chidera ejuke

THE WEEKEND: EJUKE, OLAYINKA, SADIQ, COLLINS, CHUKWUEZE

Ejuke has his sights set on big things

When 21-year-old Chidera Ejuke joined SC Heerenveen from Valerenga, it barely registered. After all, Norway is not exactly the cynosure of attention, and the Frisians are, like many Dutch sides, a club focused on turning profits through the sales of high-value assets.

Now though, many are beginning to take notice. Ejuke scored twice at the weekend to deliver a first league win since the opening day of the season and take his tally for the season to four in eight matches. His second in particular, a superb curled effort after a gift of a pass from VVV-Venlo goalkeeper Thorsten Kirschbaum, was quite exquisite.

Capable of playing on both flanks, as well as in the n.10 position, Ejuke boasts great pace, as well as an upright dribbling stance that gives him tremendous balance and allows him maintain good perception and awareness as he runs. He is second so far this season in the Eredivisie for successful dribbles completed per game (4.6, at a 73% completion rate), a pointer to his overall style.

There are some concerns over his productivity, but that’s what he came to the Netherlands to fix, among other things. He can be sloppy with his passing, according to manager Johnny Jansen, and still wants the ball to feet too often. But, three months in, he is convinced his decision to move to Heerenveen was the right one.

It really was his choice: Turkish side Besiktas were willing to offer Valerenga 700,000 Euros more than Heerenveen did, as well as a higher salary for the player (interestingly, Ben Rienstra, whom he was signed to replace, cited the money as the major factor behind his decision to move to Kayserispor). However, Ejuke has a very clear plan, and has made no secret of his desire to use the Frisians as a stepping stone to one of the top five European leagues in two years’ time.

If he keeps his head down and adds more consistent end product (keeping up a .5 goals per game average wouldn’t hurt in that regard), you wouldn’t bet against him pulling it off.

Olayinka working out his salvation

Having earned a national team call-up on the back of a wildly successful debut in the UEFA Champions League, Peter Olayinka could have been forgiven for taking some time to enjoy the moment. After all, it has taken him quite the trek to get here: Albania, Belgium, the Netherlands, and now Czech Republic.

Instead, Olayinka has gone about toasting his invitation in a different way: by proving himself deserving. Of course, all the caveats about the relative strength of the Czech top-flight apply, and the jury remains out on whether or not he should have been called up (in the interest of full disclosure, I’m in the ‘not’ camp), but his output has clearly gone up since the announcement was made.

His winning goal against Mlada Boleslav was very well-taken – the movement, the timing of it, the finish – and whatever one might say about him, there is no impostor syndrome with this one.

Sadiq the inscrutable enigma

There are few footballers as fun to watch as Sadiq Umar. You never quite know what to expect. For one thing, he looks nothing like a footballer, with his length of limb and lolloping gait granting him awkward movements. Then there’s the erratic behaviour: upon leaving Rangers last year, he accused manager Steven Gerrard of overt racism, and he made headlines earlier in the season when, after being substituted in a Europa League match, he clambered up a fence and was pictured talking on his phone.

The mix is explosive, but it could just as easily blow up in your face as in the opponents’.

This past weekend, however, it was ‘Good Sadiq’ – he won a penalty and scored twice; one was the sort of poked finish for which his arachnoid extremities are perfectly suited, while the other was an exquisite dinked finish over the advancing goalkeeper.

Perhaps this is what Jololo (wonderfully onomatopoeic nickname, by the way) is, for better or worse, and we have to take the good with the bad. For every game like this in which he is unplayable, there will be even more where he trips over his own feet in comical fashion. And that’s as much down to the physiological element as it is to his whimsy.

Collins emerges from examination with credit

Jamilu Collins called it the “toughest game of my career”, and he certainly got a stern going-over at the hands of Bayern Munich and Serge Gnabry.

The Germany international scored one and set up another, as his almost telepathic combination with Philippe Coutinho had Collins in conniptions all game long. It brought to light the standout weakness the player has: his body shape in defensive situations is a worry, and he often needs to make up for it with his athleticism. Here, he was caught out on two occasions by lofted passes played in behind him, and was unable to recover the situation.

Coincidence then that the 25-year-old grew into the game as it progressed? Hardly. As it turns out, he found greater joy forcing Gnabry back and playing on the front foot. Some of his deliveries into the box were whipped in quite invitingly, and in general Paderborn can be pleased with how they acquitted themselves against the reigning league champions. Too bad that doesn’t count for much on the league table—they remain bottom.

Whatever happens, they’ll always have Collins’ rocket. “I tried it in the first half, but the ball went wide,” he said afterwards. “But I really wanted to score.”

Never heard of a tap-in, Jamilu? Woof! What a tracer!

Chukwueze “magical” off the bench

It’s hard not to be impressed by Samuel Chukwueze.

For one thing, Santi Cazorla is; the twinkle-toed midfielder can conjure up wonder with either foot, and is rolling back the years – and a few ankle ops – in La Liga just now, but it was Chukwueze’s jinking run that won the penalty he calmly stroked home on Friday night.

“Chukwueze played a role after his introduction. He’s magical with the ball at his feet,” Cazorla gushed. Put this into Google Translate, and what you get back is ‘Game recognize game’.

Villarreal ultimately put Real Betis to the sword, but it was level at the break and very much even. The 20-year-old came through and changed all that, carrying the ball with elan and purpose, and was involved in three of four second-half goals, getting on the scoresheet himself to round things off.

As I said last week, the management of his playing time has been a masterstroke: his use is now more targeted, and that affords him greater clarity in terms of his decision-making in the final third.

Villarreal are reaping the rewards. “The plan is for him to continue progressing for the good of the team,” Cazorla added pointedly, and this season the stats show that Chukwueze is rounding out into more of a team player: his shots per 90 have dropped from 3.05 to 2.37, while key passes per 90 have risen from 1.16 to 1.89. He’s now electing to play the extra pass to a better-placed teammate, rather than plough forward on his own, head-down.

Ideally, you don’t want to see his shot production diminish in the process, but if that’s what you trade in for more sensible decisions in the final third, you have to say that’s a good thing.

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