After a volatile two years that saw them go from avoiding relegation on the final day of the season to finishing second in the league, Lille regressed to fourth place and finished bottom of the 2019/20 UEFA Champions League group stage under Christophe Galtier. This drop-off in form could be attributed to the departures of Nicolas Pépé, Rafael Leão and Thiago Mendes for mouth-watering fees, leaving massive holes in the team.
Jonathan Ikoné and Jonathan Bamba struggled to muster their previous form with Pépé at Arsenal, but Leão’s vacancy was seamlessly filled by Victor Osimhen, who scored 18 goals in all competitions, taking the scruff of the team’s goalscoring responsibility on his shoulder and allowing them to finish fourth at the time of the season’s cancellation due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which was enough to secure qualification to the Europa League group stage.
It was also enough to earn him a move to Napoli on July 31, 2020 for a club-record fee of €70 million rising to €80 million with bonuses, with senior goalkeeper Ornestis Karnezis and youth players Claudio Manzi, Ciro Palmieri, and Luigi Liguori heading the other way as financial makeweights. Osimhen became the most expensive African transfer to date, joining on a contract via 2025, a just reward for his hard work and perseverance that has been brewing since his childhood in Nigeria.
Osimhen grew up in the Lagos neighborhood of Olusosun, home of the largest open-air dump in Africa, and helped his family stay afloat by selling bottled water on the streets. At a time when other strikers were gaining valuable training sessions and world-class coaching, Osimhen worked hard to make ends meet, following his mother’s death and his father’s dismissal from his job as a police officer. Nevertheless, he never gave up his dream of becoming a footballer, and in the U-17 World Cup, his dream finally came to fruition.
Alongside an attack featuring Samuel Chukwueze and Kelechi Nwakali, Osimhen scored in each of Nigeria’s matches to amass a total of 10 goals, powering the Golden Eaglets to the trophy as the Golden Boot winner. To this day, nobody besides Osimhen has ever netted double figures for their nation across a U-17 World Cup.
His goal-scoring figures propelled manager Samson Siasia to start him in next month’s U-23 African Cup of Nations (AFCON) Final, which would also be won by Nigeria. The likes of Inter, Dortmund and Arsenal showed a strong interest in the teenage striker, but it was Wolfsburg who managed to pry him away.
He officially joined the German club on January 5, 2017, but his start to life in Europe came to an abrupt halt just weeks later; the €3.5 million new arrival, who had completed surgery on his knee just two months prior, was forced to undergo a meniscal procedure that would rule him out until the penultimate Bundesliga match of the season.
Osimhen made his full debut nearly a year after joining, leading the line against Hannover. But he only managed two more starting appearances for Wolfsburg, with new manager Bruno Labbadia opting mainly for veterans as Die Wölfe waged another relegation fight.
At 19 years old and with only 333 minutes of club football under his belt, Osimhen decided to head west for greener pastures, trying out for several Belgian clubs. Malaria had weakened his body to the point where neither Club Brugge nor Zulte Waregem were willing to take him on loan. Instead, it would be Charleroi who took a chance on him, signing him on loan with a purchase option for €3.5 million.
Osimhen took the opportunity by the scruff of his neck, scoring 19 goals in 30 appearances and winning Charleroi’s Player of the Season award. The club just barely missed out on a spot in the Europa League play-offs, after Antwerp came from behind to earn a spot in the ensuing qualifiers.
Nonetheless, this would not dissuade Lille from signing him to replace the departing Leão, signing him on a five-year contract for a fee of €12 million plus €3 million in bonuses. It did not take long for him to make an impact under Christophe Galtier, with the Nigerian scoring a brace on his Ligue 1 debut against Nantes. Another brace against Saint-Étienne soon followed, and by the end of November, Osimhen had already registered 9 goals and 2 assists.
