Robben traits & second-season struggles: Scouting Samuel Chukwueze

Liverpool were linked with Samuel Chukwueze for much of the summer, but no major moves were made by the club. We’ll be in the market at the end of 2019/20, though, so will he remain a consideration?


The 20-year-old wide man has been linked with a move to the Premier League for a couple of years already, with Arsenal considered admirers as well as the Reds.

He joined Spanish side Villarreal in 2017, cites Arjen Robben as his inspiration and has already earned the experience of a major international tournament, having been part of Nigeria’s Africa Cup of Nations squad this past summer.

So what makes Chukwueze such an intriguing prospect, how has his current season progressed and should the Reds still be looking to sign him in 2020?

 

Playing style

There won’t be too many surprises, considering the aforementioned admiration toward Dutch wide forward Robben, to hear that Chukwueze predominantly plays on the right, is left-footed and loves to cut in and shoot.

That only touches the fringe, though, of what this young attacker is about.

Chukwueze exploded onto the scene somewhat last season, only making his LaLiga debut in November but going on to play 38 first-team games in all competitions scoring eight times.

A goal and an assist against Barcelona in a dramatic 4-4 draw naturally drew attention to his talents in a big way, but he became a big part of the side, featuring in every league game except one between his debut and the penultimate match of the season.

Across that spell, he played not just as a right-sided winger but also in the No. 10 role, as a support forward and, on occasions as an in-game switch, as a left-winger.

Chukwueze has great strength and acceleration, enabling him to quickly step away from challenges and speed into space, and while he at times holds onto the ball a little longer than his team-mates might like, he’s not simply a shot-monster: he’ll look for a clever pass, loves a big switch of play and can help drag the team upfield after being under pressure.

At his best, he’s an outlet on the break, a tool to unlock defences and break lines, and a very agile attacker who can create chances for himself with trickery and direct running.

 

The numbers and the comparisons

NAPLES, ITALY - Wednesday, October 3, 2018: Liverpool's substitute Alberto Moreno during the UEFA Champions League Group C match between S.S.C. Napoli and Liverpool FC at Stadio San Paolo. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Former Red Alberto Moreno has had a good chance to assess who Chukwueze is like, given he moved to Villarreal in the summer—and it’s not Mo Salah, our own left-footed, right-sided forward. Instead, it’s Sadio Mane, which itself is high praise.

Finished article, then? New contract, €100 million release clause, big clubs linked…ready for action, yes?

Not quite.

His massive impact last season ensured teams were watching, but that only served Villarreal to up his contract, ensuring they don’t lose him on the cheap. In three years his release clause will drop to €80m, but that’s a long way off and still an outrageous fee.

Chukwueze is probably in the £25-30m bracket right now, judging by previous transfers, though naturally has the potential to get a lot better. Right now, though, his main priority is trying to win a regular place in the team.

He has all the talent, but still lacks consistency in his impact, his decision-making with end passes and in how to attack teams who sit back and deny him space to race into.

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - Sunday, January 18, 2015: Arsenal's Santi Cazorla celebrates scoring the first goal against Manchester City from the penalty spot during the Premier League match at the City of Manchester Stadium. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

For Villarreal this season he has started six times in LaLiga, appearing another six off the bench—he’s largely behind Moi Gomez and Gerard Moreno in the first-choice lineup, which switches between 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3.

With just one start in the last five, and Villarreal bound for mid-table anonymity this season, it highlights how far he has to go. That said, with players such as Santi Cazorla around, the Estadio de la Ceramica a great place to be for learning.

Last term, Chukwueze was registering 2.2 shots, 0.8 key passes and 2.0 dribbles per game—comparable with then-Betis, now Tottenham, attacking midfielder Giovani Lo Celso.

On a per-90 minutes basis this season, it’s 2.1 shots, 2.0 key passes and 2.8 dribbles—but he’s not playing 90 minutes. These are short bursts he’s featuring for mostly, highlighting not just his lack of consistent game time, but perhaps also that he’s struggling to match his fast start in a second season of expectation.

 

Current squad and drawbacks

GENK, BELGIUM - Wednesday, October 23, 2019: Liverpool's Mohamed Salah (L) celebrates scoring the fourth goal with team-mate Sadio Mane during the UEFA Champions League Group E match between KRC Genk and Liverpool FC at the KRC Genk Arena. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Few Liverpool fans would argue that another forward option is required; most wanted one for this season, but Jurgen Klopp either disagreed or couldn’t afford the one(s) he did want.

In the present squad, it’s fair to say Chukwueze would be up against, and therefore behind in the squad list, Salah.

Moreno comparing him to Mane in playing style hints more at his ability to carry the ball, play infield and show good strength in retaining possession rather than positional play—and the Nigerian is nowhere near as accomplished a finisher at this stage as either Mane or Salah.

At this stage, we also have to consider that Xherdan Shaqiri is some distance from being the player required, relied upon or really trusted by Klopp, particularly as a forward.

LONDON, ENGLAND - Sunday, August 4, 2019: Liverpool's Xherdan Shaqiri during the FA Community Shield match between Manchester City FC and Liverpool FC at Wembley Stadium. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Still, reinforcements are needed, so what about next summer?

The Nigerian is in no rush to move and, judging by his words, he won’t force a transfer.

“I know I am going in the right direction. I am happy just to be playing football and to see where that takes me.

“I always try to see the bigger picture, and to stay patient. I am not one who wants everything immediately. I am happy to take smaller steps on the way to the bigger goals.

“I just love to play. I love training. From the moment I wake up, I want to be kicking a ball. It is a joy for me.”

Chukwueze might carry a £30-40m price tag. He might require a work permit. Neither should be particularly prohibitive, given he’s already a 10-cap international with an assured place in the team.

But the Reds do have one big question to answer for future progression, if Chukwueze is seen as a right-sided attacker for the long-haul: Harvey Elliott.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Wednesday, October 30, 2019: Liverpool's Harvey Elliott celebrates after the Football League Cup 4th Round match between Liverpool FC and Arsenal FC at Anfield. Liverpool won 5-4 on penalties after a 5-5 draw. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

While Curtis Jones seems capable of earning game time as a No. 8 or a wide player, and Rhian Brewster‘s pathway to centre-forward remains open for now, Elliott looks very much a specifically wide-right attacker.

The Reds have clearly identified him as a player with an enormous future, and at just 16 years old there are another two or three developmental seasons ahead of him at a minimum. Depending how he progresses, a loan spell might be on the cards—or he could slalom and score his way into the first team.

Elliott’s progress and potential, just as much as Chukwueze’s, might be a defining factor as to whether this transfer is realistic.

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