Samuel Chukwueze: from his family burning his boots to one of the most sought-after talents in Europe

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Photo: Villarreal CF official Twitter

The La Liga scene didn’t know what hit them when Villarreal introduced their Nigerian prodigy, Samuel Chukwueze, in November 2018. His blistering speed and exhilarating dribbling abilities, combined with his fearlessness, made him a nightmare to defend even for the most senior defenses. His 2019-20 campaign hasn’t gone as leveled his freshman season, but he’s nonetheless one of the most sought-after and intriguing talents in the world of football.

Like one of his biggest idol in life, legendary Nigerian footballer Jay-Jay Okocha, Samuel “Samu” Chukwueze was born in an Igbo-Nigerian family. Chukwueze’s was raised by his uncle, a minister, and his mother, a nurse. They were strict and were both very adamant that Samu’s football was something secondary to education and faith.

Samu plied his trade on the tough pitch conditions at his school in Umuahia in southeast Nigeria, and he got his interest in football from his grandfather who was a local footballer in his day.

Samu was a good student, but his priorities were different from his family’s. He ate, breathed and lived football. Most of the time he managed to balance education and football. But at one point in time, his mother and uncle started to see a negative trend in his grades at school and felt they needed to send a message.

“I was a good student, but when you love something and you are so passionate about it, it becomes your focus. Your studies start to fade. I was obsessed with playing football. Sometimes, I would go to training and would return home late, and I knew I was going to get punished. They’d say I would have to sleep outside. My mum would say I couldn’t come inside the house. My uncle told me ‘Samuel, you need to stop playing this game and focus on school’ but I didn’t listen. Then, one day they burned my boots! All my training gear, they burnt them so I couldn’t go.”, Chukwueze told GOAL in an interview.

He wasn’t allowed to play professionally by his uncle and mother. But one day in 2013, his mother had a change of heart when a friend of his told him about trials to play for the local academy, Diamond Football Academy, with the chance to go to Portugal and play in youth tournament “Iber Cup”. Samu told his friend no because his family wouldn’t allow it, but the day after, his mother gave him her blessing to play and saying that God had told her to let him play football – and that was the moment something changed inside of him. Samu had always been talented, but at that tournament, he put in not just one, but two and three additional gears.

Diamond Football Academy won Iber Cup spearheaded by a pacey 14-year-old right-winger, Chukwueze, who scored 12 goals in five games. After the collective and individual success at Iber Cup, industry officials back home in Nigeria took notice of him and called him up to the youth national teams.

It was with the youth national team at the U17 World Cup in Chile 2015 where Chukwueze first attracted interest from European scouts and clubs, as he helped the Nigerian Super Eagles to glory. He was a key player in a Nigerian team that fended off Trent Alexander-Arnold’s England, Éder Militão’s Brazil and Christian Pulisic’s USA to be crowned world champions. Samu scored three goals and made three assists in five games, earning him the bronze boot.

Photo: Nigeria Super Eagles official Twitter

But Chukwueze stayed with Diamond Football Academy for another two years, and it wasn’t until 2017 that PSG, Porto, Sporting, Salzburg, and Arsenal made their interest known to Diamond Football Academy for Chukwueze’s services. He went to visit them all but finally opted to sign for Arsenal. The personal terms for his deal were sorted, they were just missing his autograph, but Arsenal and Diamond Football Academy couldn’t agree on the fee. Instead, Villarreal swooped in, pursued Chukwueze, and signed him for €500.000 to their well-renowned academy on Spain’s east coast.

Chukwueze started his career for the “Yellow Submarine”, as Villarreal are called, in the second team throughout the 2017-18 season. He made his professional debut in September 2018 at home at La Madrigal in a 2-2 draw against Rangers in Europa League. It was a dream come true, he told the media in the post-match interview. But after his debut, it took another two months before he exploded into the scene in La Liga and became a Villarreal regular.

During his first professional season in 2018-19, 19-year-old Chukwueze took everyone by storm and left defenses consisting of seasoned vets and world-class defenders in the dust as he fearlessly accelerated past them. Marcelo and Jordi Alba to name two. Barcelona and Real Madrid fans were left mesmerized, and would to this day admit that their prided defenses were ripped to pieces by Chukwueze. He ended the La Liga season with five goals and two assists to his name in his first-ever professional season.

During the post-season, he continued his upward trajectory to help Nigeria to a bronze prize in the 2019 African Cup of Nations, where he scored his first international goal against South Africa in a 2-1 win in the quarterfinals.

This year, Chukwueze has had a hard time replicating his sublime freshman season. Inconsistency and lack of maturity in his decision-making have stood in his way from taking the next step in his career and development. In 25 matches, he’s only scored three goals and made three assists. But having said that, he remains one of the most alluring and sought-after talents in Europe as he truly has an x-factor.

Style of play

Predominantly a right-winger, Chukwueze’s also able to operate as a number 10, as a striker, and on the left-wing, which he’s done with positive results for both Villarreal and Nigeria. He mainly operates in the middle-right and wide-right areas of the final third. But he’s no stranger at drifting into the pitch and deliver clever passes to unlock the opposition defense. For a player who excels as a winger, he’s is surprisingly good at breaking lines to unlock defenses and deep blocks.

