How Nigeria produced a golden generation of goal scorers

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There isn’t really any reason other than a convention for international teams to reveal the positions of the players the manager has called up. It is nevertheless a convention that most teams follow.

That’s probably because the make-up of the squad by position is usually barely worth a mention. Germany and Spain, however, made it a talking point by making it customary to choose so many midfielders that there was barely any space – or indeed need – for any forwards. This is now so extreme for Hansi Flick’s side that Germany’s squads are now listed with midfielders and forwards grouped together.

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Nigeria’s current squad, meanwhile, caught the eye for another reason. It is so top-heavy that Nigeria manager José Peseiro has barely selected any midfielders at all, simply because there are too many top-level forwards who couldn’t be left out. We are right in the middle of a golden age for Nigerian number nines.

Peseiro, a former manager of FC Porto, Sporting CP (twice) and SC Braga (twice), and one time assistant to Carlos Queiroz at Real Madrid, has selected an incredibly attacker-heavy squad for the upcoming Africa Cup of Nations qualifier with São Tomé and Príncipe.

Victor Osimhen (Napoli), Taiwo Awoniyi (Nottingham Forest), Victor Boniface (Bayer Leverkusen), Kelechi Iheanacho (Leicester City), Gift Orban (Gent) and Moses Simon (Nantes) have all made the cut as centre-forward options. Wide forwards Samuel Chukwueze (AC Milan) and Ademola Lookman (Atalanta) add further firepower to the front line, while the list of midfielders is made up of just four players.

On top of that slew of attacking talent that was selected in this squad, Nottingham Forest’s Emmanuel Dennis, Southampton’s Paul Onuachu, Nice’s Terem Moffi, West Brom’s Josh Maja, Rangers’ Cyriel Dessers and Montpellier’s exciting summer signing Akor Adams – who scored a one-minute-42-second brace on his Ligue 1 debut – all did not make the current squad. Oh, and neither did former Leicester City forward and Nigeria’s all-time leading appearance-maker, Ahmed Musa (108 caps), who until recently was captaining the side. Those names are rather less glamorous than those selected but as back-ups to the eight first-choice forwards in the latest squad, they are pretty good options.

In Osimhen, Awoniyi and Boniface, Nigeria have three in-form number nines playing and scoring regularly in a top European league. In Simon, they have a 58-cap forward who can play across the front line and has played in Europe’s top five leagues for more than five seasons. In Iheanacho, they have an experienced center-forward who had spent eight seasons before the current one playing in the Premier League. Orban is still just 21 years old but is smashing life in the Belgian Pro League, and was linked all summer with a move to Tottenham Hotspur.

That really is a remarkable level of depth. Nigeria currently boast firepower that even the best club teams can only dream of.

Since the start of last season in Europe’s top five leagues, midfielders and forwards from only nine other countries have provided more goals than Nigerians (120). Nigeria are ahead of some major footballing nations in these rankings, including Belgium (100), the Netherlands (93), Denmark (72), Croatia (55) and every other African country.

Nigerian midfielders and forwards are also scoring at a quicker rate than most other nations, too, with a goal every 274 minutes. That is the second-most frequent rate of the 36 countries with midfielders or forwards who were on the field for more than 10,000 minutes in that time, behind Norway (a goal every 238 minutes).

Nigeria’s numbers are so good because of the volume of players they have scoring consistently, but also because they don’t have anything like as many non-goalscoring midfielders playing in Europe’s best leagues. Nigerians have played 32,843 minutes in midfield or attack compared to 19,956 minutes by Norwegians, with Norway’s goal tally largely made up by Erling Haaland (42 goals), Martin Ødegaard (17) and Alexander Sørloth (14). Only one other Norwegian midfielder or attacker – making a total of four – has managed five goals since the start of 2022-23, while nine Nigerian midfielders and forwards have scored five goals or more. Orban, meanwhile, has 17 goals in 20 league games in Belgium.

Despite amassing almost 13,000 more minutes than Norwegians, there are only eight Nigerian midfielders or forwards who have failed to score a single goal in that time, compared to 11 players from Norway. It fits with the theme that Nigeria are producing more players who threaten the opposition’s goal and are good enough to play in Europe’s biggest leagues than midfielders whose primary job is to move the ball around, create for others and help protect their own goal.

Nigeria’s skewed data set is reflected in the imbalance in Peseiro’s latest squad: there are far more high-quality goalscorers than midfielders.

So, why are Nigeria suddenly producing so many top-class forwards while lacking elsewhere?

