Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Junior and Simy Needing Prayers and Minutes

We now have a very good idea who Manager Gernot Rohr plans to take to Russia for the 2018 World Cup, barring injury. His decision to name 30 players for the World Cup camp has done little to disguise his final list. In reality, the only unknown is injury and Rohr's decision at just two positions. Rohr's tendencies, from his first day of appointment in Nigeria, is to be conservative and that has increased the predictability of Nigeria's final squad to Russia.

Only Two Spots Still Open
It is quite clear that 21 of the invited 30 players are already on Rohr's final list to Russia. The nine left are the likes of Dele Ajiboye, Stephen Eze, Ola Aina, Elderson Echiejile, Uche Agbo, Mikel Agu, John Ogu, Simy Nwankwo, and Junior Lokosa. It is among those that the final cut of seven players will come. But even then, we already know the five that are on the list of certain cuts. Those five are Dele Ajiboye, Stephen Eze, Uche Agbo, Mikel Agu, and Junior Lokosa. Of that list, Mikel Agu is probably the most painful when one considers that he was favored as a substitute in the key World Cup qualifying games against Cameroon. So what happened? The fact is he never took the chance firmly and John Ogu has since moved ahead of him in the pecking order. But even Ogu is not quite safe and we will explain in a moment.

No matter how this camp goes, it is certain that one notable player will be cut. Veterans Echiejile and John Ogu may face the cut but both of them can also be safe. How? First, they both can be safe if Rohr decides that Ola Aina, a relatively new member of the team, stays home in favor of Echiejile and if Rohr saves Ogu's blushes by considering Ahmed Musa as the third option at the most advanced forward position which in turn opens up a midfield spot for Ogu. 

Needing Prayers and Minutes: Junior and Simy
While it seems obvious that the invitations sent to Dele Ajiboye and Stephen Eze are meant to offer them a mere camp experience, it is quite different for the invitations extended to advanced forwards Junior Lokosa and Simy Nwankwo. I am convinced that Ajiboye has no chance to dethrone Rohr's favorite top three goalkeepers -- Francis Uzoho, Ike Ezenwa, and Daniel Akpeyi. All three will be at the World Cup ahead of Ajiboye, bar injury. If Ajiboye was being offered a fair chance to make the team he surely would have been involved in the March internationals. That he was not speaks volumes. He is now invited to keep the other three goalkeepers on their toes. Nothing else is expected from him.

Stephen Eze's invitation is similar. Although he was called up for the March internationals but he never played a minute of the two internationals. He is simply an injury insurance. That is not all bad considering that Leon Balogun is often hurt but it seems to me that he will not be the first choice to replace Balogun in the squad if Balogun was to go down. That spot is likely to go to one of Elderson and Ola Aina who is cut.

But the invitations to Junior Lokosa and Simy Nwankwo present an entirely different scenario. One of them could directly make the World Cup squad. Rohr has made no secret of his search for a third option at the most advanced striker position. He already has Ighalo and Iheanacho but who is the third? He has tried Ideye, Nwaekeme, Junior Ajayi, and Gabriel Okechukwu who all traditionally play in that spot. Obviously, Rohr has discarded all of them as is demonstrated on their non-invitation to this camp. Next up are Lokosa and Nwankwo. However, they need game minutes against Congo DR and England in order to directly make the squad. It will just be one of them and, thus, they are both in contest for this single spot that is open. But that this spot is open does not guarantee that one of them will be the guy. That is where they need prayers and not just performance. Rohr is perfectly able to fill that third spot by moving one of his wide midfielders -- Ahmed Musa or Alex Iwobi into the advanced position. He already did that in games with Iwobi (v Argentina) and Musa (v Serbia). Thus, that is a fall back position that Rohr is willing to use. It is also a decision that veteran John Ogu will prefer because such a decision grants him space on the team as a midfielder.