Perhaps most impressively, he did it in a Lille team that looked devoid of ideas going forward, with the previous counter-attacking demons withering into a stale, overly conservative side that failed to strike the same fear into defenders. That’s the kind of player Osimhen is though — a natural-born killer who only needs a half-chance to bring home all three points.
Osimhen has also filled the sizeable shoes of Odion Ighalo, who retired from international duty after narrowly losing to eventual champions Algeria in the semifinals. Nigeria are blessed with a center forward depth rivaled by few countries in the world, but it is undeniable that Osimhen is the number one option for Gernot Rohr, providing 7 goals and 6 assists in 13 appearances for the Super Eagles.
14 months after joining Napoli for a club-record fee, it certainly seems that transfer has worked out for all parties. Lille not only assuaged their financial difficulties with a mouth-watering haul, they replaced him with Jonathan David, who joined for a club-record fee of €30 million, and Burak Yılmaz arrived on a free transfer after the expiry of his contract at Beşiktaş. Together, the two played a vital role in attack as Les Dogues sealed their first Ligue 1 title in 10 years, putting a temporary end to Paris Saint-Germain’s domestic dominance.
Osimhen replaced Arkadiusz Milik, who joined Marseille in January after failing to agree a new contract with the Partenopei, and quickly adapted to life in Italy, grabbing an assist against Genoa and scoring a goal apiece against Atalanta and Bologna in his first eight games, but he suffered a dislocated right shoulder on November 17, 2020 in a match against Sierra Leone.
This injury would keep him out for two months, but it wasn’t until April when Osimhen became a regular in Gennaro Gattuso’s team. One month after marking his return from a head injury with a goal against Bologna, Osimhen scored the second goal in a 7-goal thriller against Crotone, sneaking past Vladimir Golemić and tapping in a cross from Lorenzo Insigne. However, it was Osimhen’s compatriot Simy Nwankwo who stole the show with a brace as Crotone lost 3-4.
After failing to get on the score sheet in his substitute appearance against Juventus, Osimhen was rewarded with a start against Sampdoria and led his side to a 2-0 victory, deftly combining with Piotr Zieliński and Fabián Ruiz to set up the Spaniard’s opener, before chasing onto Dries Mertens’ through ball and blasting a superb finish past Emil Audero. He was unable to add to his tally in a 1-1 draw against Inter, but he helped seal a 5-2 victory over Lazio the following week, controlling a cross from Hirving Lozano and smashing the final goal past Pepe Reina.
This set in motion a spectacular run of form which saw him score in a 2-0 win over Torino, open the scoring in a 1-1 draw against Cagliari, and grab a brace and an assist in a 4-1 victory over Spezia. However, he drew a blank in the following wins against Udinese and Fiorentina, and failed to convert in the final match against Hellas Verona. Napoli opened the scoring as Amir Rrahmani converted from a corner kick against his former club, but Davide Faraoni quickly equalized to snatch a 1-1 draw.
It meant that, combined with Juventus’ win against Inter Milan, Napoli would miss out on the final Champions League spot by a point. Gattuso departed the club and was replaced by Luciano Spalletti, and the club enjoyed a quiet transfer window that only saw Juan Jesus and Davide Marfella arrive on free transfers, while André-Frank Zambo Anguissa arrived on loan from Fulham to replace the departing Tiemoué Bakayoko.
He was included in the starting line-up for Napoli’s opening match of the 2021/22 season but got off to a horrible start, as he was sent off in the 22nd minute for shoving Daan Heymans and received a two-match ban and a €5,000 fine. It was an incredibly harsh call that would later be reduced to a one-match ban, but it nevertheless revealed a problematic disciplinary record that Osimhen must improve sooner rather than later.
Osimhen returned to the starting line-up against Juventus and played the full 90 minutes as the Partenopei turned around an early deficit via second-half goals from Matteo Politano and Kalidou Koulibaly to defeat La Vecchia Signora. The following match saw them trail 0-2 as Harvey Barnes doubled Leicester City’s lead in the 64th minute after Ayoze Pérez’s opener, but Osimhen came to the rescue just five minutes later.
