After steering them from second-bottom in the league to a sixth-place finish and a run to the Europa League semifinals, Bayer Leverkusen have delivered an exciting transfer window that has seen veteran players like Jonas Hofmann, Alex Grimaldo and Granit Xhaka head to the BayArena in addition to promising young talents like Arthur and Matej Kovar. Whilst they have lost a key figure in attack in Moussa Diaby, who has reunited with Unai Emery at Aston Villa, they have nevertheless secured the services of one of the most exciting African strikers in Europe to bolster an attacking core featuring the likes of Florian Wirtz, Amine Adli, and Patrik Schick.
Born in Lagos, Nigeria, he began his development at Real Sapphire Football Club before heading to Bodo / Glimt at the age of 18. Just two weeks after making the move to Europe, he suffered a ligament injury and was forced to withdraw from Nigeria’s squad for the 2019 U-20 African Cup of Nations, coming back after just six months and making his debut on September 22, 2019, grabbing his debut goal in a 4-2 loss to Molde on December 1.
He began the 2020/21 campaign in impressive fashion only to damage his ACL once again, this time missing an entire year due to injury. This, combined with the death of his mother, would see him spiral into a deep depression, on the verge of walking away from the game. “I lost interest in football, he told Ojora Babatunde in April 2022. “I forgot about my diets, I began to eat everything. I started living a normal life and I just wanted to be happy. I started partying and drinking.”
He returned to action in November 2021 and quickly got back to his best, eventually departing Norway in the summer of 2022 and joining Union Saint-Gilloise after racking up 23 goals and 8 assists in 66 appearances for Bodo / Glimt. The Belgian side were coming off their first season in the top-flight since 1973, finishing atop the league table in the regular season only to finish second to Club Brugge in the end-of-season championship playoff.
With Dante Vanzeir and Deniz Undav — the striker duo who proved vital in USG’s successful return to the top-flight — departing for Brighton and New York Red Bulls, respectively, USG signed Boniface for €6 million, with the Nigerian striker playing 68 minutes before being taken off in his debut match, a 2-1 win against KV Kortrijk. Boniface would start the following match, opening the scoring within two minutes in a 2-1 win against Anderlecht, before grabbing an assist in the following match, a 4-2 loss to Royal Antwerp.
Boniface would begin his Europa League campaign by setting up Senne Lynen’s opening goal before the break in a 1-0 victory at Union Berlin and following that up with goals against Malmö and Eupen, a brace against Braga and a goal and an assist against Oostende as USG finished atop their Europa League group and continued their impressive domestic form under manager Karel Geraerts.
He scored a brace in the first leg of their Round of 16 fixture against Europa League against Union Berlin, setting up a date with fellow Bundesliga side Bayer Leverkusen in the quarterfinals. Boniface grabbed the opener before the break but Florian Wirtz drew level in the 82nd minute, but the Nigerian was kept under wraps in the following match against Leverkusen, a 4-1 defeat at home.
After the first leg, Xabi Alonso was asked about his opinion on Boniface by Oma Akatugba, with the Spaniard responding: “He has done very well in the Europa League and the group stage as well, and today we have seen that he is a good striker who is strong, fast and good on the ball. He is a very important player for Union Saint-Gilloise.”
Despite being eliminated in the quarterfinals, Boniface finished as the joint-top scorer in the Europa League alongside Marcus Rashford, registering 17 goals and 12 assists across all competitions as USG finished second in the league table and came third in the four-team championship playoff. Similar to his compatriot Victor Osimhen, he is a physically imposing striker who is capable of holding up the ball under pressure, taking on defenders with his pace and stamina, and proving a menace on the counter.
His style has been likened to Polish striker Robert Lewandowski, an all-round center forward who is skilled with both feet and who is blessed with clever movement, strong dribbling, and the ability to beat his marker with his blistering speed and acceleration, whilst his aerial ability is yet another weapon in his arsenal.
These qualities should work like a charm under Alonso, whose shift towards a 3-4-3 formation would see Leverkusen thrive in transition, staying narrow and congesting space in the middle in order to force the opponents to go wide, before exerting pressure and squeezing their rivals in an attempt to win the ball back. It is an aggressive style that prioritizes winning the ball high up the pitch and that is far more vertical than horizontal, and Boniface has the attributes both in possession as well as the dedication off the ball to make this a perfect marriage.
A hard-working, technically gifted striker who is capable of pirouetting past players, holding off opponents and buying himself time before launching an inch-perfect shot his deft skill, pace, aerial prowess and powerful running with the ball makes him a complete striker. He has the confidence and speed of thought to drop deep and combine with teammates in order to create golden opportunities in the final third.
With Patrik Schick missing large swathes of the season due to injury and Sardar Azmoun scoring just four goals in 23 Bundesliga appearances, it was clear that Die Werkself needed a new striker, and they have elected to splurge on Boniface for a fee exceeding €20 million. Boniface doubled the lead in their opening game of the season, an 8-0 win against Teutonia 05 Ottensen, and he’ll be looking to get the start again as Leverkusen host RB Leipzig in their Bundesliga opener.
By: Ogunniyi Abayomi / @OgunniyiAbayomy
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / DeFodi Images