Season after season, Nigerian players have proven their worth in the English Premier League widely seen as the most-watched league in the world.
From Efan Ekoku to Kanu Nwankwo and even the Yakubu Aiyegbeni era, Nigerian players have not just made up the numbers in the English top division.
With another season now upon us again, PREMIUM TIMES looks at the prospects of Nigerian players, including those with dual nationalities but are still eligible to don the country’s green and white colours.
Wilfred Ndidi (Leicester City)
Wilfred Ndidi would walk into the starting eleven of many top European clubs. When Ngolo Kante joined Chelsea following his amazing display in the Foxes’ miraculous 2015/16 season EPL win, he left behind a hole that perfectly fit Ndidi when he stepped in.
Ndidi has since proved to be the cornerstone of the club’s consistent stay in the Premier League. If you want showboating, he is not your man; here is a player built for efficiency, someone who does his side’s dirty work with all the diligence he can muster, holding the team together with his ball-winning, covering for others, and simple passing.
Ndidi does not restrict himself though, he is not beyond adventuring forward when his team is attacking. He can also supplement his team’s attack and score the odd goal from outside the box.
His hard work knows no bounds, which helps to explain his consistent high ratings amongst holding midfielders in Europe for the past three years.
Ndidi played as centre back against Blackburn last weekend, and with Johnny Evans and Wes Morgan in a race to be fit for the EPL opener this weekend, this combative midfielder is being considered for a stopgap centre back when Leicester takes on West Brom at the Hawthorns.
Kelechi Iheanacho (Leicester City)
During his first season at Manchester City in 2015, Iheanacho gave a few indications that he was on course to becoming one of the best young strikers in England.
Even as he displayed some flair going forward, what kept Pep Guardiola pacing down the touchline and holding his head in disbelief, were his deficiencies such as poor positional play, missing easy chances, and losing concentration at critical times.
City could not believe their luck when Leicester City came along for the Nigerian, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the former FIFA U-17 winner as he played under little or no pressure at the Foxes and was rated as Leicester City’s most effective substitute in the 2019/20 Premier League season.
The Super Eagles’ striker may not have been a regular starter last season, but the former Citizen has become a different player. He is now more consistent and once he uses his dribbling skills to break free from his markers, he no longer wastes his final balls.
With Leicester City not splashing the cash on strikers yet, it is a clear indication that Rodgers may have resigned to keeping faith with his striking force.
Many are keen to see if the Super Eagles striker will work hard enough to take his chances and grow from being a super sub to a starter.
Bukayo Saka (Arsenal)
For a player who only turned 19 last weekend, the 2020/21 season cannot but be the beginning of great things to come for this young dynamite.
The youngster was a delight to watch and had a breakthrough season with 26 appearances for Arsenal as Mikel Arteta surprised bookmakers by winning the FA Cup at the expense of Chelsea.
He was so good last season that Nigeria pleaded with the dark-skinned youngster to switch allegiance to the African giants, but he never entertained such distractions.
Rather, he chose to focus on club football and he was rewarded by being nominated for 2020/21 PFA Young Player of the season alongside Manchester United’s Mason Greenwood and Liverpool’s Alexander Trent Arnold, who eventually won the award.
More often than not, young players who feature outside their best roles find themselves on a downward spiral, destined for a career of diminishing returns, but Saka has been an exception to this rule. The club’s revelation of last season has played in almost every position and impressed in all of them.
While some critics have complained that he does not work hard enough, and that might be true to a certain degree, putting a thoroughbred in harness can run the risk of being counter-productive. Just give him a role, let him perform and express himself. That best explains why England is bidding it’s time to beat Nigeria to it and cap the youngster.
With Arsenal lacking the financial muscle to compete for top-notch players in the transfer market, the emergence of Saka could be what the club needs to return to the top four. And who says The Gunners can’t even win the EPL?
Eberechi Eze (Crystal Palace)
For a club that is still battling to keep its prized asset, Wilfred Zaha, from the prying eyes of other Premier League clubs, the arrival of Eberechi Eze is seen as a huge respite.
Crystal Palace’s over-reliance on the Ivorian is not far-fetched; having been the club’s most consistent player for five seasons now. Manager Roy Hodgson may not be a weather forecaster, but he probably foresees a scenario where the club will be left in limbo should Zaha leave, so he is playing smart by splashing the cash on Eze.
