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Will Chukwueze take advantage of Setien lifeline at Villarreal?

14:59 GMT+4 08/11/2022
Samuel Chukwueze Villarreal
The wide attacker looks to be back in favour under the new head coach who has leaned on the Super Eagle early on

What do you do with Samuel Chukwueze? Despite the talent exhibited in his teens, the Nigeria international’s progress seems to have stalled in the last year or so.

Any sort of ongoing analysis of the Nigerian after two La Liga games under Quique Setien must be accompanied by the inclusion of the hamstring injury suffered at the backend of the 2020-21 season in a Europa League semi-final fixture with Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium.

The winger missed the Yellow Submarine’s run to the continental title under former boss Unai Emery and was absent at the start of last season, failing to play in the club’s opening seven league games as well as a further two in the Champions League.

Last season ended with Chukwueze starting 13 times in 29 league fixtures, interestingly one more than he managed in the Europa League-winning campaign the year before.

Indeed, the winger’s run of starts have slowly decreased since his breakout 2018-19 and 2019-20 years where he respectively made the XI 19 and 20 times domestically under Javier Calleja.

Put this unavailability down to injuries — he missed 16 league games altogether in 20-21 and last season owing to muscle injuries — that meant Chukwueze could only make the squad 56 times in those two years under Emery.

When you consider he played from the off on 25 occasions in total, as opposed to 39 in those two nascent campaigns, the 23-year-old stalling is not as remarkable as it ostensibly seems. In essence, the Nigerian is getting less football when he should be playing more as an established member of the side.

The exuberance of four years back has not developed into consistent game time for the Yellow Submarine. Chukwueze was tipped to be a vital component of Villarreal’s immediate future, but he still seems to be proving himself four years removed from that 90-minute debut La Liga appearance against Levante.

His trickery and directness have not evolved into a steady stream of goals and assists, with five goals and two assists in 2018-19 outranking the subsequent campaigns. Admittedly, it is near-impossible to produce a high return of goal involvements as a rotational option, still, there is a feeling the Super Eagle is as mercurial as he was in 2018.

Fascinatingly, though, the underlying numbers tell a different story.

A glance at Villarreal’s attacking metrics per 90 (among players to have averaged 10 games or more) in the last two full campaigns shows Chukwueze in the top three for shot-creating actions and goal-creating actions, as well as for Expected Assists (xA), key passes, completed passes into the penalty area.

This term, despite limited match action, he leads the way for shot-creating actions per 90, sits third for average goal-creating actions and outranks his colleagues for dribbles per 90. The Super Eagle is creating 2.0 chances per 90, outdoing every Villarreal teammate, although slipping to fourth for expected assists p90 suggests those opportunities have not always been high quality.

Indeed, the underlying numbers appear promising but translating those into goals will now be Setien’s remit.

The former Barcelona boss is winless in all four games in all competitions since taking over from Emery, losing the last three on the trot. While two of those games (a draw and a defeat) came in the Europa Conference League, the Yellow Submarine had effectively progressed from their group.

The losses in La Liga have rankled, with Setien’s team yet to find the back of the net in those two defeats to Athletic Club and Mallorca.

Chukwueze has enjoyed a strong continental showing, netting twice and setting up as many strikes, including the equaliser in the new trainer’s bow against Hapoel Be’er Sheva, but is yet to open his account in the league.

Perhaps more remarkable is the successive starts in the top-flight under Setien, with the 23-year-old playing the entirety of Sunday’s 2-0 loss against Mallorca. The Nigerian has now played 90 minutes on two occasions since the managerial change, interestingly the only times this season he has been on the pitch for the game’s duration.

The latest on Sunday was probably due to the wide attacker being Villarreal’s greatest scoring threat in an otherwise tepid attacking performance from the home side. Chukwueze flashed a shot just wide after a late dart into the box from a wide position and he hit the bar with a well-placed effort from outside the area, both times failing to make it 1-1 for the Yellow Submarine.

Both efforts came four minutes apart, with the second attempt coming 17 minutes from time. An equaliser could have instigated a comeback win, instead, Setien was made to rue Villarreal’s fifth loss of the campaign.

It has been a decent start to life under the new boss for Chukwueze, with the experienced trainer hitherto invested in the Nigerian’s talent. Just how long it lasts remains to be seen, especially if there are no green shoots of those encouraging underlying numbers producing visible results.