Samuel Chukwueze became AC Milan’s seventh signing of the summer earlier in the week as the club landed arguably their main summer target.
The right wing position has been problematic for some time now with both Junior Messias and Alexis Saelemaekers struggling to find consistency, but with Chukwueze there is finally the chance for Stefano Pioli to call upon a genuine two-flanked attack.
He has been referred to as ‘Leao’s twin’ by virtue of his similar skill set, something we will explore further, and he signed a deal until June 2028 with a transfer fee of €20m plus €8m in bonuses paid out by the Rossoneri.
Despite previous links with sides such as Real Madrid and teams in the Premier League, a variety of sources said early on that Chukwueze was easily convinced by the idea of joining Milan, something he confirmed in his first interview. But what kind of player is Pioli getting?
Chukwueze was born in Amaokwe Ugba Ibeku in the Abia State region of Nigeria on 22 May 1999, and he grew up in a Christian family as the eldest of three children.
He went to Government College Umuahia and Evangel Secondary School and he started playing football from a young age, having referenced players like Jay-Jay Okocha and Arjen Robben as his idols.
It was in 2017 and at the age of 17 that he decided to make the switch to Europe, leaving local side Diamond Football Academy in favour of a move to Villarreal who had spotted his progress through scouts.
He was initially put with the Juvenil A squad but his senior debut came with Villarreal B in April 2018 as he came on during a Segunda División B draw against CE Sabadell FC. His first goal came the next month in a game against Bilbao Athletic.
Chukwueze’s full first team debut came in September 2018 in a 2–2 home draw against Rangers in the Europa League, while his LaLiga debut came in November of that year as he started against Levante.
The moment that Chukwueze perhaps announced himself to the world with an equaliser away against Bayern Munich in the Champions League quarter-finals, which helped Villarreal reach the semis.
Chukwueze netted a brace and plus an assist against Real Madrid in a 3–2 away victory in April of this year, which probably solidified Milan’s intentions to try and sign him.
In 2018-19 he scored five goals and added two assists in 26 LaLiga games for Villarreal, amassing three goals and five assists in 37 games the next campaign, four goals and three assists in 28 games in 2020-21, three and three in 27 in 2021-22 and six plus give in 37 last season.
In terms of his international career, Chukwueze came into the Nigeria fold at U17 level. He won the U17 World Cup MVP award in the 2015 tournament held in Chile, having been the third-top scorer.
He received his first call-up to the senior side in October 2018 and made his debut a month later during a 0-0 draw against Uganda. Samuel won the Nigeria Football Federation’s 2018 Young Player of the Year award
He was expected to play for Nigeria’s senior team at the Africa Cup of Nations and the U20 team at the World Cup in 2019, but Villarreal said he could only play in one of the tournaments so he went to AFCON, scoring in the quarter-finals against South Africa.
One of the most important things to know in order to understand Chukwueze’s style of play is his role in Setien’s setup at Villareal. When Emery was the coach of Villareal, he required more defensive discipline and work rate even from his wingers. Setien, on the other hand, gave Chukwueze the license to roam and drift infield.
Being an extremely left-footed player, Chukwueze is used as an inverted winger in Setien’s tactics. Towards the defensive third and the middle third, he likes to stay wide right and cuts more inside when approaching the final third. Playing as the right-winger in a 4-3-3, his movements depend on the opposite flank as much as the corresponding mezz’ala of his side (mostly Capoue). He would stay wide right to allow Capoue to make runs through the half-spaces. Of course, it wasn’t excluded that while Chuk cut inside, Capoue could overlap him.
Setien is a coach who grew up with Cryuffian philosophies which makes him very mindful of possession. Villareal averaged 60% possession for games after the World Cup which is the highest in La Liga. What Setien wanted from his front three was to pin the opposition defence back up to the half line by always creating a fear of counters. Chukwueze, meanwhile, was seen as the outlet to progress the ball from Villareal’s defensive half to the offensive half.
Also, last season Villareal mostly played with either a ball playing 9 or a false 9 in Jackson and Yeremy Pino. Pino would drop in between the lines to allow Chukwueze and the left-winger to make runs ahead of him while he would collect the vertical pass and then turn it towards either of the wingers. Villareal usually liked to implement fast and direct attacks.
