Saturday, 4 January 2014

Open letter to stephen keshi

Stephen Okechukwu Keshi
Head Coach
Super Eagles
Nigerian Football Federation
Olusegun Obasanjo Way

Dear sir,

As we are in an open letter season, it is pertinent that we make the maximum use of this popular medium of communication, while it is in vogue.
So long as it is used positively to better our nation, enhance our collective lives, eschew errors of the past and suggest ways to make Nigeria a better place for all of us, it is a good thing.

Unlike other letters that are flying around at the moment, this one is from a friend and not a foe and be rest assured, it contains no personal attack, malice of negative criticism. This letter is designed to better our lot come June next year when the Super Eagles will be featuring in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

Given your history as a former Super Eagles player, captain and assistant coach, you are fully aware of our footballing history and how we have featured ion four tournaments so far. To be honest, the last two World Cups in which Nigeria featured are best forgotten about as our senseless decision to change coaches and overhaul our teams with just a few months to go was suicidal to put it politely.

Come 2014, however, we are on the cusp of creating history and correcting the wrongs of the past as we are not changing the guard at the last minute, are African champions, are seeing a return of confidence and as our recent friendly with Italy showed, have the nucleus of a team that can compete at the highest level. However, at this level, a few minor details, which may only account for say 5% of overall planning, can sometimes make the difference between failure and success.

In the main, we have a very kind draw, having been grouped with Argentina, debutants Bosnia-Herzegovina and minnows Iran in Group F. We have a good chance of reaching the semi finals at the least if we get our act together but we have one major problem - Time is not on our side.
Unfortunately, there is only one Fifa window left before the end of the current season and after that, there will only be 18 days between when our camp opens on May 25 and the start of the World Cup. Subsequently, we simply do not have the time to arrange as many friendly games as we need to get our team in shape, which is a big worry.

How could we prepare:
[1] We are in the same group as Argentina, so should play Colombia. Given that Colombia are in the same group as Ivory Coast, I would imagine they want to play African opposition too

[2] South Korea are playing Algeria, so I would imagine they also want to play African opposition. Bear in mind we are playing Iran, who were in the same World Cup qualification group as South Korea (The Persians actually topped the group), I think this is a game that will also do us well

[3] Bosnia-Herzegovina qualified from the same European group as Greece, who are also in Ivory Coast's group. They play similar southern European football, just as we and Les Elephants play similar West African football, so a game will do both of us well

[4] In March, there is a Fifa window and we basically need to squeeze two friendlies into this window

[5] We could play Colombia on Tuesday March 4 and then Greece on Friday March 7, both in England

[6] We should play them in Europe, so we can fit in two games within the week. Ideally, it would be good to play both games in England, to avoid long travel

[7] At the end of the season in May, we can then play South Korea, maybe in Brazil itself

[8] In the run-up to the World Cup, we could play two or three more friendlies.

[9] While camped in the US for instance, we can play friendlies against South American countries Venezuela, Peru and Bolivia.

[10] Unlike everyone else, we need such a hectic schedule because we have to try out about 10 players who should be part of our current set-up but are not and they need to be tested

What should our friendly schedule look like:
[1] March 4 - Colombia (London)
[2] March 7 - Greece (London)
[3] May 24 - Venezuela (London)
[5] May 31 - Bolivia (Houston)
[6] June 2 - Peru (Houston)
[7] June 7 - South Korea (Cuiaba)
[8] June 11 - Local Brazilian clubside Atletico Paranaense (Curitiba)

Given that players we desperately need have not played for the Eagles for a while, if at all, we simply do not have the luxury of a leisurely World Cup run-in. If we are casual about it, we will fail as we did in the last two tournaments we participated in.

Players who desperately need at least two matches to see how they fit in with the current set-up include:
[1] Dele Alampasu
[2] Bright Esieme
[3] Leon Balogun
[4] Musa Mohammed
[5] Juwon Oshaniwa
[6] Kingsley Madu
[7] Kenny Otiga
[8] Joel Obi
[9] Ramon Azeez
[10] Michael Olaitan
[11] Lukman Haruna
[12] Rabiu Ibrahim
[13] Kelechi Iheanacho
[14] Sone Aluko
[15] Chinedu Obasi

One of the beauties of football is that it takes very little time to determine how good a person is. If any of these players show they are not up to the task, then they will of course be decamped but it cannot be right to not give them the opportunity to show their worth before discarding them.

It would have been wonderful if we were at this stage in the summer before the Confederations Cup, where we could have used that tournament to look at these players but as we cannot turn back the hand of the clock, we just have to deal with the situation as it is. Given that you have opted for a 4-3-3 formation, it is easy to tell what our team requires and where the reinforcements are needed.

Our 23-man squad to the World Cup is almost certainly going to look something like this:

[1] Three goalkeepers
[2] Four fullbacks
[3] Four centere backs
[4] Four central midfielders
[5] Two playmakers
[6] Two targetmen
[7] Four widemen
To even the casual observer, our weakest areas are currently in the two fullback positions, where we desperately lack two crossers and in the playmaker role, where we have nobody to feed the strikers. Past attempts to play our best player Mikel Obi as a playmaker have proved disastrous as for starters, he runs out of gas after 60 minutes and secondly, it denies the team of his long-range passing from deep.

More worrying is the fact that we simply do not have the option of scoring from crosses as we saw happen for our second goal against Italy. In the modern game, about 80% of crosses come from fullbacks, so if we do not sort this problem out, we will be on the way back from Brazil sooner, rather than later.

As things stand, our best squad looks something like this:

Rest of the squad
[12] Austin Ejide
[13] Dele Alampasu
[14] Solomon Kwambe/Leon Balogun
[15] Uwa Echiejile/Benjamin Francis
[16] Azubike Egwuekwe
[17] Efe Ambrose/Kenny Otiga
[18] Joel Obi/Michael Olaitan
[19] Ramon Azeez
[20] Kelechi Iheanacho/Nosa Igiebor/Rabiu Ibrahim
[21] Shola Ameobi
[22] Chinedu Obasi
[23] Ahmed Musa

However, before we can agree on this squad, these players need to be tried and tested in friendly games. I suggest we use the March Fifa window judiciously as it is the last chance we will have.

We need all these 29 players in camp on March and have to try them all out, in what will be our most important pruning exercise of the World Cup programme. Fifa's March window may well determine if we fail or succeed in Brazil 2014.

Kind regards
Ayo Akinfe
Nigerian Watch

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