But what do Simy Nwankwo and Junior Lokosa bring to the table as the third option in the advanced position? Lokosa is currently scoring at a pace in Nigeria's league where he is on the verge of obliterating the current Nigerian league scoring record. It is at a scorching pace. Those who have watched him closely vouch for his hold up ability and predatory instincts but they also point to a poor first touch. That weakness can be quite haunting, especially at the World Cup level. Simy Nwankwo, on the other hand, uses his significant height advantage to bring a tactical option to the table, especially on set pieces that are valuable at a World Cup. Importantly, it is a value that Nigeria's other two strikers -- Iheanacho and Ighalo -- cannot offer. However, both Nwankwo and Lokosa both need enough minutes in the upcoming international friendlies to demonstrate their value or force Rohr to consider the option of Musa or Iwobi.

Surely, Nigeria's 23-player squad to the 2018 World Cup is almost decided with 21 of the places already taken, bar injuries. Nine of the players invited for camp are basically fighting for two spots on that roster. To be definitive, that fight for spots is decidedly between four players as five others are merely invited as training fodder.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Open Letter to Nigerians on Gernot Rohr with June in the Horizon

Dear Nigerians,

I write this letter because I know how hopeful you are with the 2018 World Cup around the corner. I know that you are hoping that the Nigerian squad will surpass the achievement of the 1994 team that finished in the Top 16 but saw a team that it humiliated (Bulgaria) finish among the Top 4. It was a year when Nigeria could have accomplished more and perhaps a last minute bravado by Roberto Baggio had much to do with the fact that Nigeria was eliminated then, so early. That the 1994 team was voted the most exciting of the teams at that World Cup tournament was not enough consolation.

But why does that history matter now? Is Gernot Rohr likely to do more for Nigeria in June? Those, surely, are the questions that linger in your minds. First let me assure you that the 1994 event matters? It has set a threshold by which every succeeding team is now judged. Finishing Top 16 is no longer the goal for us. I know that you bite your lips with the fact that Cameroon, Senegal, and Ghana have all done better with each finishing Top 8 at a World Cup. Thus, we know Top 8 isn't beyond our capabilities. In fact, our aim should be to surpass a Top 8 finish. So, why not Top 4? After all, South Korea reached the Top 4 in 2002 and would we accept a second fiddle to the Koreans? I think not.

I know that deep down you wish to win the World Cup. After all, no one should be going to Russia without playing to win the whole thing. I do not care that there is Brazil, Germany, Spain, and France. We have battled with some of them in the past and we have, on occasion, matched them pace for pace, strength for strength, guile for guile. Thus, they cannot be the only ones hoping to win the World Cup. We have hopes too.

But let the truth be told. Does Gernot Rohr give us the belief that we can compete with the best in the world? Rohr has created a team that generally grinds out a result. It is not a team, like in 1994, that dominates possession and play. Our strength, under Rohr, lies elsewhere. So as you watch the 2018 World Cup do not expect Nigeria to dominate Croatia and the like. What we are is a counter attacking team that expects to fly down the opponents' defensive flanks when we recover the ball. Thus, Victor Moses, Moses Simon, Alex Iwobi, and Ahmed Musa are key to what we do. It is on them that Rohr depends. But it also means that our defensive midfielders -- Ogenyi Onazi and Wilfred Ndidi -- carry a lot of responsibility. They are the ones who must recover the ball for the counter attacks to work.

But without a dominating team we should worry about our ability to score and our ability to keep the other team from scoring. It is that simple and yet those are two areas that Gernot Rohr has not made us confident in the last few months. With Nigerians scoring almost every match day in Europe, one is lulled into the dream that suiting up an effective striker should be a piece of cake. Yet, Rohr has not found a consistent striker. Except for Kelechi Iheanacho, who Rohr prefers to keep on the bench., who else do we have? Yes, I do realize that Jude Ighalo remains Rohr's favorite striker in spite of his poor conversion rate. Meanwhile, young Nigerian strikers in Europe are hitting the headlines and Rohr has simply ignored them. Who no know, go know for Russia.

In goal, Nigerians are forced to sweat it out in panic whenever the other team nears our box. Since Ikeme went on a sick bed, Rohr has yet to find a capable replacement. I am certain none of you has a modicum of confidence in Akpeyi, Ezenwa, Uzoho, and Alampasu. Yet they are the names that Rohr continues to mention with a few weeks to the World Cup. Vincent Enyeama, our certified best, is posting on Instagram and Twitter of his daily work after a long period of injury. He is already playing for Lille's reserves but yet no recall by Rohr.

