While Villarreal’s 2019/20 La Liga campaign has been one of mixed of fortunes, El Submarino Amarillo are still in with a chance of European qualification. Since their promotion back to Spain’s Primera Division in 2013, they have only finished outside of the top six once. Although they primarily pride themselves on defensive stability, attacking talent has never been short among Villarreal’s ranks. 21-year-old Nigerian Samuel Chukwueze is no exception to this. This scout report will provide a tactical analysis of Samu Chukwueze’s strengths and weaknesses, and set out what he contributes to Villarreal.
Samu Chukwueze was called up from Villarreal B last season and went on to make 26 league appearances. He was named Villarreal’s young player of the season and, notably, had an excellent performance in a 4-4 draw against Barcelona last April. The youngster has been likened to Arjen Robben (someone he idolises) due to his tenacious nature and his impressive turn of pace.
Initially, we will address his heat map from the season so far. Upon viewing this, two things about the right winger’s game immediately become apparent. Initially, we can note that Samu does not like to defend. The middle and attacking thirds are deeply coloured in the map, whereas the defensive third is absent of much colour at all. Secondly, we can see that the Nigerian enjoys cutting in from the right-hand side, as opposed to getting to the by-line. We must acknowledge that he is left-footed, and therefore cutting in comes naturally to him. However, he prefers cutting in to a much greater extent. From here, we must also explore why he plays on the right instead of the left.
So, why doesn’t Chukwueze defend? Simple, his manager, Calleja, does not want him to. In matches where he has been forced to defend, his returns have poor. In the two graphs below, we see how his defensive duels compare to other La Liga players. More notable is the defensive duel success rate. He wins just over half of his defensive duels, at 51.06%. We can see from the graph that this is way below the average.
He also averages just 3.23 recoveries per game – 155th among all La Liga midfielders. It must also be noted that a large proportion of these occur in the attacking third. This means that when Chukwueze does defend, it is frequently high up the pitch. Finally, he struggles in the air too. He has only won 40% of his aerial duels. Owing to these figures, we can understand one of the reasons why Samu plays so high up. When he is forced to defend, he does so poorly, occasionally to his team’s detriment. However, he is mainly exempt from defensive duties due to the threats he causes on the counter-attack.
When Chukwueze starts (just over half of league matches this season), it is as the right-winger in a 4-3-3 formation. This means that he is able to stay high, alleviating any defensive duties in his own half. By staying high and wide, he finds a lot of space on the counter-attack, especially when he is on the blind side. One transitional tactic Villarreal have often looked to this season is seeking to release their wingers following a quick switch. When either full-back wins the ball, they will look to swiftly give the ball to Santi Cazorla in central-midfield. He can quickly turn out and find a winger high and in space as they are on the blind side. The space awarded to Samu is shown below.
This also allows Villarreal’s pacey front three to explode forward. If it is the left-winger carrying the ball forward, Samu is still active. He will pose a threat by darting into the box at lighting speed. We can see in the still below how he breezed past his marker and is free in the middle.
It is important at this point to note the Nigerian’s attacking awareness. He is never caught on his heels in attack. His tenacious nature ensures that he is always a threat, even when he is not on the ball. He enjoys attacking as if he is still a child, and that excitement shows on the pitch. His attacking work rates are impressive – this season he has averaged the second most progressive runs per 90 among La Liga midfielders with 4.42 (second to Villarreal’s other winger, Javier Ontiveros). His ball progression chart below doesn’t only highlight his willingness to run forward into space, but further supports how high his starting position is.
Breaking forward on the ball
We must now focus on the threat Samu poses when in control of the football. His close control and quick-footedness are both immense. He also possesses raw pace like few others. What is most devastating yet is how he manages to combine the three, making himself a nightmare for opposition defenders.
If the defender sits off of him, he will drive at them at breakneck speed. He could quite simply knock the ball past them and run – few would be able to keep up with him. Samu also possesses an array of skills and tricks, meaning that he could easily take on a defender when running at them. One drawback, though, is that he is not particularly strong. If a defender gets tight and plays physically, Samu may struggle to make inroads. Though he can sometimes turn impressively when being tightly marked, evading defenders who do mark him in this way is something he should work on. If he can consistently break free from tight markers, defenders will be left scratching their heads as to how he should be marked.
Samu is only 21, and has plenty of time to develop his game in this sense. His young age makes his dribbling stats all the more impressive. Not only does he have the confidence to attempt the 14th most dribbles among La Liga midfielders, but he is often successful in doing so too. The graphs below show just how impressive he is with the ball at his feet.
In the final third, following a dribble forward, Chukwueze is still a threat. We know from his heatmap that he favours cutting in on his left foot in the final third instead of getting to the by-line. Though this action sounds predictable and easy to defend, it is far from such. Just like his idol, Arjen Robben – the once Real Madrid and Bayern Munich superstar – the unpredictability of when and speed at which Samu is able to shift inside onto his left is incredible.