One could understand why the club’s faithful are getting excited with the arrival of the £16 million worth playmaker. With 13 goals and eight assists for QPR last season, Palace may have just signed another player that will deliver the much needed X-factor when things get hairy.
Eze may not be a ball playing specialist, but in his own quiet way, this tough as nails playmaker has just as much to offer. His success story at QPR speaks volumes about his adaptability, strength of character, and determination. He is expected to firmly establish himself as the soul and brains of the Palace side and help the club punch above its weight in the 2020/21 season.
That Eze completed the highest numbers of dribbles last season in the Championship shows that this 22-year old midfielder has a winning mentality in his DNA. More importantly, his dribbling skills and simplicity will be of great value to Crystal Palace’s quest to better their performance of last season.
Alex Iwobi (Everton)
Everton thought they had signed a strong and athletic player with enough strength to cover much ground when they splashed the cash on Iwobi. But the former Arsenal winger was a shadow of his former self at Goodison Park, as he failed to reproduce the form that made him one of the best youngsters to come out of the Emirates.
He lacked that tenacity and panache that is expected of a central midfielder and his final ball were woeful. Being a midfielder goes beyond just holding the ball, you must develop an instinct to think fast, commit defenders and create a hole for the striker to operate.
Iwobi was far from impressive in all these areas and he could be destined for a longer spell on the bench following the arrival of Colombian midfielder James Rodriguez and Frenchman Abdoulaye Doucoure.
What Iwobi lacked in terms of creativity and final ball, Rodriguez makes up for them with his creative flair and he looks good to offer that quality Everton have been lacking for a while.
Doucoure’s defensive abilities also gives him an edge over Iwobi. With Ancelotti bent on carrying out a complete overhaul of his midfield, a loan deal might just be the best option for the Super Eagles midfielder.
Ola Aina (Fulham)
Even before Fulham mooted the idea of signing the left fullback, Aina had already voiced his intention of moving away from Torino.
For a player who played a vital role in ensuring that Torino stayed afloat in the Serie A, a move to another club in Europe was necessary if he wanted to enjoy regular football, week in week out. So it was a sigh of relief when news emerged that Fulham wanted the Nigerian on a loan deal.
The Cottagers under manager Scott Parker are determined to retain their place in the English Premier League this time around, and signing Ola Aina will bring an additional boost to the side.
Aina’s versatility at the back coupled with his immense work rate down the flanks made him stand out last season and perhaps informed Fulham’s decision to snap him up.
Odion Ighalo (Manchester United)
Ighalo’s arrival at the Theatre of Dreams certainly attracted lots of attention, but not for good reasons. Some fans questioned Ole Gunnar Solskjær for bringing a striker all the way from China; a league known to be a retirement ground for players.
But Odion soon silenced his critics and won the fans over with his sublime performances in the Premier and Europa League last season.
It was no small achievement for the former Watford striker, after he emerged as Red Devil’s fifth highest goal scorer last season with five goals in 19 matches, despite only joining the club in the January transfer window. He was then offered another extension till January 2021 to demonstrate the club’s faith in him.
The former Granada forward might not be known for extravagant skills, as dribbling is not his strength, but he has determination and good two-footed shooting going for him.
While nothing suggests Ighalo will be the preferred striker to start games for United this term, his best possible option will be to grab his chances in FA and EFL Cup matches when they show up, which could lead to more game time in the EPL itself.
Semi Ajayi (West Bromwich)
The Super Eagles’ central defender could not have wished for a more productive season than the last one where he won promotion to the Premier League with West Bromwich Albion.
Most would have assumed that this versatile and well-rounded defender would be a bit-part player at the Hawthorns, but that was far from the case.
Semilogo joined the Baggies from Rotherham United and established himself as a defender in the Championship.
The 26-year-old defender, who can also switch roles as a midfielder, played 43 Championship appearances with five goals to his name.
Coach Slaven Bilic will be relying on Semi to produce the performance that endeared him to the hearts of West Bromwich Albion faithful last season.
The Baggies will be hoping that the Nigerian international puts up his best defensive performances starting from the home game against Leicester City.