With so many frontmen in top form, the excitement within the nation’s fanbase has arguably never been higher
Gernot Rohr may not admit it, but he probably rues the fact the Africa Cup of Nations isn’t being held in the off-season in June, owing to the options he’d have at centre-forward.
Options, in theory, translates to firepower, and no manager in modern football runs from that. While observers will point to the upshot of the paradox of choice potentially affecting the eventual decision-making process, the German has probably never had it this good in his career.
The players available for the central striking role are, but not limited to, Victor Osimhen, Paul Onuachu, Simy, Umar Sadiq and, to a lesser extent, Kelechi Iheanacho because he plays deeper and isn’t an out-and-out goalscorer.
The Napoli frontman, underwhelming showing vs Inter Milan on Sunday aside, has shown signs of a return to form after a rough ride from November into the New Year where injuries and illness understandably impacted his form and fitness. However, the hiatus in March incited the reaction Gennaro Gattuso probably wanted and the forward has gone on to score or assist four times in his last five appearances for club and country.
Despite the form of other countrymen ostensibly vying for a place as the Super Eagles’ number nine, Osimhen likely leads the line when Afcon comes around anyway. Therefore, the 22-year-old’s recent uptick is music to everyone’s ears.
Still, besides Nigeria’s most expensive player of all time, the other choices pose thought-provoking questions for Rohr.
Onuachu’s return for Genk this term may be the best of his career, but the archetypal target man is not unfamiliar with finding the back of the net regularly, evidenced by his exploits in Denmark. He netted 19, 10 and 17 goals in his last three campaigns with Midtjylland and, by the time he departed in 2019, had unquestionably outgrown the Danish Superliga.
A challenging maiden year in Belgium where defending champions Genk disappointingly ended seventh didn’t reflect well on the towering striker who only found the back of the net nine times in 17 starts. While this wasn’t a poor return, it was the first time he hadn’t hit double figures in league football since 2016.
Given the rather underwhelming nature of his opening year, this term’s upsurge in front of goal has been striking. 29 league goals in 33 appearances (31 starts) is impressive by any standard and a breakdown of Onuachu’s return reflect his profile as a target man and penalty box frontman: every strike has been from within the 18-yard area with 10 headed goals emphasising his aerial strength.
When compared with Simy, a player with similar physical attributes, the subtle difference in both presents interesting findings. The Crotone frontman has scored 17 times in Serie A, but only one has been with his head, while the other 16 have been right-footed strikes.
The aforementioned not only hints at the striker’s one-footedness but relative weakness in the air.
He’s notably won only 39 percent of his aerial duels this term, a remarkable statistic for someone as tall, and Onuachu’s 55 percent success despite being about three centimetres taller (201cm-198cm) points to the Genk man’s superiority aerially.
Almeria forward Sadiq is a fascinating watch.
The gangly frontman appears awkward on the ball but that hasn’t stopped him from registering 16 goals in Spain’s second division. Evidently not as gigantic as the aforementioned pair (he’s only 192cm), still, one headed goal and a 37 percent success in aerial tussles put him closer in profile to Simy than Onuachu.
Be that as it may, the fact six of his goals have been with his left foot and the other nine being right-footed implies the former Roma striker is ambipedal to an extent.
Still, critics may frown at Sadiq’s tendency to miss really presentable chances as a flaw in his game — Onuachu and Simy have missed eight and seven respectively, whereas the Almeria forward has failed to tuck away a staggering 18 — but probably subsequently assuage by indicating how he keeps getting into those positions as an encouraging sign of his goalscoring instincts.
Iheanacho is unlike the aforementioned quartet in that he’s possibly the only one unsuited to playing as a lone striker but thrives when there’s another frontman occupying space and defenders in the final third.
It’s that change that has provoked his return to form at Leicester City and one that’s seen him score 10 times in seven appearances for the Foxes.
His preference for the inside-right channel allows him to chop inside to shoot and his two efforts from outside the box is level with the other frontmen combined—Osimhen and Sadiq have scored one each from outside the penalty area.
Despite the ex-Manchester City attacker’s return, his 24 percent conversion rate falls below Onuachu (31 percent), Simy (34 percent) and only just betters Sadiq’s 22 percent. Curiously, Osimhen’s 12 percent is a decrease to last year’s 15 percent and staggeringly adrift of the Genk and Crotone frontmen, although it ought to be pointed out the unsustainability of the latter pair’s runs.
While penalties make up eight of the Genk striker’s return and seven of the Crotone frontman’s tally, both attacker’s returns shouldn’t be diminished in any capacity, but extolled for having the most prolific campaigns in their careers.
Unquestionably, Nigeria could be the beneficiaries of the current promise and Rohr has to be excited. He’s got an all-rounder and one of England’s finest second strikers to call upon from the off and an old-school target man, traditional poacher and slight blend of all in Umar.
Asking all five to maintain their runs in front of goal may be a tough ask, yet, the German will welcome having those tough choices to make before Afcon and Nigerians will relish going up against the continent’s finest with so much firepower in their forward line.