The Nigeria international has come on in leaps and bounds under Unai Emery, and the UEL final would be a poorer spectacle without him
In the summer of 2019, following a first season in charge of Arsenal that had culminated in a painful Europa League final defeat by Chelsea, Unai Emery laid his transfer demands before the Arsenal board.
At the top of it was Crystal Palace winger Wilfried Zaha, a player who the Spanish manager was convinced could “win games on his own”, and allow a shift away from the back three system that had fallen short against Chelsea in Baku.
Instead, the Emirates Stadium hieratchy opted to sign Zaha’s international teammate Nicolas Pepe for a club record fee, believing his potential and greater upside made up for his lack of experience of English football.
“I met Zaha and he wanted to come,” Emery told The Guardian. “The club decided Pepe was one for the future. I said: ‘Yes, but we need to win now and this lad (Zaha) wins games.’”
Emery played the hand he was dealt, but it never appeared he had a handle of exactly how to extract the best from Pepe, and in December the former Sevilla and Valencia boss was relieved of his duties as Arsenal head coach.
In addition to waning results, his inability to properly communicate his ideas jarred with his predilection toward hyper-analysis, and ultimately saw him lose clarity and respect from the dressing room.
His stock remained high in his native Spain, however, and when Villarreal, in need of silverware after more than a decade of top-half stability, came calling, Emery once more laid out his demands.
This time, they were met: Etienne Capoue, Dani Parejo and Francis Coquelin came in to provide steel and vision in midfield, while another former charge in Alberto Moreno arrived to bolster the left-back position.
Curiously, despite the immediacy and specificity of Villarreal’s amibition – to win the Europa League – this time there was no requirement from Emery for a dynamic, match-winning wide forward.
Instead, under his watch Samuel Chukwueze appears to finally be blossoming into that player, adding decisive contributions to his dazzling speed and close control.
In the Europa League this season, the 22-year-old has scored once and assisted four more during the Yellow Submarine’s run to Wednesday’s final in Gdansk.
That’s roughly 25 percent of Villarreal’s total haul in matches he has featured, and even beyond the numbers the Nigeria international has both come through Emery’s peculiar brand of confrontational motivation and seen off the challenge of youngster Yeremi Pino to claim that spot on the right of the attack for his own.
It seems such a long time ago that Emery was lumping him together with former loanee Takefusa Kubo and slating what he perceived to be a sense of entitlement and lack of consistency in their performances.
This led to Chukwueze losing his spot in the starting lineup; by the end of January, he had only made six league starts.
To battle back as he has is admirable, especially as he has learnt – under the manager’s compulsion – to temper some of his instincts and place his talents at the service of the team.
“Before, I saw football as an entitlement just to play how I want,” he said in April during a La Liga event. “Now I think I understand what it means to be tactically disciplined. I think my overall understanding of the game has changed a huge amount.”
Slowly, he has won Emery’s trust, and after victory in the quarter-finals against Dinamo Zagreb, the manager praised his “individual contributions” to the team’s progress.
He also started seven out of 10 league matches between mid-February and the start of May, having previously only been afforded consistent minutes in the Europa League
This palpable growth makes the prospect of Chukwueze missing out on the final all the more frustrating.
The winger was stretchered off with what looked like a hamstring injury in the semi-final second leg against Arsenal, and consequently missed out on the last four matchdays in La Liga. Despite reportedly making an unprecedented return to training over the past week, is surely a risk to start against Manchester United.
Having worked so hard through the season to make himself useful, to then miss out on the biggest game of his career to date would be deeply galling.
It also would arguably impair the occasion, depriving watching fans of a potential battle for the ages between Luke Shaw and Chukwueze that not only has the physicality and dynamism to rock the earth on its axis, but would be one of the game’s defining tactical battles.
If Villarreal pull of the mild upset (and under Emery’s guidance, it is a real possibility), Chukwueze’s impact on the campaign as a whole would be impossible to ignore, and he would join an elite group of Nigeria internationals – Kanu, Finidi George, Mikel John Obi, Victor Moses, Taribo West and Chidi Odiah to date – to have won a European trophy.
However, if he is unable to shake off his niggle in time to play an active role in Gdansk, there will be the unmistakable feeling of missing one’s own bachelor party: all of the fulfilment in the aftermath, but none of the fun.