Chukweueze often draws comparisons to Arjen Robben due to the directness of his runs towards goal, his trademark tendencies to bombard down the right flank to cut inside and unleash well-placed curlers or rip of powerful strikes, and because of skills and his fearlessness in taking on his opposition. He’s got an eye for goal and is a strong finisher, even though he hasn’t gotten the most out of it in La Liga.

For the most part, Chukwueze uses his raw speed, great strength and low center of gravity to accelerate past his opponents with a “dump-into-space-and-run”-strategy much like Mohamed Salah is known to use. But he also possesses the close control, technique, quick feet, and composure to give him the ball retention and ability to navigate through crowded- and tight areas with ease. Whilst averaging 46.2 touches per 90, he only miscontrols 2.76.

Samu shows great maturity in tight areas and pressured situations, which, apart from his technical abilities, is much down to confidence in his own ability and fearlessness. Many players his age seemingly get nervous the closer they get to goal and the tighter the spaces get. As a result, they ultimately tend to lose the ball. Chukwueze, however, thrives in those situations.

Photo: Villarreal CF official Twitter

Strengths

Chukwueze’s main strengths lie in his versatility, speed, acceleration, agility, and his one against one ability. He usually opts to combine the three to get past his mark and advance towards the goal, but he can also use his technique and flair to accomplish that as well.

Apart from those, Chukwueze has the composure to rarely panic and give the ball away. Instead, whilst pressured, he is very solution orientated and looks to opt for a better alternative than continuing forward himself. Often this is through switch of plays or flicking the ball to a teammate that’s open. But at times, he purposely draws the defenders out towards himself to open up spaces behind them to exploit by setting his teammates up in them. His ability to draw defenders and attention towards himself, and navigate in the tight spaces caused by it, is one of his well-working techniques to unlock defenses as well.

What enables Chukwueze to exploit and maximize his pace is his capability to control the ball in full throttle. He usually takes long touches on the ball and chases after it, simultaneously accelerating past the opponents. But he can also use Robben-Esque close control touches at high speed. These two capabilities make Chukwueze a nightmare on the break, or on counters, to defend.

So far, Chukweuze’s point production hasn’t been great. This season, he’s only scored three goals and made one assist in La Liga – but he still has a good offensive impact. Per 90, Chukwueze contributes with 4.42 shot-creating actions and 0.51 goal-creating actions. On average he carries the ball 195 meters progressively, i.e. carrying the ball with control towards the opponent’s goal. He attempts 4.29 dribbles with a 58.2% success rate. He also passes 106 meters progressively. Besides, even though he slightly underperforms his xA at 3.1, he still levels his xG and npxG (non-penalty xG) at 3.0.

As can be seen, by Statified Football’s graph below, Chukwueze performs above league standard in non-shot xG, xG + xA, shots, post-shot expected goals, shots assisted, deep completions, dribbles and carries.

Photo: Statified Football (@StatifiedF on Twitter)

Weakness

Chukwueze has three stand out weaknesses: one-dimensional tendencies, his decision-making, and a lack of consistency in his performances.

As many left-footed wingers playing on the right-wing, Chukwueze is fairly easy to read as he mainly opts to cut inside to shoot, cross, or flick the ball towards the goal. Having said that, he does it well. It’s his trademark and he succeed with is most of the time – just like Robben. However, he could really benefit from being more unpredictable and being more comfortable with taking the other lane towards the byline to cross the ball.

Regarding his decision-making, it’s not really meant in the sense of which passes to take, but when to take them. Chukwueze has, like many young players, the tendency to take too many touches on the ball instead of releasing it at the right moment. This will come with experience, but it’s still a weakness to his current game. His crossing could benefit from some work as well. By improving these qualities in his game he would become a more well-rounded and productive player.

Chukwueze’s main weakness, though, is without a doubt his lack of consistency. At the career stage he’s in, he must walk in the footsteps of talents like Mason Greenwood who’s imprinted himself into the mind of his manager. So that even when he’s not playing, he’s still in Solskjær’s consideration. Chukwueze has the talent to become a world-beater, his style of play walks hand in hand with many top clubs’ style of play, but without the consistency, he won’t fulfill that potential.

Something that gets mentioned by many as one of his weaknesses is his defensive contribution. But Chukwueze actually averages 15.6 pressuring actions (pressure against an opponent who receives, controls, or releases the ball) per 90 with a 31.1% success rate – meaning the opponent losses possession within 5 seconds of pressure. Having said that, he could, of course, contribute even more. But his defensive contribution is not as bad as some people make it out to be.

Conclusion

Chukwueze’s strengths far outweigh his weaknesses/areas for improvement. He’s been included in the” UEFA top 50 youngsters in the world to watch”-list and won the Nigerian Football Federation 2018 by beating Victor Osimhen, Wilfred Ndidi, Josh Maja, Samuel Kalu, Henry Onyekuru, Ola Aina and Joe Aribo which is very telling of the potential he’s in the possession of. France Football even reported in January 2020 that Liverpool had a €35 million offer rejected for him and value him at €65 million. There are, however, some improvements that need to be done in his game. He need to be more consistent in his production, and increase it, for starters. But If he successfully makes those improvements, he has the world at his feet.

Similar player comparison: Arjen Robben/Mohamed Salah

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