Everyone knows about the ‘golden age’ of Nigerian players in the 1990s but what of the current crop? The likes of Kelechi Iheanacho, Victor Moses and Alex Iwobi have all sparkled in the English Premier League without becoming full-fledged stars. How good exactly can they be?
Let’s start with Kelechi Iheanacho who, for an all too brief period looked like might be the future of Man City’s attack. A prolific, quick striker who has impressed for Nigeria at every level, his record in International reads 14 goals in 19 games. His Manchester City record is 12 goals in 46 first team appearances, though most of those have come from the bench. Having broken into the team in 2015, he quickly made a striking impression with a winning goal against Crystal Place having replaced Wilfried Bony, something he did with more frequency as the season progressed. Iheanacho was quickly promoted to City’s Champions League squad at the expense of another big-name player (Samir Nasri) and would play in the semi-finals of the competition against Real Madrid. He ended the 2015-16 season with eight Premier League goals and the best goals-per-minute ratio in the division.
Iheanacho quickly became the player on everyone’s lips. While Manchester United’s own striking sensation, Marcus Rashford, was lighting up the red half of the City, those in blue thought they had the better player. In October 2016 Iheanacho was nominated for the prestigious FIFA Golden Boy Award alongside Rashford, though the award would go to Bayern Munich’s Renato Sanches. Under Pep Guardiola, Iheanacho has found his appearances limited with the manager opting for a system that requires more hard work of a striker than he is used to. A move to Leicester seems to be on the horizon. It would be no surprise if Iheanacho finished as one of the Premier League’s top scorers next season. Those looking at the young Nigerian in the top scorer betting might just find him a bit of value.
Another young Nigerian operating in the upper echelons of the Premier League is Alex Iwobi. The nephew of Nigerian legend Jay-Jay Okocha, Iwobi has certainly inherited his uncle’s quality of exciting English crowds. Iwobi, a quick, agile wide forward has already notched goals against the likes of Everton and Watford. He’s also already used to big occasions having played in the Champions League against Bayern Munich. And while he made a name for himself in the England nation youth set up, he switched to allegiances to Nigeria, the country of his birth, in 2015. The likely absence of Alexis Sanchez from the Arsenal starting XI next season could provide Iwobi with his biggest chance yet. If he can grasp, Nigeria could be looking at future star.
By the far the most established of Nigeria’s current crop in the Premier League, though, is Victor Moses. The 26 year old has been a Premier League household name for years having had spells at Crystal Palace, Wigan Athletic, Liverpool, Stoke and West Ham. It’s in the last 12 months at Chelsea where he has thrived though. Antonio Conte’s decision to turn Moses from a winger into a wing-back paid dividends last season and was a key aspect of Chelsea’s title winning run. Moses’ athleticism and stamina have never been in question, his best position has long been up for debate though. In his new role, he’s learned tactical discipline but it’s also liberated him in a sense. Moses seemed to appear in dangerous attacking positions more often that when he was a winger. Again, though, there are question marks over his future. While he is certain to remain at Chelsea next season the pursuit of both Kyle Walker and Danilo suggests he will have a point to prove all again next year.
And that’s the case with nearly all of these young Nigerian players plying their trade in the Premier League. The potential is endless, but who will establish themselves as an elite player? While Kelechi Iheanacho, Victor Moses and Alex Iwobi all seem best placed to do so, it would be foolish to write off the likes of Isaac Success, Wilfred Ndidi and Kelechi Nwakali. Ndidi was one of the few players to emerge with any credit from Leicester City last season. His dynamism and passing ability drew early comparisons to Ngolo Kante and even if he didn’t quite hit the heights of the man he was brought in to replace, he could well do in the future. At just 20 years of age it would be no surprise at all to see Ndidi secure himself a move to one of the Premier League’s top clubs in the next few years. Victor Moses is the one player to have won England’s biggest prize, the onus is on his compatriots to follow suit.