“That’s a really tough one. I think trying to speak and communicate as much as you can with family, whether that’s on FaceTime on the phone, or texting,” he added. These were the words of Ademola Lookman, talking to Sarah Shephard of The Athletic recently. He was asked how he felt dealing loneliness that comes with being a player in a foreign country.
It’s important to remember that Lookman has played abroad before in his career; he spent two years in Germany as he was still applying his trade at RB Leipzig. But during his spell with the German outfit, he wasn’t playing the desired game time he believed was needed for his development. He only appeared for the club 22 times in a two-year span. To put it into perspective, he has already matched that tally this season for Atalanta; it’s only February.
“I just want to be playing because that’s where I get my joy from.”
Despite the isolation he may be feeling off the pitch, that clearly hasn’t seeped into his performances on the pitch. In fact, Lookman being placed outside his comfort zones globally has probably enhanced his focus on his game, and that focus has rewarded him in abundance.
It’s safe to say that Lookman has enjoyed his time in Bergamo so far. Arriving at the club in the summer, after being unable to secure a move to his loanee club the season before, Leicester, the expectations for the 25-year-old were not high. Despite impressing during his time at Leicester, the lack of willingness of the club to loosen the purse strings showed the value (or the lack of) they placed on getting him into the club permanently. But that didn’t deter Atalanta from moving for his services.
Gian Piero Gasperini has been pushing towards a new, younger culture at the club. The 2022 summer transfer window was indicative of this policy; Jeremie Boga (26), Éderson (23), Merih Demiral (24), Rasmus Højlund (20), Brandon Soppy (21) alongside Lookman (25) have all emphasised the new recruitment drive. Lookman, in particular, has been a success story in his very own.
His talent has never been in doubt. His ability to cause pure chaos to any defensive line is spellbinding in itself. But, in the modern game, football fans consume the product and analyse the players within that product; there is more emphasis on the numbers that a forward contributes to, and that has been a point of criticism in Lookman’s game — a weakness he has refined — 19 goal involvements (14 goals and five assists) in 24 games is the most productive he has been in his career, with much of the season to play.
He arrived in Italy as a boy and has become a man. At 25, Lookman may be breaking through later than expected; his come-up has been incredible — and it seems he is only getting started.
Teen Years: From London to Merseyside
Born and raised in Greater London, Lookman was socialised at the heart of the capital. As a child of Nigerian parents, the motivation put on him was to succeed in school at foremost — so he did. During his time at school, Lookman achieved three A*s and five As at GCSE, and despite his academic superiority, his future lay on the pitch and not off it.
Charlton saw the potential early and took him into their academy. His goal-scoring record for Charlton’s U18 and U21 teams propelled him through the Charlton academy ranks quickly, and he made his first-team debut for the Addicks in 2015 — and scored his first goal for the club a month later against Brighton & Hove Albion.
The young winger would make 45 senior appearances for the club, scoring ten goals and providing a further five assists leaving the club as one of the more prominent talents in the English football league — a talent that would attract onlookers in the top division — Everton, to be exact. Lookman would join an Everton side in January for a fee of around £11 million, a side being led by the admirable but dwindling persona of Ronald Koeman.
In his two and a half seasons at Everton, spending one of them on loan at RB Leipzig, he would have played under three different managers take the dugout at the Merseyside club — indicative of the unstable nature of the club than Lookman. The highlight of his time at Merseyside club would be his debut; scoring his side’s fourth in a phenomenal 4-0 win against Manchester City and impressing in his cameo.
First Taste Abroad: RB Leipzig
Lookman’s lack of adaptability to life in Merseyside and the constant flipping of managers meant a loan was needed for his development to continue on the right trajectory. A loan back to the Championship was heavily touted, with the likes of Derby County and Aston Villa, but a move of any kind didn’t materialise.
