Wednesday, September 14, 2016

World Cup Qualifiers: Nigeria's Striking Options

Striking options for Nigeria during the upcoming 2018 World Cup qualifying games will be at a premium. In recent times, Nigeria has found it increasingly difficult to distance itself, scoring-wise, from even its weakest opponent (see Table 1). In its last 10 competitive games, Nigeria has scored three goals only once and that was two years ago! This has become, perhaps, Nigeria's most vexing issue. With a World Cup qualifying group of difficult teams, the scoring opportunities will become more scarce. Here, we discuss the options for Nigeria to rectify this problem.

Tactical issues
Though it is difficult to fully make a claim to tactical choices that Rohr is likely to apply, one may use the Tanzania game to attempt an educated guess. It is likely, that like under Manager Sunday Oliseh's tenure, the set piece will become important in Nigeria's creation of scoring opportunities. Thus, we will discuss the set piece as well as open play scoring options available to Nigeria.

Open Play
With just a single game under Rohr, it is likely that Nigeria will have one player dedicated to play at the zenith of attack. In the Tanzania game, of three forwards, one player was dedicated up top. That was Odion Ighalo. This was clearly a different philosophy compared to philosophy under Manager Stephen Keshi where the tendency was to switch all three forwards within the flow of the game.

There were enough opportunities provided for Ighalo in that game but he failed to convert a single one. To be clear, his movement off the ball was good and very important in the creation of those several opportunities. The question, however, is whether Nigeria can afford such profligacy from its top-slotted striker? Some have argued that Ighalo could be used as a foil for a scorer who advances from deeper positions. However, Ighalo can not be described as adept at holding up play in order for such tactic to work efficiently. Thus, if Nigeria seeks a striker to hold up the ball then Ighalo has to head for the bench. However, Ighalo's running behind the defense is valuable and creates numerous opportunities when the ball is played through to him timely to beat the offside trap. Against Tanzania, however, those balls came largely from the middle while Victor Moses hogged the ball on the left.

Unfortunately, Ighalo's goal scoring for Nigeria is poor (see Table 2). The table shows that Nigeria's most recent top strikers -- Ike Uche and Oba Martins -- scored at better clips (.40+) while Ighalo's meager 0.25 only compares to Emenike who quit the team after a long dry spell attempting to score. Of the current options at the striking position, Iheanacho has by far the best scoring clip (.60) but he has played in very few games. Perhaps, Iheanacho can play in place of Ighalo. No doubt, he is a much better goal scorer. Iheanacho has as many goals as Ighalo but in less than half of Ighalo's appearances. However, there are drawbacks to playing Iheanacho up top.  He is not much better than Ighalo in hold up play and his movement from that position is poorer. Further, playing him in such advanced position means that his usefulness in providing service to the strikers, because of his excellent vision, will be sacrificed.

The idea that Brown Ideye may be the man to replace Ighalo has its own problems. He is not a reliable scorer and he is not better running behind the defense as Ighalo is. Importantly, having a striker playing in the most advanced position is a much efficient plan than using the most advanced position for someone who's best quality will be to hold up the ball.

How about Ahmed Musa? He definitely is a hard worker and will get goal scoring opportunities running at and outrunning the defense but his finishing is quite unreliable. Of Nigeria's current options at the striking position, he has the worse goal scoring stat. However, he also is the only one who has not spent much of his time, in Nigerian colors, playing as the most advanced player.

It seems that the effective options are just two. One, play Iheanacho up top inspite of his weaknesses because his scoring dexterity is high enough to ignore those drawbacks. Moreover, if Iwobi is available and at the top of his game he certainly can provide as much vision as Iheanacho setting up the forwards from deep. Two, continue with Ighalo up top with the hope that he will deliver with the opportunities that he helps to create from that position.

Set Pieces
Rohr's work on set-pieces from the corner was evident in the Tanzania game. It produced a goal and was close on one other situation. It showed that set pieces will be one of the team's key packages for producing goals. This had, previously, appeared to be an afterthought for so many of Nigeria's previous teams in recent memory bar the Oliseh era.

Rohr is likely to work on the team at set-pieces from other spots on the field. Under Oliseh, the key player was Moses Simon. However, there is no guarantee that he starts on Rohr's team. However, his replacement, Victor Moses, came close with one opportunity early in the Tanzania game. Work in this area is important as the quickness of Nigerian forwards is likely going to lead to opportunities for set pieces just outside the box.