The Nigerian received a pass from Fabián and deftly flicked it over the head of Jannik Vestergaard before dinking it over Kasper Schmeichel and into the back of the net, a goal that married brilliant awareness and movement with world-class technique and finishing. The comeback was complete as Osimhen rose above Çağlar Söyüncü and headed home Politano’s cross to snatch a draw.
It hasn’t taken long for Osimhen to make amends for his expulsion, opening the scoring in a 4-0 demolition of Udinese before grabbing a brace in a 4-0 win over Sampdoria. Napoli sit atop the Serie A table with 15 points from five games, one of three teams in Europe’s top six leagues to have won every league match so far along with Benfica and Paris Saint-Germain. More impressively, they have scored 14 goals — only bettered by Inter’s 18 — and have conceded just 2.
Luciano Spalletti has set up his team in a 4-3-3 with Osimhen spearheading the attack, playing alongside Lorenzo Insigne and Matteo Politano or Hirving Lozano in the trident. He is running less wastefully and conserving his energy for vital movements such as off-the-ball runs and intense pressing, and it is clear that his decision-making and in-game awareness have become more measured and intelligent under Spalletti’s time in charge thus far.
While his efficiency in front of goal may be his biggest asset, he is far from just a goalscoring poacher. He is a rapid striker with a long stride and insatiable pressing, who can hold up the ball with his back to goal and free up space for his teammates, who has the physicality to come out on top against any defender in Italy, and who can wreak havoc in transition with his superb link-up play and shrewd movement.
Osimhen allows Napoli the ability to play a vertical style of play but is also capable of utilizing his unique strengths against compact defenses. He runs an average of 8 km per game and executes pressures during 63% of his playing time, per Lega Serie A, he will go blow for blow in the air no matter whether it’s a throw-in or a long ball, he will attack every single cross, and as impressive as his current form is, with 5 goals in 3 games, there’s still plenty of room for improvement.
One of my favorite comeback stories this year has been Victor Osimhen’s 🇳🇬.
Malaria had weakened his body to the point where he failed trials at Club Brugge and Zulte Waregem last year. Now he’s set to join Lille for €14m & play CL football after scoring 19 goals for Charleroi. pic.twitter.com/qaH6qLdCho
— Zach Lowy (@ZachLowy) July 26, 2019
“I am very happy with my performance and a little sorry for everything that happened last year,” said Osimhen in an interview with DAZN. “Spalletti helped me to improve because of the confidence he gave me. The best way to repay his trust was to score goals. I am really honored to have a coach like him, he gives me a lot, after training he stops in order to work with me and we do a lot together, this helps me a lot.”
The departures of Romelu Lukaku and Cristiano Ronaldo have left a vacancy for another player to step up as the new face of Serie A and the most dangerous striker in Calcio. And while there is still plenty of football left to be played, no central forward has proven to be quite as unstoppable in so many different ways as the 22-year-old; whether picking the right pass in transition, or demonstrating his battling ram capabilities in the air, or holding the ball up for teammates, he is a constant threat for Napoli.
It has been a long-winded and rigorous journey for him. Growing up in Olusosun, Osimhen and his seven siblings would have to work to make ends meet for their family, who lived in a single-room house. “My brother sold newspapers, my sister sold oranges on the street, and I sold bags of water to the landfill workers. At night, we would gather all the money on the table and my older sister would organize it so that we could eat the next day. It was very difficult.”
Whether fighting malaria or helping his family put the food on the table, Osimhen is no stranger to struggle, but he has nevertheless persevered and could be set for a move to the upper echelon of European football in the coming years. Today, though, he faces a new challenge: leading Napoli to their first Scudetto in 32 years.
By: Zach Lowy / @ZachLowy
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / DeFodi Images