Debate: Is Hope Akpan an upgrade on Ramon Azeez?

Stephen Keshi has decided to mix his squad up ahead of the Afcon qualifiers against Sudan, but has he made the right inclusions and exclusions in the midfield zone?

By Solace Chukwu & James Ezimoha

Stephen Keshi has decided to experiment with a handful of new players ahead of Nigeria's crunch double-header against Sudan. Despite the gravitas of the situation for the Super Eagles, having only picked up one point from their opening two Cup of Nations qualifiers, the Big Boss has decided that now is that time to assess some of his more inexperienced options.

Four of the squad are uncapped, while a further five have less than ten caps.

One of the key names called-up by the manager is Reading midfielder Hope Akpan, a player who we have previously featured on Goal Nigeria.

However, while some players have been introduced to the side, others have been overlooked by the manager.

Ramon Azeez is among those players dropped by Keshi. In this feature, we examine whether replacing Azeez with Akpan is a wise move by the Big Boss. 

Akpan Addition to be Celebrated

You do not have to be a rocket scientist to figure out precisely why Ramon Azeez has underwhelmed in national team colours since his maiden call-up in March. Then, against Mexico, it seemed a slight quirk and nothing more when he came on at half time for Michael Uchebo and played at the top of the midfield triangle. 

Slowly, it became clear that, against conventional wisdom and the player’s own most effective position, Super Eagles coach Stephen Keshi was bent on turning Azeez into the world’s newest playmaker. Predictably, this attempt at alchemy did not pan out as hoped. 

In a way, this excuses the player of blame. However, when you look at the bigger picture, there can be no hiding from the fact that the Almeria man could, and should, have done better. Irrespective of the misinterpretation of his abilities, there was a certain assertiveness missing in Azeez’s play with the Super Eagles. 

Showing for the ball, moving it forward progressively, intelligent positioning and off-the-ball movement; these are all attributes of the modern midfielder, whichever role he plays. As it turned out, Azeez offered none of these attributes. These are bare minimums; they may not be exactly what is needed to connect midfield and attack, but at least they would have kept the team compact in the centre of the park. 

This is where Hope Akpan comes in.  

Azeez found to be wanting, albeit out of position

His call-up is particularly pleasing. There can be no problems of assertiveness with the England-born midfielder; he possesses an excellent engine, and towers over Azeez at 6’0. Physically, Akpan offers more: strong in the tackle and just as adept at interceptions. 

The Reading man is also a progressive passer, and while his radar is not always accurate (no Andrea Pirlo, this man), it would supply the immediacy and energy that has seemed so lacking in midfield for Nigeria. 

Finally, like Azeez before him, Akpan is no playmaker. That said, there is enough about his game for him to either fill in for or complement Ogenyi Onazi, whose poor form in national colours seems to have flown a bit under the radar. In the latter scenario, this may free John Obi Mikel completely of defensive responsibility, enabling him to play the roving sort of role Keshi seems to want. 

There is no certainty as to what plans the Big Boss has in mind for Akpan, but his addition is a plus for the team. 

Follow Solace Chukwu on 

Azeez Unjustly Overlooked

It is said that the devil you know is better that the angel you don’t. 

To say that Hope Akpan, who has yet to feature for Nigeria, is an upgrade to Ramon Azeez is a wayward conclusion.  

On the basis of what is known Azeez was brought into the national team by Stephen Keshi to add creativity and youthful exuberance to a midfield that boasts the likes of John Obi Mikel, who is not acclaimed for his pace, and Ogenyi Onazi, who is gradually turning into a rugby player. 

And he did just that. 

His exclusion from the squad to face Sudan, in my opinion, has nothing to do with his ability (not to talk of him underperforming). He was just a victim of circumstances, that’s all.  

Quite plausibly, it is a misfortune incurred by the Big Boss’s fire-brigade approach to avert the looming danger of not qualifying for the 2015 Nations Cup. 

Where was Akpan when Azeez was named Young Player of the Year at Almeria, a first division side in Spain, last season, which prompted English Premier League team Swansea to indicate their interest in him?


No Guarantees that Akpan will adapt to International Football

Akpan is not a bad player by any means; he is doing well for Reading in the second tier of English football, but comparing him to Azeez, who, week in, week out, lines up with and against the best in La Liga and indeed the world (the Messis and Cristiano Ronaldos), is a gross misjudgement of the present situation. 

If Azeez did not impress with Nigeria, by no means a fact, it is not because he is a bad player, and bringing in Akpan might not solve the problem. In fact, the 6’0 midfielder, for all of his power, might also have his abilities misinterpreted. 

Then what? Back to square one? 

In the end—looking at the bigger picture—this is my summation: Azeez’s ‘misfortune’ with the Super Eagles doesn’t take anything away from the fine player that he is, as he continues to flourish with Almeria, with an assist just at the weekend.  

Akpan has to first fly with the Super Eagles before we can determine how use useful he is for the team. As for being an upgrade to the Almeria man, that is left to be seen. 

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Would you rather have Hope Akpan or Ramon Azeez in the national side? Comment below and let us know.