Christmas has come early for Samuel Chukwueze. On the first day of November, he scored his first senior goal for Villarreal in a Copa del Rey tie against Almeria. On the fourth day of November, he made his first league start. On the 11th day of November, he scored his first league goal in a 2-2 draw with Rayo Vallecano. On the 20th of November he made his debut for the Nigeria national team against Uganda. And on Sunday, he scored the decisive goal as Villarreal recorded their first home victory of the league season at home to Real Betis.
In the next week, the 19-year-old will seek to prolong this remarkable start to his professional career by perhaps notching a first European goal in Villarreal’s Europa League tie away to Rangers on Thursday and then making a positive impression on a grand stage when his side travel to the Camp Nou to take on Barcelona on Sunday.
Chukwueze first attracted attention as part of the Nigeria team who lifted the Under-17 World Cup in Chile in 2015. The following year, he very nearly followed in the footsteps of teammate Kelechi Nwakali by joining Arsenal. However, the deal fell through due to a disagreement over the structuring of payments. Instead, a year later, it was Villarreal who signed him to a five-year contract.
The young forward has been on a precipitous upward trajectory ever since. The club first decided to place him in their youth team so he could find some rhythm after a period of inactivity. He soon showed himself to be above that level, so he was moved up to the C team. A couple of weeks later he was promoted to the B team. After a strong end to last season and commencement to the current campaign, his first-team chance arrived.
Villarreal have endured a difficult campaign. The team who finished fifth in the league last season are currently fifth from bottom. They had been on a six-match winless streak prior to Sunday’s victory. Pressure was building on coach Javi Calleja. Chukwueze was introduced to add a bit of spark, provide a surprise element. While the team still have a few issues, he has certainly made a positive individual impression.
Quick and direct, he has been able to regularly get himself in shooting positions over the course of his three league starts to date, averaging over 4.5 shots per match. Two goals have arrived, both from similar positions. Against Rayo Vallecano, he cut in from the right edge of the area past two challenges before firing low through the legs of the goalkeeper; against Betis, he received a back-heel from Santi Cazorla inside the area, steadied himself and fired low into the corner.
His consistent desire to cut inside onto his left foot has seen him compared (firstly by his friends) to Arjen Robben, a player he idolised growing up. Yet while he showed clear signs of improvement in his combination play against Betis, Chukwueze is still a very raw player, one whose natural talent has carried him this far but who still has much to fine tune. The club have been quick to adopt a cautious tone in the midst of growing hype.
“He does a lot of good things with the ball, but without it, and in his movements to find space, he still needs to improve an awful lot,” the club’s academy director Raúl Herrera told El Mundo. “Samu can reach a high level, but when he is 22 or 23. Right now, it is necessary to give him chances, give him confidence, but not demand of him things you would demand of a player who costs €20 million.”
His compatriot Ikechukwu Uche, who played for Villarreal between 2011 and 2015, has been suggested by the club as a good role model in terms of on and off pitch behaviour, and Chukwueze seems aware of the need to stay focused and not allow himself to get carried away.
“I didn’t expect to get here so fast, but it was a dream and I have achieved it,” he said on Sunday. “I have to keep on working hard to maintain the trust of the coach.”