessary for an adequate sample. However, there is at least one other limitation. This one is based on degree of accuracy of each data point. By this, one refers to the fact that there may be a few reports that fail to provide all needed information.

Examined Data
A few things jump right up as data are examined. First, it is apparent that a small to negligible number of Nigerians transfer to the Top 5 leagues. It does not matter whether those players are from academies or from Nigeria's elite league. Examples from the last four years are Taiwo Awoniyi, Victor Osimhen, Orji Okonkwo, and Jack Ipalibo who went to England, Germany, Italy, and Spain respectively. Only Osimhen has progressed to the first team of the club that signed him -- Wolfsburg. Ipalibo is playing in the B squad of his team in Spain and both Awoniyi and Okonkwo are loaned out to other clubs. The rest of transferees from Nigeria are outside the Top 5 leagues (see Table 1).

Popular destination for Nigerian transferees are Scandinavian countries (Norway is most preferred), West Europe (most preferred is Belgium), or an East European country. In the data, bear in mind that transfers to Scandinavian countries are summed up in the West Europe dataset. Figure 1 shows that players from the academies mostly move to clubs in West Europe, compared to Figure 2, which indicates more focus on West Europe compared to African destinations.

For players from elite Nigerian leagues, the Middle East and other African countries are the traveling end posts. In 2015, players headed to Oman, Iran, and Qatar. In 2017, no less than three players from the league -- Anifowoshe (MFM), Daniel Etor (Rangers), and Ifeanyi Edeh (El Kanemi) -- all ended up at Omanian clubs. The African route is much traveled by Nigerian league players with destination points scattered all over the continent including Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Sudan, South Africa, Guinea, Libya, and Zambia (see Figure 2). Although, the African route is rarely traveled by players from the Nigerian academy, at least three such players ended up in Africa. In 2016, two academy players also moved to Mozambique.

What Did We Learn?
If the assumption is that the Top 5 European leagues represent quality transfer destination, then very few players move directly to such quality destination from Nigeria, whether they come from the Nigerian elite league or from academies. Most of the transferees to Europe end up in Scandinavia, Belgium, or East European countries. Those destinations, essentially, serve as a bridge to get to quality destinations. It is a route often used by academy players who are able to get into Europe more easily because their declared ages are often within the range where there is no immediate pressure to play for the senior squad of European clubs. Instead, they may start from the B squads or even club academies in Europe.

But such luxury of access for players coming from Nigerian academies are often not available to players coming from the Nigerian leagues. Why? Players from Nigerian elite league are expected to be the finished product and cannot be afforded time to develop in B teams or European club academies. They must be of the quality to make the senior squad of European clubs or are not signed at all. For such players, if Europe is not accessible, the bridge points can be found at clubs in the Middle East or in Africa.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

COUNTDOWN: Players Seeking Russia (March)

Last month, I began the blog by rating the percentage of likelihood of players making the Nigerian squad to the 2018 World Cup in Russia. 
The categories are as follows: Highly Probable++ (80-100% likelihood), Possible+ (50-79%), Questionable?  (40-59%) and Doubtful?? (39% or less). Comments follow each category.

Two international friendlies this month have unscrambled the categorization of players that was made in February. Some players have now moved up and some have gone down. This up and down movement is expected until the final 23 is picked in June. By this monthly process, it is highly probable that a large percentage of the 23 that would be named for the World Cup in Russia will be predictable.

March Squad Status of Players
The status of players this month, after the friendly internationals in Wroclaw and London, is presented below using the four categories identified above. Players in green are those who moved up and those in red are those who moved down from the previous month.

Highly Probable++
Victor Moses
Mikel Obi
William Ekong
Wilfred Ndidi

Last month, I had six players listed under this category but Iheanacho and Abdullahi move down following the international friendlies. Iheanacho was not convincing against Poland and Shehu’s performance was not truly outstanding and his grip at a starting spot may be loosening. Mikel maintains his spot in spite of his absence from the internationals this month. He remains the glue for the team. Ekong and Ndidi concretized their ratings as definite travelers to Russia.

Alex Iwobi
Leon Balogun
Odion Ighalo
Onazi Ogenyi
Joel Obi
Francis Uzoho
Kelechi Iheanacho
Shehu Abdullahi

Uzoho moves up to this category based on his display against Poland and Serbia. Although he conceded twice in the Serbia game, it was evident that he is growing in confidence. Joel Obi was the boss in the Poland game and moves straight to this category after just that game. Against Serbia, he did not quite rise to the same level but his Poland display gives him a lot of consideration for Russia. Simon drops from this category. Besides those changes, this category remains similar to month. Although Onazi had a poor game against Poland and did not exactly set the Serbia game on fire, it is difficult to see him absent from the World Cup squad.

Moses Simon
Brian Idowu
Ola Aina
Tyronne Ebuehi
Chiedozie Awaziem
Ikechukwu Ezenwa
Oghenekaro Etebo
Ahmed Musa

I was expecting Etebo to move up from this group but injury prevented him from playing in the two international friendlies and, thus, he stays in this category until the May camp. Idowu played well in the friendlies but not enough to assure himself of a place in the World Cup squad in the face of fierce competition. Moses Simon finds himself moving down to this category because of largely an inactive display at the friendlies. Ahmed Musa moves up to this category. Ahmed Musa is questionable but he may be the third striker for this team considering that he played in that position in the last minutes of the game in Wroclaw and started as striker in the game against Serbia. Although Musa was not outstanding in any of the two internationals, he did produce memorable moments in both the Poland and Serbia games where his speed assured a much needed consideration in the upcoming May camp.

Elderson Echiejile
Mikel Agu
Kenneth Omeruo
Daniel Akpeyi
John Ogu
Uche Agbo
Stephen Eze
Junior Ajayi
Gabriel Okechukwu

Most players in this category were the same players who were listed under the category in February. However, some names have been dropped completely as their chances have even become much dimmer as the World Cup approaches. Eze, Ajayi, and Okechukwu are virtually headed for the door. Ajayi was the only one to play a few minutes against Serbia. The other two were not on the field and the handwriting could be on the wall for all three. Their only hope now is to be recalled to camp in May with another opportunity to impress in training and hopefully appear in the game against Congo DR. The same situation appears to be the case with Uche Agbo who always receives an invitation to camp, trains, and then remains rooted to the bench on match days.