Henry Onyekuru: New Kid on the Emirates Block

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After failing to qualify for the UEFA Champions League for the first time in his 21 years in charge of Arsenal and the chances of losing high -profile players likely imminent, Arsene Wenger’s first signing is surprisingly Nigerian teenager, Henry Onyekuru. Is this young Nigerian ripe for the robust English Premier League? Is Onyekuru the kind of player Wenger needs in his ‘z̄’ times? Kunle Adewale asks

With £150 million to spend in the summer transfer, Arsenal fans are optimistic of the arrival of big-names at the Emirates Stadium, but, it was Nigerian and KAS Eupen of Belgium striker, Henry Onyekuru that was Arsene Wenger’s first summer signing.

The forward is a fan of Arsenal legend and record goalscorer, Thierry Henry, and is delighted joining the club of his dreams.

“Thierry Henry has always been my idol since I was a kid. I love watching him play, watching Arsenal and going to YouTube to watch most of his games. I remember saying if I had to move to the Premier League I want to be like Thierry Henry. So, it’s like a dream come true,” Onyekuru said.

In a chat with THISDAY, former Nigerian international, and footballer’s agent, Waidi Akani is of the opinion that for Arsenal to have signed Onyekuru, it means he has something up his sleeves.

“Arsenal is one of the top clubs in Europe with a very formidable scouting team. So, for them to have scouted him, it means he has a very great potential and future. However, that does not mean the club gets it right all the time.

“His move to Arsenal is a big benefit to Nigeria and the national team coaches should take advantage of it, but without relegating any of the players we have at our disposal simply because he had signed for a big team like Arsena.

“Really, we cannot count on him for now because he is yet to prove himself for the country at any level. Football is not a one-season game, so we should not get so excited thinking that we now have a good striker simply because he scored 24 goals last season for his Belgian club.

“He is still young, just 19 years old. Maybe he should first be tried at the Under 20 or 23 level and see what he can offer. Football could be funny at times. With all the noise about him, he might just not fit into our style of football”, Akani noted.

The 19-year-old is the top scorer in the Belgian league with 24 goals and nine assists in all competitions last season, which has caught the eye of the Gunners as Wenger looks to build a squad to challenge for the title next season.

The north London club has already had a £87m bid rejected for Monaco forward, Kylian Mbappe, this summer and Wenger is desperate to get a few new faces to the squad in an attempt to add some verve after missing out on qualifying for the Champions League for the first time in over 20 years. Onyekuru comes in handy with a price tag of £6.8million after he was initially linked with Celtic as a replacement for Moussa Dembele, but a rumoured £1million bid was laughed away as he is ‘too good’ for Scottish football.

However, there is enough there to make it a worthwhile investment. When one considers Real Madrid have just spent £38m on Vinicius Junior, a 16-year-old yet to play 90 minutes of senior football, it looks like a bargain.

Wenger has been criticised for not signing the star players Arsenal need to compete for the biggest prizes. Even those who are glad he is staying at Arsenal want him to make more daring moves. Therefore, an unknown Onyekuru who Wenger seems to have signed with little opposition from rivals does not fit that bill.

At least, Arsenal fans can be assured they are getting a player who is delighted to be there. Onyekuru said, “I have had fun in Belgium, but I have always dreamed of the Premier League.”

Some analysts, however, are of the opinion that Onyekuru’s invitation to the Super Eagles was long overdue, arguing that there had been some incredulity at his absence from the initial squad named by Gernot Rohr, and was only invited by virtue of the unavailability of striker Olarenwaju Kayode for the friendlies against Corsica and Togo.

Not that it matters how he got in, only that he had, and finally he had the chance to showcase his abilities to the coaching crew.

Onyekuru can play all across the front line; he favours the left as it gives him the space he needs to go through the gears, as well as come inside on his stronger right foot. His low centre of gravity, as he stands at about 5ft 9in, enables quick changes of direction, but his dribbling style really isn’t defined by it, unlike most players his size. He does have good close control, but relies more on his speed and trickery, often looking like he has shown too much to the opponent before snatching it away.

In front of goal, Onyekuru is an improviser. He possesses good movement, especially when he has to spin in behind a full-back; he is often up and away before they even know it. When through, he can finish in a number of ways; though, like most speedsters, he seems to enjoy going past the goalkeeper. That doesn’t preclude dinks, curled finishes in the manner of his idol and namesake, Thierry Henry.

There is a lot to admire about him, but he is still a teenager, so there are a lot of areas where he can improve. That is only natural. His aptitudes for the defensive side of the game, as well as his decision-making, are still undeveloped.

Name the attributes of a stereotypical Wenger signing in the last 10 years – quick, small, skillful, an attacker who can play all across the front line but whose best position is not yet entirely clear – and you have a potted description of Onyekuru.

He is unashamedly direct – he will pick the ball up, accelerate quickly, and go towards goal. He also has shades of Arjen Robben – he plays mostly on the left for Eupen, so he can cut in and shoot on his stronger right foot.

Surprisingly for one blessed with such pace, Onyekuru likes to come deep for the ball, rather than playing on the shoulder of defenders.

He is small of stature – 5ft 9in – but uses this quick change of direction effectively, bamboozling defenders, using his change of pace to get past his man rather than a barrage of step overs.

Perhaps the biggest weakness in Onyekuru’s game is a streak of single-mindedness. It can manifest as overconfidence or as selfishness, but too often he wants to go alone. He will often get the better of his marker, and opt for a shot from an angle rather than lay in a teammate in a better position centrally.

This selfishness has also been apparent off the pitch when he went on strike in January after claiming that Eupen had broken promises to sell him in the transfer window that month.

If he is given time, Onyekuru has the makings of a Premier League star. Whether he gets that time is another matter.

The prospect of a link up with Rohr’s attacking prodigies for Nigeria is also umber-appealing; one need only think what a front four including him, Isaac Success, Alex Iwobi and Kelechi Iheanacho could get up to.

Onyekuru began his football career with the Aspire Academy in 2010, and graduated in 2015 joining their partner club, KAS Eupen and made his debut for Eupen in September of the same year in a 2-2 tie against Dessel Sport in the Belgian Second Division and helped the team get promoted to the Belgium First Division A in his debut season.

After a successful season in the Belgium first division, Onyekuru finished as one of the top scorers in the league, catching the attention of various big teams in Europe. He finished the 2016–17 season as joint top-scorer with 22 goals, but the trophy was handed to his rival as he scored more away goals than Onyekuru.

He made his senior debut for Nigeria in a 3-0 friendly win over Togo on July 1.