Heading into the 2018–19 season, there was little to suggest that Villarreal were going to have a difficult league campaign. Having talents like Rodrigo and Samu Castillejo depart over the summer was a blow, but the club spent amply ion the market for capable players like Santiago Caseres, Karl Toko Ekambi, and Gerard Moreno. There was still enough collective talent on the squad to think that Villarreal would once again hang around the Europa League spots. However, that’s not been the case. They’ve had a campaign from hell, flirting with relegation for the majority of the season. It’s been chaotic enough that their current manager Javier Calleja is on his second stint within this season alone, coming back in late January after his initial firing in December.
Even with all that the disappointment, there have been a couple of bright spots. Given the severity of the medical procedures he’s endured, Santi Cazorla playing over 2000 league minutes at a high level is a minor miracle. The other bright spot has been the emergence of Samuel Chukwueze, who has been electric on the wing for Villarreal recently in La Liga. Given the overall struggles that the club has faced, having a scoring contribution per 90 rate of 0.47 as a 19 year old in his debut season is no small feat and it’s easy to see why he’s been tipped to do big things in the future. Putting up higher than league average shot volume with around league average xG contribution are positive indicators for future success
It hasn’t been all rosy for Chukwueze in his maiden voyage, as he was limited to sub appearance for a two month period between January and March, but he’s still on pace to play over 1500 league minutes, which isn’t an insignificant amount. Though it’s by no means definitive, the mere act of getting consistent minutes in a big five league for young talents is encouraging. And when he’s at his best, the young winger has a sort of electricity that’s made him must see TV. What’s interesting with Chukwueze is that his dribbling is sort of one dimensional; he always wants to get to his left foot and cut inside. He doesn’t use his speed to pose much of a threat to get to the byline and cross the ball, but he’s effective in using feints and his first step when cutting inside because he’s possesses a high level of burst.
Another area where you see Chukwueze’s athleticism is whenever he tries to make off-ball runs, especially during transition opportunities. He can make either looping runs where he sees an opening in the middle between opposition defenders, or be on the blindside of an opponent before bursting into the right wing and isolating himself against a lone defender. Sometimes he’ll combine both his off-ball movement with quick flicks off his first touch when receiving the ball to get the defender off-balance (his ability to control passes during counter attacks without breaking stride with his running is quite strong).
Chukwueze’s passing and shooting are more of a mixed bag. The ample shot volume is a positive at just over three shots per 90 minutes. His shot map is not a surprise for an inverted winger, especially one that doesn’t play on a high powered attack. Wingers who don’t play in highly coordinated systems are more susceptible to having a high volume of shots taken from the wide areas, which are tough areas to score from on a consistent basis and help contribute to a lower xG/shot. When looking at film, it was noticeable to see that a fair amount of Chukwueze’s shots were ones where there weren’t better options besides shooting into traffic from the right channel and hoping for the best.
I think it would be a stretch to say that Chukwueze is a net-positive as a passer at this point, but it’s not like he has cinder blocks for feet. He can make functional passes from the wings into the channels, or switches of play when more attention is being shown his direction. During counter attacks, he’ll spot a teammate get into open space and try to feed him the ball to varying levels of success. Where Chukwueze’s passing falls off is when he tries to make the type of impact passes that lead to high quality scoring chances. He’s just doesn’t have quite the touch to connect on incisive passes with a higher degree of difficulty. That isn’t necessarily a death knell. It’s good that he’s at least got the awareness and gumption to attempt these passes, which is half the battle with young attackers. It’s fair to wonder how much of this can be improved over time with more experience, but there’s a chance that he’s simply not going to grade out as a decent playmaker.
Probably the biggest concern with Chukwueze is the degree to which he is one footed. If you think of footedness as a spectrum, Ousmane Dembele would represent one end of the spectrum among young attackers. He’s someone who brings clear value because he can do productive things with both feet. As you start moving from that end of the spectrum of the other side, there’s more polarization and an increasing percentage of on-ball events become located on a player’s favored foot. Chukwueze is all the way at the one footed end end, because it’s very clear that he’s left-footed. We already alluded to this with his dribbling and ball carrying during transition. His shooting comes almost entirely from his left foot, as well as his passing. It’s not uncommon to see instances during transition opportunities where the ball swings to him, he’ll carry the ball into the box and square passes with his left foot rather than try lob passes to the far post with his right.
Chukwueze’s left-footed dominance is similar to another attacking prospect in David Neres, which makes for an interesting comparison. Both Neres and Chukwueze aren’t threats to attack the byline with their right foot and create chances. In terms of overall passing and on-ball coordination, Neres suffers from his lack of right foot usage but he’s still shown considerably more self-belief than Chukwueze. Chukwueze’s advantage over Neres is that because he’s a much better athlete, he’s has more impact as a dribbler because he can create a greater level of separation when he uses feints and sidesteps to get to his left foot. Whenever Chukwueze gets the ball with his back to goal he can quickly turn with the ball and create distance from his opponent allowing him to move into the halfspace with relative ease, whereas Neres can’t do that.
All-in, Chukwueze seems like a relatively strong prospect. He’s dynamic enough as an athlete that he can get away with being so reliant on his left foot, at least to some degree. A bit of my optimism stems from overvaluing highly athletic wings that show snippets of awareness with their passing. There is the possibility that his passing never really evolves from its current state, which would make the path to stardom fairly hard, so passing is a big swing skill for him. There’s also the fear that even with his near elite athleticism off the dribble, his left foot dominance could be scouted harder and lead to more growing pains. Even though his shot locations and volume aren’t optimal, I’m not particularly worried given that a lot of it could be chalked up to the environment he’s in at Villarreal.
Perhaps the biggest fear with Chukwueze is whether there are enough low-hanging ares of improvement n his game to make notable gains. He already doesn’t have tunnel vision so rarely gets himself in trouble dribbling down dead ends, nor is he shooting at such a ridiculous volume with poor locations. It’s going to boil down to his passing and growth in off-foot capabilities. If we see noteworthy growth in his passing and any shred of progress in right foot usage, then the odds are good that Chukwueze will become a star level talent. If not, then it’s going to be harder for him to justify a big price tag on a future transfer fee. Year one for Chukwueze has been a success, and how years two and three pan out will be vital in projecting the type of player that he becomes.