The need for first-team football was imperative for Lookman, and he saw Leipzig as the ideal place. He didn’t play much, but when he did, he impressed. Scoring five goals in 11 league appearances showed efficiency. It started to be a trademark of the attacker — scoring on his debut for RB Leipzig, the winner, in fact, in the away game against Borussia Mönchengladbach.
Leipzig was impressed with what they saw from Lookman, even if it was brief. And in the summer of 2019, they went back in for a player to make a move permanently. Leipzig paid €25.5 million for Lookman’s services. The winger showed what he could offer in his temporary loan spell; his pace, versatility and ingenuity in and around the opposition box seemed a perfect match for the directness and perfect chaos of Timo Werner and the target man figure of Yussuf Poulsen.
Ademola Lookman for RB Leipzig in the 2017-2018 Bundesliga season:
• 2.7 key passes per 90
• 2.2 fouls won per 90
• 2.0 shots per 90
• 1.9 dribbles per 90
An electric attacker. pic.twitter.com/BJ4HnVF50p
— Scouted Football (@scoutedftbl) July 25, 2019
During the 19-20 season, Nagelsmann routinely used a traditional 3-5-2 flat. Meaning he would only pick two out of an array of attackers, including the three mentioned earlier and the likes of Patrik Schick and Christopher Nkunku. Werner and Poulsen, in particular, struck up an efficient partnership that would see a lot of Lookaman’s minutes that seasons either off the bench or as an alternative to the two, then alongside. “Everyone’s desperate to play. We’ve been going all out. There’s a buzz about getting back,” Lookman told The Times.
Lookman felt a “buzz” while playing for Leipzig and Julian Nagelsmann. But that buzz wasn’t felt enough. A return to Germany was meant to be the kickstart in Lookman’s career that he looked for. The likes of Jadon Sancho and Reiss Nelson, to a certain extent, were young English players who went to Germany to gain consistent game time. Unlike the aforementioned two, Lookman didn’t shine, and his time at the Red Bull club was cut just as short as his previous loan spell.
Back Home: Loans at Fulham and Leicester City
Germany was a setback in Ademola’s development. He was lost as a footballer and as a person. So he went home. Many at Leipzig were cautious of letting a player of Lookman’s evident talent go, but an agreement to let the player go to Fulham on loan seemed the most viable one, and so it was. Lookman’s return to London would see him be part of a very limited side; their 18th placed finish and relegation back to the EFL Championship showed this.
But despite this, Lookman showed (in spurts) that he can play at the Premiership level. A squad lacking attacking intent as a side managed under the pragmatism of Scott Parker, in these situations, Lookman’s four goals in the Premier League — second in the squad behind Bobby Decordova-Reid (5), was very commendable at the time. Fulham’s time in the Premier League was cut short, but not Lookman’s.
Leipzig that season were a side evolving and everchanging; Christopher Nkunku was coming into his own, the acquisition of Dani Olmo and Dominik Szoboszlai meant places in the attacking lineup were limited Nagelsmann was poached by Bayern and in came Jesse Marsch from Red Bull Salzburg. It was clear that Lookman wasn’t wanted anymore at the Red Bull Arena, and Leicester was there to offer him a way out, temporarily.
As expected, in a much better Leicester compared to Fulham, Lookamn looked a lot more comfortable and started to mature into the player many believed he could be. The profile of a threatening modern Premier League winger was starting to flourish — doubling his goal tally (8) — showed that his efficient nature was returning to his game.
He popped up with crucial goals, one being the winner against Liverpool — to halt their title charge. The confidence he showed in his previous loans was gradually returning to his game on a more consistent level. Playing alongside James Maddison, Harvey Barnes, Kelechi Iheanacho and Jamie Vardy — the quality those players posed allowed more space and time for Lookman to affect the game.
Brendan Rodgers was known to be a massive admirer of the Nigerian winger. But due to the financial constraints that Leicester was under and are still under, any transfer was only possible if an outgoing was to permit. And once again, left Lookman stranded in no man’s land.
