It really would not be accurate to say that Ahmed Musa divides opinion. Strictly speaking, he does not.
For the most part, his approval rating is overwhelmingly low among Nigerian football fans. The exception to this is, obviously, those of Northern extraction: he remains, by virtue of his goal record at Pillars and his philanthropy in the years that have followed, eminently popular in Kano.
Every four years, however, Musa bolts in from the cold like a prize greyhound, casually blitzes the World Cup and looks, for a brief moment, truly unplayable.
The 27-year-old, with four goals in seven matches (avg 0.57 goals per game), is Nigeria’s highest goal scorer in World Cup history. He is the country’s fastest goalscorer in the competition, the only Nigerian player to score in multiple World Cups, and is also the only one to score multiple times in a game at the finals.
Outside of the World Cup, his goal record is a rather more modest 10 goals in 74 matches (avg 0.13 goals per game). That is a disparity of precipitous proportions. It cannot even be explained by such clichés as “big game” or “tournament” player; his record in Africa Nations Cups is 0.08 goals per game (over 12 appearances) and he produced possibly his worst performance of the 2013 tournament in the final against Burkina Faso.
It is clear then that this is purely a World Cup thing. Something about the Mundial seems to stir Musa specially. But what?
When you think of Musa, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?
While not an exact measure, FIFA Index gives the Al Nassr forward ratings of 92 and 96 (out of 100) for sprinting ability and acceleration respectively. In 2012, Bleacher Report ranked him the 38th fastest footballer in the world, and while it’s been eight years since, his raw speed remains undiminished.
“If we are to run a 100m race, I believe Ahmed Musa will cross the finish line before me,” fellow Super Eagles speedster Moses Simon told OjbSports in April.
At the 2018 World Cup, Musa was in his element, leading a second-half resurgence that buried Iceland and breathed new life into Nigeria’s hopes. His second in particular was almost cartoonish in its simplicity, as he ran onto a Kenneth Omeruo clearance and motored past Kari Arnason with risible ease, before rounding the goalkeeper, steadying himself and finishing confidently.
“The pace which Musa used in getting behind our defence will trouble any defender in the world,” Iceland manager Heimir Hallgrimsson said after the game.
“My defenders did really well but Musa was very quick for them. Same as he would be against most defenders I have seen at this World Cup.”
In a way, all attacking play is predicated on speed. Or, more accurately, arrhythmic variations in speed.
Legendary Argentine manager Marcelo Bielsa defines attacking as reaching a space on the pitch that the opponent does not anticipate. Considering the football pitch is not an infinite area, in order to arrive in that manner, it is necessary to suddenly increase the tempo of the attacking play when entering the final third.
Also, according to research published by Faude et al in 2012, a higher proportion of goal scoring opportunities is facilitated by straight-line sprints than by any other singular action, either by the goalscorer himself or by the assisting player.
This demonstrates clearly that speed is a highly valuable attacking weapon, and is one of the single most difficult attributes to defend against.
Barcelona Academy coach Sola Adegun explains: “Physical speed does give a massive advantage in big spaces. The attached fear of being outrun contributes to giving fast players psychological superiority against a good number of defenders.
“Just the sheer reality of being able to arrive earlier than your near defender to a ball is also huge. Situations of flux suddenly are advantage situations when there is considerable speed differential.
“Also, with the advantages that speed gives, you don’t have to get it right every time, the one time the timing is right, the consequences can be devastating.”
Iceland felt the devastation keenly in Volgograd, Musa’s double a one-two punch that put them down for the count. Even when presented with a late lifeline, normally reliable penalty taker Gylfi Sigurdsson could only spoon his effort from the spot over the bar.
It is also worth noting that, with international football not allowing as much time for building cohesion and developing collective solutions, the effects of individual superiorities are greatly multiplied.
This goes some way toward explaining why there are fewer upsets in international tournaments: the tactical organization is often cruder than in the club game, and so outcomes more readily come down to having better (quicker, more technical) players.
So that’s it then? Musa is simply too quick to handle? Surely not, as his speed advantage is not exclusive to match-ups against non-African opposition. It cannot be that simple.
Why then is Musa’s pace such a menace at World Cups, but not at, say, Africa Nations Cups?
The key to answering that is in examining the goals he has scored at the Mundial. Take them all together, and they reveal an interesting pattern.
Take his first World Cup goal: in the 3-2 defeat to Argentina in 2014.
Michael Babatunde receives the ball in the middle, and carries it forward some 40 yards into the Argentina half. He then lays it off to Musa on the left, who receives just on the edge of the penalty area. He cuts inside Zabaleta and curls the ball past Sergio Romero into the far post.
The second equalizer sees him play a one-two with Emmanuel Emenike, and he runs into the gap the striker’s movement opened up, receives the reverse pass on the edge of the penalty area, steadies himself and slots inside the near post.
His first against Iceland, where he lassoes a Victor Moses cross before lashing a half-volley into the roof of the net, comes following a tremendous counter-attack.
All four goals bear a similarity: they all have him receiving the ball in the final third with no more than one opponent to get past before shooting.
The same is true, incidentally, of his sole Africa Cup of Nations goal against Mali in the semi-final in 2013, where his diagonal run from out wide took him clear of the defence, and he slotted his finish underneath the goalkeeper. It is the situation that best accentuates his strengths – speed, finishing – and allows him to act before his biggest weaknesses – strength, decision-making – become apparent.
Why has this been more difficult to replicate outside of the World Cup? There are two major reasons.
First is the simple fact that, by Nigeria’s lofty standing in African football, they are cast in the role of protagonist; there are few teams willing to afford the Super Eagles the sort of space needed to break into. The contrast between that and the World Cup, where it is the opposition in a position of nominal superiority, is a stark one.
The other reason is tactical, and relates to a fundamental understanding of the player himself.
Ahmed Musa is very much a striker playing out wide, rather than a winger who can score goals. However, for much of his time with the Super Eagles, he has often been viewed as the latter.
Keshi eventually realized this, and by the 2014 World Cup, Musa had markedly fewer defensive responsibilities, in terms of tracking back, than Osaze Odemwingie on the opposite flank.
He may have only scored against Argentina, but he was Nigeria’s most dangerous player against Bosnia with his runs in behind, and he also caused France problems in the Round of 16.
On his part, Gernot Rohr has yet to completely grasp this. While Musa’s work rate and application in dropping back to form two solid banks of four is often impressive, it is no coincidence that his best run came as part of a front two. As such, he was able to act predominantly in the final third, usually up against a centre-back 1v1.
Sheer speed, and the advantages it brings, can mask a multitude of failings.
Could it therefore be the case that, in 2014 and 2018, both Keshi and Rohr arrived at the World Cup with undercooked teams, and so naturally looked to their unstoppable weapon? Perhaps.
If so, then we can expect, going by Rohr’s assertion his team would be ready in 2022, that Musa’s quadrennial transformation from ugly duckling to swan will not be happening in Qatar.
If not though, then the Super Eagles captain could find his peculiar set of skills needed once more.