Perhaps this meant that they didn’t like to cross the ball as much, given how Villareal didn’t have a physical presence upfront like Milan have Giroud. For this reason, Villareal only averaged 1.37 crosses per 90 as compared to Milan’s 2.32 crosses per 90. Wingers are instructed to rather take their man on and dribble inside the box before attempting low crosses or if that is not possible, they are asked to pass back and recycle possession to try and pierce the opposition defenders through the inside channels.
Close Control and Dribbling: Close Control where the ball sticks to your feet like glue is an art that cannot be taught. It is a very rare skill. Something only the greats have. Chukwueze has close control and it is extremely difficult to dispossess him. This is a skill that can come to use when Milan will look to break down deep blocks.
1v1 skills: His close control gives him the ability to dribble out of tight spaces and change angles very quickly which helps to put defenders out of balance. It is a skill that helps you always get the better of your man.
Pace: To beat your man you need pace not just without the ball but also with the ball. Chukwueze has tremendous pace and with a shot frame he is agile with and without the ball.
Deft touches: Quick release of the ball takes out defenders very easily. Like Ruben Loftus-Cheek showed in the build-up to Romero’s goal against Real Madrid, his touch created space and took defenders out of the sequence. Chukwueze can do the space inviting defenders to press him and then releasing quickly the ball to a teammate to take advantage of the space vacated by the defender.
Shooting: Chukwueze’s very underrated ability is his ability to get a shot out. He is able to generate lots of power and placement with his foot which is extremely difficult for keepers to save especially when it is placed very well
Areas to improve
Crossing: Once again this is very debatable given how Villareal don’t appear to be a team that likes to cross a lot. But Chukwueze barely crosses the ball and always attempts to take his man on rather than cross the ball but this also could be due to the fact that there aren’t very tall players (except defenders) in the Villareal team.
Lapses of concentration: Chukwueze is prone to passing errors when he takes his eye off the ball sometimes. He generates a few mis-passes which, if avoided, can make him a top-class player.
Where Pioli could use him
I don’t think there is a debate in which position Chukwueze will play but how Pioli will use him is the big question. Given how Chukwueze is used to playing in a 4-3-3 and plays as an inverted winger similar to Messias, one can imagine he will be handed the same role.
Pioli likes to keep the size of the playing area compact vertically and horizontally, meaning he employs a high defensive line and has his wingers cut inside to not allow the opposition to play out to the wings easily. While Chukwueze is not a pressing machine, he engages in cover shadows (man-oriented pressing) and cuts off passing options for the opposition.
Given how Chukwueze is used to playing next to a false 9/ball playing 9, it makes sense that the Milan management actually brought in Noah Okafor (previously targeting Thuram who is a ball-playing striker). And at Villareal, he also had a physical mezz’ala next to him who liked to advance forward, similarly to Ruben Loftus-Cheek.
It will be interesting to see Chukwueze under Pioli given that Setien didn’t give his wingers all the license to showcase their individual ability or even cross the ball into the box. Pioli, meanwhile, gave full freedom to Leao to choose the way he wanted to play to match his skillset.
So what story do the numbers say? We can see that Chuk leads the pack with the most amount of defenders dribbled past, while Pulisic (19-20 season considered) and Leao come close to Chukwueze. Messias and Alexis are far from the numbers put up by Chukwueze. Rebic (20-21 season) is the worst of the lot. In terms of shot and goal-creating actions, Chukwueze comes behind Leao and Pulisic.
In the graph below:
X Axis= Times the player took on a defender and beat him per 90 mins
Y Axis = Shot creating actions + Goal-Creating actions per 90
It is also worth noting that Leao and Chukwueze are very similar in terms of their style (see photo above) but what I observed is that the style of dribbling seemed different. Leao likes to use his speed and physicality more and knock the ball forward and chase it, while Chukwueze likes to keep the ball close to his feet and beat the defender.
Chukwueze had his breakthrough season in 2022/23 and approaching 24 years of age, he is now on the verge of entering his peak. With Villareal looking for another mid-table season after Emery left them last season, Chukwueze got the move at the right time.
Milan, meanwhile, has got their first proper right-winger since Suso. With Pioli earmarking Chukwueze as his primary target, he now has his man and it will be very interesting indeed.
Transfer Rating: 9/10