A Home in Bergamo
For much of Lookman’s career, instability was the common factor. He thought he had that in his move to Merseyside, but he did not. He thought he had that with these chances at Leipzig, but he did not. Even in the unstable positions of his career — with the back-to-back loans in England — the loans offered him short-term stability that he hadn’t had, but it was temporary.
At 24, Lookman had coined a phrase no player, let alone any young player, would want to be attached to: Journeyman. His constant floating around from club to club had led to a stagnation in his development, so he needed a stable home. Leipzig did not want Lookman anymore, and Leicester wanted Lookman but did not have the financial capacity to bring him in permanently; he needed to find another destination.
He had his admirers, but their admiration would only go so far. “I had a few offers in England, and I was thinking, ‘what do I really need next season?” he continued in that interview, as mentioned earlier with The Athletic. Atalanta was willing to provide Lookman with that home.
“I sat down with my family, and with Atalanta coming in, we just made up our minds that this was another stage in the journey that we needed to go through because we felt like it was important that there was another layer added to me.”
Atalanta hadn’t been the attractive proposition they were three or four years ago. They were in a transition, and Gian Piero Gasperini was ready to lead the new phase of the club. Gasperini, a well-respected coach within European football, identified Lookman as the type of profile for his side to get back to the higher summit of Italian football.
“He has technique, pace, is a player any coach would be happy with,” Gasperini told Sky Italia via Goal back in October. “We realised pretty quickly what he was capable of; he was convincing from the start.” As Italian coaches do, Gasperini looked to improve Lookman’s diet and general life away from football to maximise his game.
Lookman added with The Times, “I’ve started eating a lot of plain foods like white pasta, like more fish. That’s my diet. No sauce. Some vegetables. Sleep’s very important; trying to get in eight hours. After games, I’ll do recovery, maybe going into the cryo chamber, doing some upper body work, and some stretching.
“[Gasperini] is intense, a strong man, a top coach,” he continued. “He always wants us to attack; he loves seeing goals. But there’s a structure: he wants us to build through the thirds. I definitely have a defensive role, to help the team within the structure, but that defensive role also allows me to attack.”
His improvement off the pitch has evidently correlated with his improvement off it. His productivity has seen a career-high boost during his time in Italy. So far, his 12 goals and four assists in the league are the most efficient he has ever been, but so have his underlying numbers. In the last year, his progressive passes (3.75) and progressive carries (3.54) per ninety have seen an upturn demonstrating that when he is getting on the ball, he is a more progressive outlet in helping his team gain yards up the pitch.
5 – Goals in 2023 in the Big-5 European leagues:
5⃣ Ademola #Lookman 🇳🇬
4⃣ Victor Osimhen 🇳🇬
4⃣ Lautaro Martínez 🇦🇷
4⃣ Erling Haaland 🇳🇴
4⃣ Wissam Ben Yedder 🇫🇷
— OptaPaolo (@OptaPaolo) January 28, 2023
Operating on the right-hand side as a support striker in Gian Piero Gasperini’s 3-5-2 or as a more traditional winger in a 3-4-3 setup, Lookman is looked upon to be the direct threat between the lines; his aggressive movement and devastating pace make him a terror for defences up and down the country.
His back-to-back-to-back braces against Salernitana, Spezia and Juventus was a week where a boy turned into a man. Each performance demonstrated the skill, pace, ruthless finishing and confidence of one of the league’s finest forwards.
Lookman captivated all the skills of Josip Ilicic, Duván Zapata and Luis Muriel — three players who encapsulate all the great aspects that made fans fall in love with Gian Piero Gasperini — and has made fans fall back in love with the club. Atalanta, a club trying to get back to the position of stability; Ademola Lookman, a player craving for stability — un’abbinamento perfetto. A perfect match.
By: Raphael Adelugba / @RaphaelAde0
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / ANP / Getty Images