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Not many 20-year-olds can boast they’ve stolen the show in a match involving Lionel Messi. But then Samuel Chukwueze isn’t most 20-year-olds.
The Villarreal winger put in a fearless display against LaLiga champions Barcelona in April. The Nigeria international was too fast, too clever and too tricky for the Blaugrana, scoring and registering an assist in a 4-4 draw.
That performance was the one supporters of the El Submarino Amarillo had been waiting for since he emerged in the September of last season. Unfortunately for them, however, it arrived against the best team in the league with the eyes of Europe watching on.
Interest spiked. Chukwueze was soon named as a Liverpool and Arsenal transfer target. With a rumoured £54million release clause in his deal, it was unlikely he’d be moving anytime soon off the back of his first season in LaLiga.
That could’ve changed had he been a standout performer at the African Cup of Nations. He was given the nod to start against Burundi but failed to make an impression. He had to settle for a place on the bench for the games against Guinea and Cameroon but returned to the starting XI for the quarter-final match against South Africa.
Finally, it happened. Chukwueze showcased his breathtaking talent by putting in a Man-of-the-Match performance against Bafana Bafana. He scored the opener, which was also his first goal for his country, as Nigeria won 2-1 to set up a potential semi-final clash against either Ivory Coast or Algeria.
His AFCON involvement epitomises the youngster; capable of the sublime but not always as impactful as he could be. It’s nothing to do with his ability, it’s just what happens with forwards at his age who are still developing and crafting their game.
If teams are prepared to put up with him during his teething period, they’ll reap the rewards when he finds his consistency. The wait will be worth it.
Likened to Arjen Robben due to his penchant for attacking down the flank before cutting inside, Chukwueze is confident on his right foot and this adds another dimension to his game.
He’s a wildcard in that sense and this makes him difficult to stop. The 20-year-old rides challenges and isn’t easily bullied. He’s a confident player and unlike many others, he doesn’t solely rely on space to do the damage.
It helps, undoubtedly, but the Villarreal winger can beat men in tight areas with his quick feet and creates his own opportunities that way. He effortlessly slaloms past people and during the 2018/19 season, he completed 2.59 dribbles per 90.
Chukwueze averaged more than six touches in the area per 90 while playing for a team who struggled in LaLiga last season – more than Liverpool star Sadio Mané.
When the Nigeria international gets beyond the last man – a dying art in the modern game – he’s calm and composed in the area, averaging more than three shots per 90, which suggest he will eventually be a regular goalscorer.
Last term he scored 0.26 goals per 90 with an expected goals average of 0.29. Couple those stats with the 6.26 touches he was averaging in the opposition area and it's clear he's a regular and reliable threat. These are Raheem Sterling numbers before Pep Guardiola turned him into a penalty box predator.
There's no guarantee Villarreal will have a better season this time around but even a slight upturn should see Chukwueze better the five goals he scored during 2018/19.
The main objective now, however, should be for the youngster to get more first-team minutes under his belt while maintaining the averages he posted during his debut year with the Yellow Submarine.
If he manages that then a big move will be on the cards next summer with teams more eager than ever to add goals from wide areas to their squads.
If he ends up playing in a more dominant team down the line then he could be a serious goal threat, similar to the Mohamed Salah, Leroy Sané, Mané and Sterling; the type of forward to drift inside, find space in the area and score countless tap-ins. Chukwueze will make it look easy but it's a skill very few have mastered.
The 2019/20 season is a big year for the Villarreal man. It's not going to make or break his career but it could be the difference between him going on to be an elite player or simply being a good one.