With 13 goals and 11 assists this year, Samuel Chukwueze is among a wave of Nigerian attacking talents blowing up in Europe this season. Chukwueze alongside Victor Osimhen and Ademola Lookman have held their own in two of Europe’s five major leagues this season while the likes of Gift Orban and Victor Boniface have caught the eye in the lower leagues.
Born and bred in Nigeria’s Eastern city of Umuahia in Abia State, Chukwueze has followed a similar route to several other Nigerian footballing talents in making a name for himself in one of the best leagues in Europe. A product of Umuahia’s Diamond Football Academy and one of the stars of Nigeria’s 2015 FIFA U-17 World Cup-winning squad, Chukwueze’s talent has never been in doubt.
The Nigerian has been at Villarreal since 2017, growing and developing through the ranks from the youth set-up before making his first team debut in a 2-2 UEFA Europa League draw vs Rangers in September 2018 after which Javi Calleja who was Villarreal coach at the time described the then 19-year-old as “a player with a great future” who must keep working hard.
Close to five years down the line, it is pretty much safe to say that Chukwueze has indeed worked hard to hold down a spot as a regular in Villarreal’s first team set-up and he’s constantly reminded everyone of his brilliance on numerous occasions. Winning the Europa League with Villarreal in 2021 and scoring the goal that eliminated Bayern Munich in Villarreal’s famous run to their second UEFA Champions League semi-final last season stand tall amongst the major highlights of Chukwueze’s professional footballing career so far.
Blessed with explosive pace, a wicked left foot and uncommon trickery, the 23-year-old has got the raw materials of a modern-day winger. His pace and acceleration allow him to get past opposition defences in a swift manner similar to bikes on an expressway. On his day, he could be as slippery as butter, sitting defenders down as he cuts in to shoot on his stronger left foot.
It is all these attributes that have earned him the nicknames, the Nigerian Flash and the Nigerian Arjen Robben, However, what will matter most, in the long run, is the rate of consistency in which all these tools in a player’s arsenal is maximised. The Nigerian international has obviously improved on his work rate and defensive discipline after working under top managers like Unai Emery but it is the attacking numbers that have always made forwards and attackers to stand out.
Statistically, the 2022/23 season has so far been Chukwueze’s best season since his first team debut in 2018 as for the first time in his career, he has hit double digits for both goals and assists (13 and 11 respectively) in 40 appearances across all competitions this season. That’s in total, 24 goals and assists combined, way better than his second-best-ever season being his debut season (2018/19) where he racked up 14 goals and assists combined in 47 appearances across all competitions he played in.
What makes Chukwueze’s current form more impressive is the fact that he’s so far outperformed the likes of Bukayo Saka, Riyad Mahrez, and Raphinha in terms of goals and assists this season. The numbers do not lie as his 24 goals/assists in all competitions this season is more than what Saka (23 g/a), Mahrez (20g/a), and Raphinha (18g/a) have registered for Arsenal, Manchester City and Barcelona in all competitions respectively.
The Villarreal man might not have been as outstanding as some of Europe’s best wingers in other aspects of the game but he’s very much improved in those numbers which matter the most and it is just a pointer to the fact that at the age of 23, he is en route to reaching the peak of his powers. Of course, Samuel Chukwueze still has more to offer and his best years ahead of him.
Villarreal’s 3-2 win over Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabéu on Saturday night was Chukwueze’s latest audition as a world beater in the making. The Nigerian bagged two goals in what was an excellent man-of-the-match performance against the current Spanish champions and according to stats presented by Opta, it was a record-equalling performance by Chukwueze as he became the first player to complete seven dribbles against Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabéu since Lionel Messi did so in April 2017.
Impressively, the 23-year-old winger completed seven out of his eight dribbles in what was a night to forget for Nacho Fernández and co in the Real Madrid defence. Saturday night was obviously not the first time the pacy forward had stepped up in a big game for Villarreal. His overall personal record against Real Madrid shows that he’s scored three goals and registered two assists in nine appearances against Los Blancos who are currently his favourite opponents to play against with the second favourite opponents being Barcelona, a team he’s also scored thrice against while registering one assist in nine appearances.
It is also very easy to remember that Chukwueze was one of the major protagonists in Villarreal’s fairytale UEFA Champions League run in 2021/22 as he scored the goal that sunk Bayern Munich in last season’s quarter-final tie. However, like many young players, consistency has so far been one of the challenges of Chukwueze’s promising career.
Prior to this season, the 23-year-old had never set very high standards for himself in terms of individual numbers. It was just flashes of brilliance on some occasions and while he’s always been a key player for Villarreal, the numbers most often suggested otherwise until this season. Recall that about two years ago, former Villarreal coach Unai Emery had called out Samuel Chukwueze alongside young Japanese forward Take Kubo on their inconsistent performances as he promised to continually demand more from his youngsters.