“Part of it is just coincidence,” Nigerian sports journalist Solace Chukwu tells Opta Analyst. “But part of it is actually a function of having such a poor youth coaching set up in Nigeria. That sounds weird to say, but what that means is that when scouts come to Nigeria, it is easier to notice the things that strikers are good at; things like explosive movements. Midfielders and sometimes even defenders play more cerebral roles, and as players aren’t coached as well in Nigeria as they are elsewhere, strikers tend to stand out more.”

Chukwu says young forwards growing up in Nigeria are more likely to develop the raw characteristics needed to succeed abroad.

“Nigeria doesn’t have a clear plan for developing their own players,” he says. “So, scouts will be on the lookout for speed, athleticism, the things that can be easily translated to another environment, and strikers therefore tend to get picked up more. Then, they move to Europe and explode from there.”

Convincing players who were born in or grew up in England to Nigerian parents to choose to play for Nigeria has helped improve the overall quality of their squad, too. Not only has that boosted their options up front, with London-born Maja committing to Nigeria, for example, it has also meant that technically gifted players in other positions, who have enjoyed a footballing education in elite surroundings at an English club, are now creating chances for Nigeria’s elite number nines. Lookman, Alex Iwobi and Joe Aribo, who all grew up in London, are the most prominent of those players.

It makes for exciting times for the Super Eagles. One of the highest scorers in four of Europe’s top five leagues in 2023-24 is Nigerian, with Osimhen (3 goals in Serie A), Awoniyi (3, Premier League), Boniface (4, Bundesliga) and Adams (3, Ligue 1) all starting the new campaign in red-hot form. The only other nations with three or more players to score at least three goals already this season are France and England, who clearly have far greater resources than Nigeria.

Osimhen is the star of this new team, having fired Napoli to a historic title win last season, and he will surely end up at one of Europe’s superclubs before long. His movement and ability to get into dangerous positions is a major strength of his, but his finishing – both with his feet and with his head – is his greatest asset. Since the start of 2022-23, only Haaland (34) and Kylian Mbappé (29) have scored more non-penalty goals in Europe’s top five leagues than Osimhen (26), who has outperformed his non-penalty expected goals by 5.25 (a better rate than Mbappé’s 5.07).

Chukwu says Awoniyi is “a little less refined” than the other options at Nigeria’s disposal, but the fact he is “very coachable” means it is no surprise to see him thriving in the Premier League at Nottingham Forest.

It is Boniface, though, according to Chukwu, who is the most exciting of Nigeria’s forwards because there is more to his game than the others. He has started life at Leverkusen in some style, with four goals in three games. Of the 13 players in Europe’s top five leagues who have scored four or more goals so far, Boniface is the only one to also have two assists to his name.

“He really does everything you’d want from a striker to a very high level,” Chukwu says of a player who has just received his first call-up to the international scene. “He’s a real complete striker who can lead the line himself and can also help make other strikers look good if he is playing in a system with two strikers.”

That is something Peseiro has naturally had to consider given the wealth of strikers he has to choose from, but apart from briefly and unsuccessfully testing out a 3-5-2 formation, he has largely stuck to playing with one up front. Boniface’s rise may now force him into a rethink.

“It’s a little different now than it was a year ago,” says Chukwu. “I get the impression that Peseiro isn’t averse to another experiment [with two up front], but inevitably, some really good players are going to miss out.

“It is a good problem to have up front, but there is also a lack of depth in midfield and not many good options out wide, so it is quite the conundrum for the manager. If he fails, people are going to ask why he didn’t do more with all of this talent handed to him on a plate.”

It is now almost 30 years since Nigeria captured the imagination of the world at USA ’94, while in more recent times, they last won the Africa Cup of Nations more than a decade ago, in 2013. They missed out on a spot at the Qatar World Cup last year and have also failed to qualify for three of the last six AFCON tournaments. That represents a period of real underachievement for the sixth most populous country in the world. With the highest GDP in Africa and almost 100 million more people than any other African nation, the ingredients should surely be there for some form of success.

They have already secured qualification for January’s AFCON tournament, and given the wealth of talent they have up front, is it time to start dreaming of a return to glory?

“I would say underachievement has been Nigeria’s thing for a long time,” says Chuwku. “We’ve always had a lot of talent – so much potential to be great – but it never quite happens. If the discussion was purely about how much talent can Nigeria produce, the sky really is the limit, especially with strikers.

“In terms of putting the right conditions in place for these fantastic players to flourish – like they do in Europe – that’s another story entirely.”

Courtesy: Opta Analyst