In the still below we can see this in practice. Following a dribble in which he beat two men, Samu is in an excellent position in the box (a position he frequently finds himself in). In the picture, he has just flicked the ball onto his favoured side with the outside of his left boot. Though it is hard to replicate the speed at which he did so in one frame, note the body shape of Girona’s number four – Jonás Ramalho. He is still running towards his goal. Samu initially looked as if he wanted to go around the outside of Ramalho, then quickly jinked inside, leaving the defender on his heels. Samu finished deftly with his left boot into the far corner.
Chukwueze favours shooting over crossing. Among La Liga midfielders, he averages the 12th most shots per 90 with 2.09, but the 40th most crosses per 90 with 2.28. He also only has two league assists this season compared to his three goals, and his xG value exceeds that of his xA. Though playing as an inverted winger suits cutting in and shooting, the danger of crossing should not be overlooked. Samu’s youthful tendencies result in him taking more shots, but his creativity levels are still high, as shown below.
These figures are impressive. We noted his awareness earlier and an assist against Rayo Vallecano in the Copa Del Rey in January emphasises this. After being given the ball wide on the right, Samu drove at the heart of the defence and quickly took on the full-back inside. Aware of the damage he can inflict in the box, defenders swarmed around him. However, this left a free Cazorla on the edge of the box. He would go onto score, after being coolly picked out by Chukwueze.
Room for improvement
After expressing the devastation that he can cause in the final third, we must ask why his attacking returns are not greater. Five league goal involvements in 33 appearances this season is average, perhaps even less than you’d expect from a winger in a top-six team. Initially, he is underperforming his xG and xA. In those 33 games, his expected goal involvements sum to 7.66 – 2.66 above his actual tally.
This is simply a question of composure in key areas. Just a quarter of his shots have been on target this season, and his conversion rate is below 7%. While the shots he does score are simply stroked home with the inside of the boot, a lot of his shots are blazed high and wide as he chooses power over placement. He should continue working on those controlled finishes, especially as it suits his nature of cutting inside to shoot. It is a similar story with his crosses and passes. Samu has no trouble getting into dangerous areas, but struggles to regularly pick out a man. High crosses may be skewed off the pitch or sliced too far backwards, and low crosses aren’t always executed with conviction.
We must not worry about this too much though. We know that Chukwueze is only young and possesses a raw talent that few others do. A lot of work will be done on the training ground in the coming months and years which will give Samu that composure in the final third that he needs. In terms of quickness and ball control, the Nigerian is already there. His attacking movements also need only small amounts of work. He is definitely a wide attacker – not a midfielder – and shows an adept awareness of where he needs to be when.
His goal against Celta Vigo is shown below. He begins out wide but notices the space in the centre of the box. Samu is not afraid to attack these spaces and throw himself in amongst it. In this case, his clever movement inside (and calm finish) resulted in an equaliser.
Implications of being an inverted winger
Chukwueze plays solely on the right-hand side. This is interesting considering how dominant his left foot is, but players have had huge success playing on the ‘wrong’ side in the past. His pace and skill are both very useful, as it means he can get by players and then have the time to come inside. He is also, as mentioned, incredibly quick-footed. Samu can shift his body weight very sharply to play on his left side before defenders can adapt. Using inverted wingers is also one of the most aggressive attacking tactics, as upon their reception of the ball, they immediately look inside towards the goal.
Samu is not an old-fashioned winger in the sense that he wants to get the by-line and cross. He seeks to be a direct goal threat with shots and shorter crosses from inside the box. Therefore, it is more logical to play him on the right-hand side. Playing on the left would actually make him more one-dimensional, as he would only be able to go outside of his man and cross. On the right, you don’t know when he will cut in – he could do it as soon as he receives the ball or right at the last second. The unpredictability is what gives him his goals and assists.
However, his extreme weakness on his right foot is not favourable. If during a quick attack, he is given the ball from the left-hand side, his one-footedness will slow the team down. Instead of his first touch being with his right foot and towards goal, it will be with his left foot. This means it takes longer for him to get the ball controlled and continue the attack.
Another example of low-confidence on his right is shown below. In the still, Gerard Moreno is free for a through ball inside on the counter-attack. A right-footer would have no trouble finding the Spaniard through the middle, but Chukwueze aimed to play the pass with the outside of his left boot. This is a difficult skill and it was ultimately intercepted. Again though, Samu is only young. He has copious amounts of time to improve his right foot and, if he does so, he will become near-unplayable.
This scout report showed that Chukwueze is a very promising youngster with the key attributes all in place. With good coaching and more experience at the highest level, he will perhaps reach an ability similar to that of his idol, Arjen Robben. Though his attacking returns have been slightly frustrating this season, Samu is an exciting player who will no doubt be a superstar in the future. If Villarreal manage to hold onto him, their attacking prowess will only grow in the future. This analysis ultimately showed that, if Chukwueze is willing to work on his final product, among other things, he could certainly guide Villarreal to Champions League football in a couple of seasons time.