I write these things because it is not like we have a dominating team but even this average team may yet find it difficult in Russia if its manager does not act. The opportunity to surpass the 1994 team is glidingly passing us by when there is time to make amends and make this team much stronger that it currently is. What is there to lose giving Enyeama a try out? What is there to lose giving several young Nigerian strikers a tryout? That is the question that Gernot Rohr should answer before a great opportunity is blown.

Fellow Nigerians, this is crunch time and we are at the eleventh hour. I do not know about you but I must assume that you are at a point of despair. The March friendlies showed us what may be awaiting us in Russia. The taste is sour and I do not like it. For me, enough written for the wise. The cards are on Rohr's table.

Your sincerely,
Concerned Nigerian.

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.

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.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

COUNTDOWN: Players Seeking Russia (February)

Each month, I offer my view of the 23 players that Nigeria is likely to select for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. As you can imagine, this is likely to change from month to month based on player form, injuries, and other considerations. 

This piece is the first of the Countdown to Russia. Player chances will be categorized as Highly Probable++ (80-100% likelihood), Possible+ (50-79%), Questionable?  (40-59%) and Doubtful?? (39% or less). Comments will follow each category.

Highly Probable++
Victor Moses
Mikel Obi
Kelechi Iheanacho
Shehu Abdullahi
William Ekong
Wilfred Ndidi

Presently, the above six players are highly probable of being at the World Cup in Russia. You may wonder why Kelechi Iheanacho is highly probable when several current starters are not in this category. However, this listing is about selecting the 23 squad players and not just the first 11 players. In spite of opportunities to invite new players to the squad, Iheanacho is a solid shoo-in because no other Nigerian striker has been remotely close to being clinical in front of goal . That includes the current starter Odion Ighalo. Thus, while I view Ighalo as replaceable, I currently do not see Iheanacho as easily replaceable in the squad. Iheanacho is a goal poacher for whom there is no Nigerian substitute.

Alex Iwobi
Moses Simon
Leon Balogun
Odion Ighalo
Onazi Ogenyi

All five players, listed above, will possibly make it to Russia but they must all work hard or else they can become surprise cuts on decision day in June. Balogun is a surprise inclusion here given that he is the heart of Nigeria's defense at this time. However, I have put him in this second tier given his history of injuries which may yet decide whether he gets to Russia or not. The rest may be considered starters now but any major entrance of a big star in the coming months may question their ability to make the 23-man squad.

Tyronne Ebuehi
Brian Idowu
Ola Aina
Chiedozie Awaziem
Francis Uzoho
Ikechukwu Ezenwa
Oghenekaro Etebo

All these guys are on the bubble at this time. If they make it, it will be close. While the two goalkeepers here may end up being in the squad, not one of them is a sure thing for Russia. Etebo's star has dimmed since the World Cup qualifiers began, Awaziem has a slight edge over Omeruo, Aina and Idowu are fighting for a starting position but yet not assured of making the final 23. The same applies to Tyrone Ebuehi who may be challenged by a new call up in the coming weeks and months.

Elderson Echiejile
Ahmed Musa
Mikel Agu
Kenneth Omeruo
Dele Ajiboye
Daniel Akpeyi
John Ogu
Kayode Olanrewaju
Uche Agbo
Chidiebere Nwakali
Henry Onyekuru
Anthony Nwakaeme
Alhassan Ibrahim

A player listed here is currently facing a cut from the World Cup squad. More than likely, a great number of players from this group will not get to Russia in the summer. For each of them, the upcoming friendly internationals serve as last life lines to the World Cup. Do well, you may yet make the squad, an average or weak play is a definite assurance of staying home.

