Thursday, November 23, 2017

Race to Build a Memorable World Cup Team

The 2018 World Cup in Russia is barely seven months away but Nigeria's readiness to build a record-setting team remains largely unclear in spite of the recent 4-2 win over Argentina in an international friendly. By record-setting one refers to a team that would at least get to the quarter final stage in order to surpass previous performances by Nigeria at a World Cup (see Figure 1). The current team has qualified for the World Cup finals with one game to spare but, at times, left doubts about its ability to take serious positive steps at the World Cup in Russia.

This is not to slam the team. Not at all. After all, qualifying with a game to spare is no mean feat and dominating Argentina in a spectacular second half was indelible. However, Nigeria in doing so did not always dominate its opponents and, at times, there were some doubts. What Nigeria largely demonstrated was its clinical ability in front of goal, something that its opponents rarely matched. Take the 3-1 win over Algeria in Uyo, the game was much closer than the scoreline. The 4-0 win over Cameroon was much closer than the scoreline indicated and the Zambian game in Uyo saw the visitors an inch offside on a goal that could possibly have led to a draw. The bottomline is that while Nigeria won those games, the scorelines were often deceptive. In only one game did Nigeria put up a performance where the scoreline did not do favor or overestimate its play. That was the 1-1 draw in Yaounde where Nigeria was the better team and Cameroon rarely looked likely to score. Then the magnificent three-goal second half against Argentina in Krasnodar was no less than the team deserved.

However, it is now a 7-month race to build a team capable of emerging as one of the best eight teams at the 2018 World Cup. Though Nigeria's advanced forwards have not scored a lot of goals, the team has done well because goals have also come from the midfield. Arguably, playing against favored opponents may reduce the ability of midfielders to move into advanced positions in the field in order to score goals. Often the questions surrounding pace in the center of Nigeria's defense has meant that the defense plays further back with the midfield a bit withdrawn to provide cover. The alternative, when quick counters become difficult is that Nigeria must quickly identify advanced forwards who are more likely to get on the scoresheet. Besides Ighalo, there has been a problem finding others. Kelechi Iheanacho scores a bit but for Nigeria he has not demonstrated convincing ability to play at the most advanced forward position. Anthony Nwakaeme debuted in Constantine but did little to justify any confidence in his ability. Iwobi did the trick against Argentina but can he be trusted to be consistent in front of goal?

Though questions surround the attack, the midfield appears solid. Nigeria's midfield is as good as most of its counterparts any where else in the world. Rohr, unlike his predecessors, has focused on providing not just key personnel in the middle but also providing numbers there. The consequence is that he has developed solid starters and some bench players that can step up in case of any injury to a starter.  More importantly, he can employ them in his favorite 4-5-1/4-4-1-1 or the 3-5-2/3-4-1-2 he recently used in Krasnodar. Mikel Obi, is unquestionably the leader in the midfield. His technique on the ball is one of the best not just in Africa but also in the world. It is on his feet that Nigeria must look with hope if reaching the last eight is doable. Ndidi and Onazi are strong ball winners. However, both of them lack passing accuracy. Etebo brings better passing accuracy but his range of passing is questionable. Mikel Agu is an option from the bench but he is yet to produce a convincing performance on his appearances for the team. John Ogu will be fighting for one of the last spots to the World Cup. He wins the ball but is a step slower than his team mates and his range can be doubted. At the wide positions are a ton of players that include Victor Moses, Moses Simon, Alex Iwobi, Ahmed Musa, and Henry Onyekuru. Further, Rohr can use wing backs as he did against Argentina. However, the unit is good enough in spite of some weaknesses. Victor Moses is the most valuable of the lot and the most consistent. He has to play and be effective for any Nigerian chance to reach the final stage.

Defensively, the team has done well. However, there is this lingering doubt that this defense may be achieving results well above its real abilities. Individually, none of the players can be said to be outstanding but as a group they have been effective. Whether such effectiveness will continue at the World Cup is left to be seen, however. To the team's credit, Coach Rohr has worked to stock the squad with defenders of similar abilities meaning that in seven months time, an injury to one does not mean a major loss for the team.

At the goalkeeper position, the bottomline is Nigeria needs to recall experienced Vincent Enyeama in order to dream of reaching the last eight in Russia. Without him, a final eight or even getting out of the group phase might be too tall a task for the team. The current goalkeepers are just not on the same level of performance or confidence as Enyeama. This includes the new Nigerian favorite -- Francis Uzoho. He debuted in Krasnodar but produced just one save worthy of note as he was rarely tested by the Argentines. However, his height and his large wingspan make him appear assured both in the air and getting to balls shot away from his body. However, more of him needs to be seen for him to be anointed an assured goalkeeper for the team.

Table 1 below looks at the team's current personnel and grading their individual performances and estimating their individual impact on the team. NG grade is simply "No Grade" as there is little data to evaluate. Team impact ranges from 1 to 5 with 5 reflecting greatest impact on the team. A player reaching an impact of "?" means the impact is difficult to assess because of few appearances.

In the next few months, it seems, Nigeria's dreams for reaching the final eight will either get a boost or raise major doubts. The activities that would drive those emotions lie in the coaching crew's recruitment of important talent in the attack, a recall of Enyeama and/or development of Uzoho, and the tactical work on the team, particularly in defense. It is the thin line between just participating at the World Cup or creating  a team capable of setting a record worthy of memories at the event next June.