Gernot Rohr’s decision-making when it comes to plugging holes in the Nigeria national team squad, as time has gone on, has become more and more eclectic.
The likes of Semi Ajayi, Bryan Idowu and Jamilu Collins are left-field additions that have attained varying degrees of success, going some way toward demonstrating that it is possible to find utility off the beaten path. However, perhaps no position better captures Rohr’s propensity for experimentation than goalkeeper.
A nation watched on in bemusement as teenager Francis Uzoho earned a first cap in November 2017, started at the World Cup seven months later, and then lost his place as first-choice goalkeeper a year further down the line. At the Africa Cup of Nations in Egypt, he was granted the courtesy of a perfunctory appearance in the Third Place play-off.
So ended an eighteen-month project aimed at installing the Omonoia Nicosia player as a long-term n.1, and although there may yet be scope for that at some point in the near future (losing the trust of the coaching staff for a major tournament certainly does not help in that regard), it appears now there is a new candidate to whom Rohr has pinned his colours.
Enter Maduka Okoye. Nineteen years old, 6ft 5in tall, born and schooled in Germany – one of those places on earth where great goalkeepers seem to sprout almost effortlessly – and with a long-term, stated goal of playing for Nigeria at international level.
But if he’s so good, why is he still available…?
Let’s not do that.
There have been regrettable attempts to pit home-based against foreign-based (and/or -born) Nigerian footballers, which has always seemed a bit odd: the players in the Nigeria Professional Football League, for the most part, do not feel the same way, and gladly jump at even the slightest suggestion of a deal abroad to take flight.
Staying on topic, however: it is not necessary to get the next incarnation of Oliver Kahn in order to justify calling up a foreign-born goalkeeper. In terms of the technical aspects of training goalkeepers, Africa is well behind the rest of the world, and that is before getting to the issue of lack of cutting-edge equipment. There are, no doubt, some fine shot-stoppers playing in the NPFL at this time, but for the most part they rely almost entirely on their natural athleticism.
Okoye then. All the signs point to Rohr’s desire to install him as the long-term heir, and the reaction to this has been quite mixed. Perhaps the biggest negative in his column is that there is very little of his performances that is readily accessible and, as such, assessable. Playing out of Fortuna Dusseldorf II, he has been forged in the cauldron that is…Regionalliga West, the German fourth tier, and was most recently seen warding off relegation last season by three points. Next best thing then: the numbers.
In 2018/19, Fortuna II finished in 12th place (out of 18). Okoye started 15 games from 34, and kept two clean sheets in all: against TV Herkenrath and SV Lippstadt. Incidentally, these sides were the two lowest-scoring clubs in the division, and the former finished rock-bottom in Regionalliga West, while the latter finished a point and a place worse than Fortuna II.
It gets more concerning. Fortuna II had the second-worst defensive record in the division, conceding 62 goals in 34 matches (an average of 1.82 goals conceded per game)—only Herkenrath, conceding 91, were worse.
So what if Fortuna II have always been a poor defensive side? Well, that is *checks notes* actually correct, but 2018/19 was especially bad: in 2017/18, they conceded 1.73 goals per game (sixth-worst), and in 2016/17, it was 1.50 goals conceded per game (eighth-worst).
Granted, that does not say much of anything, especially considering Okoye was in goal for less than half of those games. A look at the goals conceded per game paints a more favourable picture of the 19-year-old: with Okoye in goal, Fortuna II let in 25 goals in 15 matches (1.67 goals conceded per game), while without him they let in 37 goals in 19 games (1.95 goals conceded per game).
That suggests he was the more reliable option in goal. However, when the quality of opposition faced is factored in, it gets worrying again.
The average finishing position of the teams Fortuna II faced with Okoye in goal is 10.07, while the average finishing position of the teams faced without Okoye in goal is 8.79. In simpler terms, Fortuna II played tougher matches without the new Super Eagles invitee, and so it makes sense that they would concede more, on average, in those matches.
Where goalkeepers are concerned, numerical analysis is still, as yet, imprecise. Such stats as xG have arisen in recent times that give greater valuation to shots depending on location and historical accuracy, but even those are yet to completely parse goalkeeping performance.
Therefore, even taking these at face value, it remains unclear just how good – or otherwise – Okoye is as a goalkeeper. What is clear is that Fortuna II’s level of defensive performance is not improved by his presence, and so it remains difficult to understand the motivation behind his invitation beyond a sheer lack of options elsewhere.
Only by his performance on September 10 against Ukraine will it become apparent just what has piqued Rohr’s interest.