Monday, February 5, 2018

DISCIPLINARY RECORDS: Nigeria's National Team and Players

This is another story line providing insight to the often muted records of the Nigerian national team. Recently, Nigeria finished two critical games at the African Nations Championship (CHAN) with a man less than the opponent due to disqualifications. Thus, these insights are designed to make accessible the unvoiced, ignored, and often erased records that affect Nigeria's games. This disciplinary record of the Nigerian national team and its players is gleaned from match records. We focus attention on assessed cautions and disqualifications from international games since 1949.

Of course, as you may have guessed, this is drawn from a huge number of games played by the national team and, thus, assessed record of cautions and disqualifications are plentiful.  To simplify matters, I focus solely on the top incidents as defined by the volume of incidents per game in case of the team and volume per career in case of individual players. Further, cautions are separated from disqualifications at both individual and team levels, except in the case of match specific disqualifications where additional incidences of cautions are used to rank the severity of the disciplinary issue. Below is data and discussion.

Team Data
For disqualifications, severity is calculated by volume of disqualification as well as accompanying cautions in particular games. Based on this, the most severe cases are two games, both played away from home, that led to two disqualifications and one caution each. In essence, Nigeria finished both games playing with nine men. The most recent of those is in an AFCON semi-final game in 2002 when Nigeria lost 1-2 to Senegal after extra time. The other is a 1979 game in Freetown when Nigeria tied 0-0 with Sierra Leone. Other identified games can be found on Table 1 below.

On cautions, the game that has the record is five cautions issued in an international friendly against Cape Verde in Algarve, Portugal in 2013. No other Nigerian team has received that many cautions in a single game. However, there are numerous other games where three or four cautions were issued to the team. For details see Table 2 below.

Individual Data
Disqualifications received by a player during his playing career for Nigeria is often one caution over the career length. However, some players have received more than one disqualification including former left back Ifeanyi Udeze who's disciplinary record is infamous (see Gazing At Onazi's. . .). Udeze, nevertheless, does not lead among players with disqualifications because the calculation is based on propensity for disqualifications per game during a career span. Based on that calculation, Dahiru Sadi, with less career games, leads the pack. See Table 3 and Figure 1 for details.

The last time, I did a calculation based on individual cautions received over career span, Ogenyi Onazi and Ifeanyi Udeze led the pack. However, since then, Onazi has improved his record. Though he still appears in the Top 10, he has moved down the infamous ladder. Instead, the likes of Ifeanyi Ifeanyi, John Ogu, and Orji Kalu Okogbue have taken over with record of accumulation of match cautions calculated on propensity to generate such cautions (see Table 3 and Figure 2).

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Popular Last Names Used by Super Eagles' Players?

Do you think you will get the answer correct if you are asked "What is the most common last name ever used by players of the Nigerian national team?" This was the question that I set out to answer by examining last names (Surnames) of players that have played for Nigeria since the first game in 1949. Note, however, that these last names are assumed accurate based on their frequent usage in the media. However, there are possibilities of errors. For instance, one of Nigeria's players goes by the names Kalu Orji and then Kalu Orji Okagbue. In this case, we have entered his last name as "Orji."

In any case, there are numerous last names that came up multiple times.  Because of this and lack of space, I decided to ditch last names shared by only two players and consider only those that had at least three entries.

Ultimately, the name with most multiple entries is not surprising if you think about it. The most common last name used is Mohammed (Table 1). It appears in 11 entries! The closest other last names were distant second at six entries each. Those last names are Ibrahim, Lawal, and Nwosu.

However, how many times players using those last names played for Nigeria is also insightful (Figure 1). Of the three, players with the last name "Lawal" have played a combined 208 times, "Nwosu" for 80 times and 'Ibrahim' for only 20 times. Players with the last name "Lawal" have been quite productive with only Dimeji playing less than 5 times for the country. Players with "Lawal" as last name have been the most productive (combined) as their 208 appearances outstrip the total of 111 appearances for players bearing the last name "Mohammed."

The next most common last name is Okoro with five entries each. Three other last names had four entries each -- Musa, Obi, and Uche. The number of last names that had three entries? 18 is the answer. See the table below for the entries and then the first names associated with each entry and the national team career span for each player. 

Saturday, January 13, 2018

World Cup Year: Status of Nigeria's Roster Depth

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.