Nigerian Players’ Review: Iwobi, Aribo, Alhassan, Olusegun, Awoniyi

There was plenty of interest to get into with respect to Nigerian players in Europe at the weekend.

Alex Iwobi was hailed by fans despite Everton's loss to Chelsea

Nigerian Players' Review is a weekly series evaluating the performances of Nigerian players in Europe.

To the attentive, Alex Iwobi’s potential to play in the heart of midfield has been obvious for quite a while. However, it has been nice to watch everyone else catch up.

On the opening day of the Premier League season, the former Arsenal man was impressive holding the centre for Everton as Chelsea came calling. Ultimately, the London club secured the win off the back of a first-half penalty. However, it would not be a stretch to state that Iwobi, playing alongside Abdoulaye Doucoure in midfield, dominated the more illustrious midfield of Jorginho and N’Golo Kante in pretty much every way.

Everton are in the market for midfield reinforcements, with Amadou Onana through the door and former favourite Idrissa Gueye being looked at. They also have Tom Davies and Andre Gomes to return from injury. What this means for Iwobi’s prospects of a continued run in that position remains to be seen, of course. It is likely that he will be pressed into service in a more advanced role behind the striker.

What is – or at least should be – obvious is that there should no be no more pressing him into service as a wing-back. Frank Lampard extolled his humility after the game, and Iwobi’s versatility certainly makes him an asset for any manager, but he has to put his foot down at some point.

It was never going to be easy for Joe Aribo to begin his Premier League journey at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. As many would have predicted, Southampton were roundly trounced by Spurs despite going ahead in the first half; by the end of it, the Saints were being ruthlessly desecrated, and that was without either of Son Heung-min or Harry Kane troubling the scorers’ sheet.

Aribo did get 90 minutes in his legs at the very least. Small mercies. However, those minutes came, surprisingly enough, as part of a front two with Adam Armstrong.

While the former Rangers man is no stranger to playing as a striker (he famously did so for the Gers en route to last season’s Europa League final), it is quite clearly not his favourite or most effective position. Indeed, part of the allure of this Southampton move was that, in a 4-2-2-2, he would get the chance to play in a position tailor-made for him: in the hole behind the strikers, but one which would allow him drift wide.

Alas, that was not to be the case, and come the second half he was pushed even further forward. The worst of it, however, was that, on that day’s evidence, predictions of Southampton’s demise this term are far from exaggerated.

I have a bit of a pet peeve with the way ‘assists’ are logged. I think that if the pass receiver has to complete a dribble in order to score, then there should be no assist recorded. But that’s just me, of course, and I’m aware there is no perfect system.

With that in mind, you might be wondering why Alhassan Yusuf caught my eye over the weekend. After all, he only managed one assist in Antwerp’s 4-2 win over Leuven, and that required the wonderfully named Michel Ange Balikwisha to do quite a bit of work still.

The trick is to look at the overall performance by the 22-year-old. It was one of startling completeness; Alhassan was the beating heart of the Antwerp midfield, battling away without the ball, being the pivot around which everything turned and displaying real dexterity both in his carrying and distribution. Heck, he even got a yellow for his trouble, but only after he had thoroughly embarrassed the opposing player on the dribble.

It is frankly remarkable that, to this point, he has yet to get a look-in at international level. That is an oversight Jose Peseiro would do well to correct.

Former Nigeria under-17 international Olakunle Olusegun is starting to announce himself at Krasnodar.

The diminutive 20-year-old was a livewire in the Bulls’ 3-0 win over Lokomotiv Moscow, unbalancing the opponent with incisive, precocious runs infield from his starting position on the left of the front three. Remarkably, all three goals in the game came in the final 15 minutes of the game, with Olusegun putting two sizable exclamation points on the result with some impressive acceleration and strength to break through and finish twice in the dying moments of the game.

Much was expected of him as a youngster, but he memorably underwhelmed at the 2019 Africa U-17 AFCON and lost his place in the starting lineup of Manu Garba’s team. He seems to have course-corrected, and his development will be interesting to observe.

It was a bit of a surprise that, when the team sheet was announced for Nottingham Forest’s opening Premier League encounter with Newcastle, Taiwo Awoniyi was named on the bench.

A lot is clearly expected of the Nigeria international, who joined from Union Berlin for what was, at the time, a club record fee. Forest’s survival hopes will rest on his ability to transfer his goal scoring output from the Bundesliga to the Premier League, and he in turn has spoken of how important it is for him to prove himself at this level.

That makes his lack of goals to this point a worrying one. His application and all-round play cannot be argued with, but ultimately goals are the currency for every striker, and if Awoniyi cannot find the back of the net, then it won’t matter how well he imbibes Steve Cooper’s principles.

Forest played a number of friendlies, and now have gotten their toes wet in the Premier League, but still there is no goal for Awoniyi. You get the sense that the longer the drought goes on, the more it will become a talking point.

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