However hopeful despondent Everton fans might be, it would be prudent to start this piece by noting that Henry Onyekuru is not a ready-made replacement for Romelu Lukaku.
For a start, the noticeably slight Onyekuru – now on loan at Anderlecht – is about half a foot shorter than his Goodison Park predecessor. He is not as rounded, not the ‘complete forward’ in a way that you might say about Lukaku, and he isn’t likely to be pushing the 30-goal mark in the Premier League any time soon.
What the 20-year- old could be is hope that things can improve for the Toffees. While he isn’t the same player as Lukaku, he does offer a lot of the things that have been missing from Everton’s play since their main man packed his bags for Manchester. Pace. Purpose. Dynamism. Sticking one in the net every now and again.
Given the race Everton had to win to land the Nigerian international this summer, and the striker-shaped hole left in their squad by the failure to land big-name targets like Diego Costa and Nikola Kalinić, it was disappointing to see work permit issues forcing him to return to Belgium on loan. It was there that he began his professional career after spending his youth at the Qatari Aspire
Academy, helping KAS Eupen up from the second tier with six goals in 19 appearances as a teenager. Eupen had to step up and Onyekuru had to follow, and he did so admirably. 24 goals in all competitions in a stellar season brought admiring gazes his way from around Europe and across the English Channel. Arsenal, West Ham, and Newcastle were linked with his signature and Celtic were rebuffed in multiple attempts to sign him, but Everton got their man. It wasn’t hard to see why they wanted him. His highlights are exhausting to watch, a bundle of energy and purpose lighting up the Belgian First Division A.
He flits about the pitch like a caffeinated pondskater, slinking away from his marker one second and popping up with the ball 20 yards away the next. He isn’t all unharnessed energy though – his runs are clever and measured, stretching the game and creating space for his teammates as much as himself. Like many young forwards of this ilk he has played much of his early football on the wing, generally on the left.
In terms of ability on the ball, Onyekuru is a real prospect. His close control and touch, particularly in one-on- one situations, are excellent and will only improve with regular training and game time at a higher level.
Clearly, with 30 goals to his name in Belgium before the age of 21, finishing is another key strength. His highlights do include the usual smattering of ‘that won’t go in in the Premier League’ efforts but generally he is incisive and instinctive in his goalscoring, attributes that most keepers will struggle to deal with. Goals in the Belgian league are difficult to quantify in terms of their weight, in a manner perhaps reminiscent of strikers in the Dutch Eredivisie. Lukaku and Christian Benteke translated their prolific nature to a higher level, while regular goal-getter Jelle Vossen managed just six in the Championship with Middlesbrough and none in a remarkably brief spell with Burnley.
What Onyekuru clearly has on his side here is his youth, and perhaps also his style. A fast runner is a fast runner at any level, and though it may not be a fashionable opinion, he will have few people better to learn from than his Everton teammate Wayne Rooney. The two are roughly the same height, and Rooney spent at least the first decade of his career showing that you don’t have to be tall to be an effective ‘powerhouse’ forward. He might not deploy them with the brutal effectiveness of the tearaway he once was, but he knows all the tricks.
Onyekuru has the spirit to act as more than just a pacey outlet for his side. His athleticism allows him to outjump lankier opponents, and he has the battling, never-say- die outlook to keep chasing balls after they have been nicked away from him. There is a swagger and a fearlessness about his play, a willingness not only to attempt the audacious– delicate lobbed finishes, impudent shoulder flicks, nutmegs on defenders twice his size – but also to fight, taking hits for the team and tracking back more than one would expect from a young attacker.
And yet, despite the chance to train with a legendary forward who must have been a source of inspiration for Onyekuru in his youth, a premature return to Everton could be the worst thing for him.
A relegation fight in the Premier League is not a forgiving place. This is doubly true for a club with the resources and expectations of the Toffees. While ‘lesser’ sides can benefit from the sense of freedom a ‘nothing to lose’ situation can give, if Onyekuru was to return to Everton in January he would be doing so with an awful lot of pressure on his shoulders.
If he stays at Anderlecht, he has the chance to play regular football under the sort of pressure more conducive to positive growth. The Paars-wit are the current champions and have won four titles out of the last six, but this is aspirational pressure, the pressure to be the best and win a trophy in the process – not the potentially choking, confidence-sapping pressure of trying to claw one’s way out of a thoroughly unexpected fight for survival.
Seven goals in 17 appearances so far this season is evidence that he is flourishing at the Constant Vanden Stock Stadium, and there is a very real chance that Everton could simply cash in on their man without him ever kicking a ball for them. Perhaps unluckily for Anderlecht but fortuitously for a developing young talent, the Belgian champions were drawn in a Champions League group with Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich, giving him the chance to test himself against the game’s elite.
Unsurprisingly, at first glance it hasn’t been a productive European campaign. At time of writing, they have been beaten 3-0, 3-0, and 4-0. For Onyekuru, though, it has seen him take his reputation to the continental level.
A promising half an hour from the bench in Bavaria saw him play the full 90 minutes against Celtic and PSG, and his performance against the would-be Champions League hopefuls was one of the best of his career so far. One nutmeg on Marco Verratti made the rounds on Twitter, but it was seven-time FIFA FIFPro World XI member Dani Alves who was left exasperated and emasculated, chasing a shadow for 90 minutes in a surprisingly torrid performance for a defender on the right side of a 4-0 scoreline. Had Onyekuru had higher calibre teammates around him, he probably would have had a goal or an assist to his
name rather than one solitary shot against the woodwork to show for his troubles. Now, if rumours are to be believed, the clubs linked to his signature have stepped up a level. West Ham and Newcastle are no longer the benchmark, Juventus and Atlético Madrid are.
If Everton’s new manager steadies the ship, addresses some inadequacies in the squad in January, and gets the club back on target in its grand project, there is no reason why Onyekuru wouldn’t want to play his football there. On the evidence of his brief career so far, he is certainly good enough to. If not, there will be no shortage of clubs offering him a way out next summer.
By: Sam France/@sjakef