“We need the experience that some players are accumulating to be translated into improvements. We need Samu [Chukwueze] to settle down after two years of being inconsistent in the first team. We need him to make a difference and this year he is doing so to a lesser extent. In Anoeta I bet on him with the idea that he would win the match and he couldn’t do it. We will continue to insist.” Emery said to Marca, as quoted by Besoccer.
It is now safe to say that two years after Emery’s comments, there’s been an improvement in Chukwueze’s performances and it is actually no coincidence that the Nigerian is now beginning to find joy in a system that is different from what he was usually accustomed to over the last four to five years. Former Barcelona manager Quique Setién took over from Unai Emery as Villarreal’s boss earlier this season and the Spanish tactician has introduced a radical shift from the 4-4-2 formation which Villareal had played under Emery and the majority of the last decade to a more attacking 4-3-3, and Samuel Chukwueze has been one of the major beneficiaries of this tactical change as he is now being deployed in a role that cloaks his weaknesses and enhances his strengths.
Setién prefers his wingers to drift and play more infield in closer proximity to the centre-forward rather than way out wide and the numbers have shown that this new system suits Chukwueze as he is being burdened with lesser defensive responsibilities, unlike Emery’s system where the wingers had to work harder in a compact shape when out of possession and then play wider off goal when the team had position. The new manager has been delighted about Chukwueze’s development and did not hide his admiration for the forward’s performance in the 3-2 win over Real Madrid on Saturday.
“Samu [Chukwueze] played a very complete match today. Extraordinary. He has been effective in scoring two goals that he has pulled out of his sleeve and has contributed in all facets, in defence as an aid and always being a threat. He is a kid who is in a moment of inspiration that is helping us a lot.
He is a boy with a great desire to grow and improve. We see the reward on days like today, with great goals that may have celebrated even the Madrid fans. These actions are what we all like to see on a football field. For these players, it is worth paying a ticket.”
Samuel Chukwueze is yet to fully hit the ground running on one front though. Amidst all his exploits at club level for Villareal, the Nigerian has barely made any meaningful impact in international football. With just four goals in 24 caps for the Super Eagles of Nigeria, Chukwueze’s form for the national team last left a lot more to be desired and he was a subject of criticism in his most recent international outing with the Super Eagles as he yet again failed to impress in the double-headed AFCON qualifying tie vs Guinea Bissau, a tie Nigeria shockingly lost 1-0 at home before scraping a victory by the same margin in the reverse fixture three days later.
Chukwueze alongside Ademola Lookman and Victor Osimhen form an impressive Super Eagles front three that looks very formidable but only just on paper, and this begs the question; what has held the likes of Samuel Chukwueze back from being a major influence in the national colours?
Some pundits and fans are of the opinion that a lack of desire and motivation is a key factor while others believe the contrasting conditions and the difference in the national team’s system and playing style compared to what is obtainable at club level is proving a key factor, an opinion echoed by Former Super Eagles and Ajax winger Tijani Babangida in a recent chat with Nigerian media outlet, Brila FM.
It is difficult to disagree with the opinion of Babangida as it is very clear that Super Eagles coach José Peseiro is yet to fully maximise the strengths of his star-studded team. Apart from not playing in the most favourable system for some of the key players, Nigeria’s harmony and synergy on the field of play is close to zero and this is made evident in their recent matches, losing 1-0 to Guinea-Bissau in the AFCON ’24 qualifiers before beating them 1-0 via a penalty goal from Moses Simon.
Chukwueze will be relying on Peseiro to find a solution as even the best of footballers will find it difficult to play at their best in a team that lacks synergy and harmony, and when this is fixed, he is very likely to be one of the major acts in a potentially scary Super Eagles team.
In the meantime, the 23-year-old will be hoping to finish the season strongly with Villarreal who currently sit fifth on the La Liga table, and with just four points separating the Yellow Submarine from the Champions League spots, there is a high optimism at the Estadio La Céramica that Champions League football next season is achievable.
Despite exiting the Europa Conference League at the Round of 16 to Anderlecht, Villarreal have what it takes to close out the season on a strong note under Quique Setién, with the Yellow Submarine taking 16 points from a potential 18 to move to fifth in the table. Samuel Chukwueze has played a vital role in their stellar second half of the season, and if he can lead them to a top-four finish and maintain his newfound efficiency in front of the net, he may just depart Villarreal after six years and earn a move to one of Europe’s biggest clubs.
By: Moses Adikwu / @Moe_Adikwu
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Getty Images