The 2018 World Cup is barely four months away and its approach prods us to begin to think about those players who may or may not have the chance to represent Nigeria in Russia.
Nigeria, in spite of its poor FIFA rank compared to its World Cup group opponents, stands a chance of moving beyond the first phase of the competition but that depends on the performance of some critical players.
One of those critical players is Kelechi Iheanacho. Though, I sense that there are those who wonder why Iheanacho is labeled a critical player. After all, he could not cut it at Manchester City and at Leicester he appears to have an eternal seat on the bench. In Nigeria, he sometimes begins the game on the bench. There are several reasons why and that is the case that I present here.
Why Iheanacho is Unique
That Iheanacho was the top player at the U17 World Cup in 2013 may not count for much but his performance there provides insight to what makes him unique among any of Nigeria’s forwards.
It would be false to assume that those characteristics have not transferred to his play at the senior level. Not only have they transferred but they have been illuminated. The most significant of those characteristics is his ability to quickly make a decision in front of goal and to do so with an intelligent choice.
That is what makes him Nigeria’s most clinical goal scorer. Where many would choose to take the hardest of shots at goal resulting in missing the target or shooting at the goalkeeper, Kelechi makes often the right decision to shoot for an angle, or to take the hard shot, or to trick the goalkeeper with a deft touch.
Beyond that clinical ability, he tirelessly works towards scoring and often positioning himself in those positions where scoring is much easier. These characteristics are not easy to find in any other Nigerian forward.
A Historical Pace
Iheanacho’s goal scoring for Nigeria is at a historic pace. He is scoring at a probability of 0.571 per game. Among Nigerian players who make several attempts at goal, he is by far the most prolific and clinical (see Table 1). Among, Nigeria’s all time top scorers, he compares favorably with the all-time clinical pair of Rashidi Yekini (0.569) and Thompson Usiyan (0.577) (see Table 2). While, Elkanah Onyeali’s 0.786 (who played between 1959 and 1961) is by far the most clinical, his tally includes four against a hapless Dahomey (Benin Republic) in a record breaking 10-1 win in 1959. No one will mistake any of the teams that Iheanacho has scored against with Dahomey of 1959.
The Question of Manchester and Leicester?
Well, there remains the lingering question from the doubters and naysayers: “If he is that good, why has he not been the Man at Manchester City and at Leicester?” The response should be: “Why does it matter what Manchester or Leicester do?” It really should not and for good reason.
First, neither Manchester City nor Leicester determines Nigeria’s style of play nor should they. That Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola chooses to stress ball possession even with his goalkeeper and deep in his box is one example of difference.
Nigeria’s tendency towards ball possession excludes deep in its own box, at least. Thus, if Guardiola prefers players who ultimately fit his style and Iheanacho does not, does it mean Nigeria should tow along? Not at all, Nigeria should not worship at Guardiola’s altar or for that matter at the altar of any other coach but Nigeria’s.
Importantly, the attempt by those clubs to force-feed Iheanacho as a most-advanced forward may be a false read on their part. Nigeria attempted to do the same against Algeria in Uyo with poor results.
As Nigeria’s own local coaches astutely point out, Iheanacho is more suited to support the most advanced striker or play as a second striker and the results both at the youth and the national level support that view. Wisely, that reasoning should be better trusted than whatever the English club coaches have attempted.
Kelechi is certainly one of the first five or six players on Rohr’s list headed for Russia, barring any injuries. This is not to claim that he will be a starter but it is certainly a claim that his name will and should be one of the first on that squad list to the World Cup. His skill set is unique, no other Nigerian forward can and has been able to provide anything similar. Any hope of going beyond the opening phase of the World Cup partly lies on the shoulders of critical players, including Kelechi Promise Iheanacho.
Table 1: Comparing Scoring Probability of Current Forwards/Per Game
Table 2: Comparing Top Scorers in Nigerian Soccer History/Probability Per Game