A successful European campaign with the Yellow Submarine would go a long way toward boosting the precocious winger’s flagging stock
One of football’s more endearing qualities is how quick and effective of an education it can provide.
As its appeal and viewership has spread globally, it has come to resemble a conveyor belt: cold and relentless in its delivery. So it seems that, every week, a new gem is unearthed somewhere, with the previous week’s belle cast aside. Football’s never-ending cycle requires a new hero every week.
Samuel Chukwueze will know this very intimately by this point. It wasn’t all that long ago that the Villarreal winger was being spoken of in dizzying terms: his undeniably bounteous talent feted with that tiresome social media term “generational” and his mix of speed, directness and precocious dribbling thought to be perfect for football at the highest levels.
There was even interest reported from Premier League giants Liverpool, especially in light of Mohamed Salah’s apparent amenity to a move away from Anfield. The prospect of a Spain-England swap lent an extra appeal to the notion: Chukwueze would slot right into the Egyptian’s spot in the Liverpool attack, and Salah would make for the glitz of Real Madrid (or Barcelona).
It may very well happen yet, even if “it” isn’t Liverpool per se. After all, for all that reality has not caught up with the excited projections of YouTube comp makers just yet, we are still talking of a player who remains very well thought of in scouting circles. Chukwueze is capable of turning it on regardless, even taking into account the fact that his ensuing two terms since that breakout 11 goals and assists season have only produced 10 and (to date) eight.
The appointment of Unai Emery last summer has seen his role within the starting 11 reduce drastically, especially in league football where he has only started nine of Villarreal’s 24 matches in La Liga (last season, he started 20 of 38).
That suggests, at best, a plateauing in his development; one has only to think back to the end of 2020, when his manager criticized the contributions of Chukwueze and Real Madrid loanee Takefusa Kubo, to see that.
However, there is something of a paradox, in that despite the denudation of his influence, he may yet be on his way to the most successful season of his career to date…and the selfsame appointment of Emery that has relegated him somewhat may yet elevate him.
When Villarreal plumped for the former Sevilla and Arsenal boss, it was clearly with a view to finally winning silverware.
The Yellow Submarine have been treading water in recent seasons, secure in the top half of La Liga, but with little to show for it by way of trophies…and so owner Fernando Roig decided to push the boat out; with the league title being out of reach, a tilt at the cups (specifically the Europa League) seemed the likeliest avenue.
Who better to recruit for that purpose than the one man who has enjoyed the most success in that particular competition in the last decade?
There are few sure things in football, but for all his flaws in league play, Emery has a justified reputation as a cup specialist. Already, he has guided the club to the last eight, and if they navigate the sort of tricky obstacle (against Dinamo Zagreb) that he has often found a way to get around, it could set up a tantalizing meeting with former club Arsenal in the semi-final.
A 1-0 first leg away win against Tottenham’s Croatian conquerors on Thursday, secured from the spot by Gerard Moreno, has them set up quite nicely.
Curiously, the greater share in terms of appearances for Chukwueze this season has come in Europe, where has started seven of Villarreal’s 11 matches in the competition to date, scoring once and assisting two others. So it is that, if indeed the club achieve their aim of a first-ever European trophy, it will be with the 21-year-old having made a key impact.
In the absence of the sort of indivudualist fireworks that defined his breakout year, silverware would do just fine as far as propelling him back into the consciousness of the footballing public is concerned.