Samuel_Chukwueze
Samuel_Chukwueze

the 20-year-old enjoyed a breakout year last season, but is more of a known quantity now, and must expand his repertoire to continue to dazzle.

On Sunday, less than three weeks removed from the anniversary of Samuel Chukwueze’s first senior club appearance, Villarreal will welcome Real Madrid to Estadio Ceramica.

His stock has risen so much in that time that it is easy to forget: it has only been a year since his maiden bow at this level. On the 20th of September, 2018, the winger took the field for the closing stages of the Yellow Submarine’s Europa League Group G match against Glasgow Rangers.

In that time, the world has been introduced to his fleet of foot, his daring running, and his silky left peg. More impressive than these traits however, which are in themselves not in short supply, is the fact he has made noteworthy contributions against Spain’s big two: he scored and assisted in the thrilling 4-4 draw against champions Barcelona in April, and also set up Santi Cazorla with an improvised elastico pass when Real Madrid came calling in January.

There is, of course, a cold logic behind the success of his sleight of foot against the big teams: Chukwueze is a player who thrives on space to accelerate into, and will almost always skin his man in a duel. Against more disciplined teams who are likely to hunker down and try to counterpunch, that space is less accessible without getting crowded out.

At the Africa Cup of Nations in the summer, the 20-year-old started the opening game against Burundi, and while he was the game’s brightest player, he was a lot less effective when double and tripled up against. His next start came in the quarter-final; as the games got tougher and the opposition became more assertive, there was greater room for him to punish their presumption.

Not that the cold science takes away from the spectacle, of course. Watching him sashay past Sergio Ramos and Marcelo will always be amusing; seeing him blow past Clement Lenglet and leave Marc-Andre Ter Stegen stranded retains the ability to gratify. However, this season he will require a new, fresher, fuller act.

Chukwueze bright, and typically assertive. Hard not to like the dominant personalities of some of the youngsters coming through; Onyekuru another in same mould.

The first and most obvious point of action is to become more effective against compact blocks. The distribution of his seven league goal contributions last season is interesting: they came against either the big two, or against teams that eventually got relegated. The two exceptions: Real Betis and Levante, had shoddy defensive performances all through the campaign. Against the more stable, more solid midtable, he was a lot quieter.

It is difficult for a player who is often the one tasked with carrying the ball into the final third himself, but in this regard, Chukwueze could benefit from making more aggressive runs off the ball, getting in behind opposing defences and being a threat when the ball is played into space and not just to feet.

There is also a sense that playing off his left foot so much can be limiting, as he turns back into traffic compulsively.

Arjen Robben, the Dutch great on whom much of Chukwueze’s game is modelled, was famously one-footed, but retained his effectiveness regardless. The key, it would appear, is to underpin the predictable with the unpredictable – you knew what was coming, but you did not know when it would come – and also vary it enough to hint at something different.

In Robben’s own words to the Daily Mail earlier this year: “If you do it at the right time, it still surprises.

“Doing the same thing over and over again without variation will not work. If you never pass or dribble or go on the outside, cutting inside will stop working.”

Samuel Chukwueze has been excluded from the Super Eagles‘ latest squad, but it would be a mistake to not have him on the plane to Egypt.

It is a lesson Chukwueze would do well to learn as he continues to build his legend. Where last season he had the benefit of being something of an unknown quantity, this term will throw up a more informed set of obstacles in his path.

In that sense, Sunday will be instructive. Real Madrid might not be in the very best form, but the top players learn very quickly, and are rarely fooled by the same trick twice.

 

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