Villarreal are playing in the semifinal of the UEFA Champions League for the first time in 16 years, and that’s a sign of immense progress.
The Yellow Submarine got to this stage on the back of an important goal delivered by their Nigerian export.
When the teams they have defeated to get here are considered, Villarreal’s reach becomes an even greater accomplishment to reckon with, and that it’s happening only a season after winning the Europa League calls for credit.
Samuel Chukwueze has had some tough periods to overcome in the past, as different battles with injuries kept him out.
Since Chukwueze’s surgeries, he has been a more cautious footballer, willing to do the rather simple things, but when he takes on the complex, there’s a bit of the excessive that comes with it.
Villarreal’s uber-disciplined approach means accommodating a player like Chukwueze all the time comes with its risks, and that explains why he’s often used from the bench.
Gifted with a fleeting and nimble left foot, the Nigerian international can raise the roof on his day, but such days hardly come. In an age when football hails tactical and technical discipline, it’s easy to expose players like Chukwueze and punch holes in his game.
Seven years ago at the U-17 World Cup, it was clear to the world that a gifted player was emerging. In his early days at Villarreal as an academy player, a video of his Messi-esque movement made the rounds, but his finishing then, and decision making still leaves a lot to improve upon as it is now. The short clip showed what Chukwueze could be capable of if he has the space but it also highlighted his greatest weaknesses.
Football today loves everyone to score. The scoring defender is the better defender, after all, attack, they say is the best form of defense. For a winger, goals make it all better. For a winger like Chukwueze who has enough trickery in his bag to carve out an opening against the tightest defense, his decision making in the final third has to be much more better.
“My game has improved because of the surgery and the coach is doing an amazing job for me. I think what else is remaining is just to score goals, and Emery is doing a very nice job on finishing. Finishing is only thing that is remaining [to improve] in my football,” he admitted. That’s an important step towards improving.
In 150 games for Villarreal, he has managed 23 goals and 20 assists, which is not bad in every justification, but will be deemed average should the simple ones he fluffed be considered. Whatever Chukwueze currently has in numbers, he has had opportunities to have double of them.
Against Valencia in Villarreal’s last league game, Emery brought Chukwueze on in place of teenage winger, Yeremy Pino. In need of his different touch to Pino who’s a lot more direct, Chukwueze’s ability to bring up situations was needed.
Few minutes after his introduction, he had an opening to shoot and score, but chose to cut to his weaker foot where he struggled to have good contact with the ball. Emery on the sidelines gave an expression that felt familiar – disappointment. Chukwueze’s decision making can be flat even on his good days.
With the Super Eagles, it’s the same as he struggles to link attackers, make simpler decisions when there are roadblocks and pass when it’s the better choice.
At 22, there’s still a world of possibilities for the winger. Injuries have limited his progress, but as he admitted, he feels a lot better now. It’s time to grow for Chukwueze.
His finishing, as admitted needs a lot to improve upon but his general game still has more gems to unearth. To be tagged in the mould of Arjen Robben must be flattering but it will take conscious efforts and improvement to attain that level of mastery and it’s not impossible.