Much Ade About Nothing: The Ademola Lookman Conundrum

Immediate Impact

It’s January 15th, 2017, and John Stones has unsuccessfully attempted to clear the ball from his box. The ball ricochets off of Seamus Coleman, falling to the feet a young Everton debutant, 4 minutes into extra time, before being rifled between Claudio Bravo’s legs and into the bottom left of the Manchester City net. Ademola Lookman, four minutes into his Everton debut has made the score 4-0, and a collective thought of “We might have a player, here” ripples through the Goodison Park faithful.

Signed on January 5th, 2017 from Charlton Athletic for a reported fee of £7.5million, Lookman was a prospect highly tipped as one to watch for the future. After scoring 5 goals in 24 appearances for Charlton in the 15/16 season, the 19 year old brought a considerable amount of buzz with him to the Merseyside team. The handful of clips available on YouTube showed a quick, tricky young player capable of beating a man and possessing an eye for goal, and his first appearance for the Blues, whilst brief, certainly affirmed that.

Post-debut goal, Lookman made a further two appearances for Everton off the bench, before earning his first start against Bournemouth on February 4th. He would make another 2 starts, and another two off the bench appearances  later that season. Whilst Lookman would not have a hand in another goal during the seven appearances post-City, it was clear from his performances that he was more than capable of providing a spark during build up play, and his pace offered threat during transitional and counter-attacking play. 

That summer brought in a flurry of new players, and a sense of optimism for the 17/18 season. European football had been secured in the form of the Europa League qualifying stages, and our once golden boy Wayne Rooney had re-signed after 13 years at Manchester United, albeit, as part of the deal seeing the departure of Romelu Lukaku. Things were looking promising under Ronald Koeman, and after a successful run to the Europa League Group Stages, the morale in the Blue half of Merseyside was high.

However, anyone who understands Everton knows that we aren’t allowed to enjoy any form of happiness. Following a disastrous Europa League campaign which saw us get mauled by Atlanta 5-1 at home, Ronald Koeman was dismissed and replaced by (Big) Sam Allardyce. Summer marquee signing Gylfi Sigurdsson, originally signed to play as a playmaking number 10, was forced out to the left wing, limiting Lookman’s opportunities for appearances. Barring two goals in a MotM performance against Cypriot side Apollon Limassol, in a team made up of mostly U21 players and managed by Craig Shakespear, Lookman would only make 7 substitute appearances in the Premier League, score no goals and contribute zero assists in the run up to Christmas. In January, despite Sam Allardyce stating Lookman would not be loaned out, he was loaned to RB Leipzig for the remaining six months of the 17/18 season. This is where our conundrum with Ademola Lookman really begins.

The Bundesliga Appeal & The Sancho Effect

Within the last few years, as I’m sure many of you are aware, a trend has developed whereby young, promising English players are shunning the normally tried and tested path of a Championship or League One loan, and are instead moving abroad to the continental fields of the Bundesliga, with the vast majority of these players experiencing first team minutes. To name a few are Reiss Nelson (Arsenal to Hoffenheim on loan in 2018), Reece Oxford (West Ham to Borussia M’Gladbach on loan in 2017) and most notably Jadon Sancho (Manchester City to Borussia Dortmund permanently in 2017). Even for the upcoming season, our own Jonjoe Kenny has elected for a loan move to Schalke to secure more first team minutes and experience.

If you ask the average fan who was the figurehead of this youth exodus, chances are their answer would be Jadon Sancho and his self-forced move to Dortmund from Pep’s Manchester City. And while he has been no doubt the most exciting and hyped youth talent to leave the Premier League, I believe Serge Gnabry’s transfer from Arsenal to Werder Bremen in 2016 was the true catalyst for the movement of players we are seeing today. After four years at Arsenal where he failed to break through the ranks into the first team, and a very brief loan spell at West Brom, having been sent back to Arsenal after Tony Pulis told the Express “[he]…just hasn’t been for me, at the level to play the games”, the winger requested a transfer, securing a £5million move to Werder Bremen on August 31st. In his only season at Bremen, Gnabry scored 11 goals in 27 appearances and was snapped up by Bayern Munich the following transfer window. After two loan spells at Hoffenheim, where he again impressed, he asserted himself during the 18/19 season as the successor to the now retired Arjen Robben, becoming a key figure of the Bayern squad and ending the season as Bayern’s second top goalscorer.

Whilst the Bundesliga is seen as the third-best league in Europe’s Big 5, it’s style of play and depth of team strength is arguably better than that of the Championship, and the experience it provides to these young loanees, that of first team football in one of Europe’s first tier leagues, is invaluable. So when it was announced that Lookman would move to RB Leipzig on loan, under the guise of Ralph Hassenhüttl, it was welcome news knowing one of our talents was not being sent down to a lower league team to sit on the bench, but would instead be nurtured and groomed into a potential player of the future, in a league where he was more than capable of getting game time. 

Lookman immediately announced his presence in his debut for Leipzig, coming on as a substitute against Borussia M’Gladbach in the 78th minute, scoring in the 89th minute and sealing a 1-0 win. He would make eleven appearances that season, seven of those starting, and would score five goals, and assisting a further four. All of the qualities that had been seen in Lookman during the number of Everton appearances he’d made in the previous 12 months were there and more. Playing alongside an accomplished finisher in Timo Werner (another talent to watch for the future), Lookman became an assured and adept finisher in the box. His Shots Per Game for Leipzig tripled to 1.2 shots, compared to 0.4 in his previous six months at Everton, his Average Passes Per Game more than tripled from 6.4 to 19.8 passes, and his Key Passes Per Game (defined by Opta as “the final pass or pass-cum-shot leading to the recipient of the ball shooting, regardless of the outcome of the shot) massively increased from 0.3 to 1.5 during his 6 months at the German outfit. 

Obviously benefitting from more game time at Leipzig, and from a progressive, attack-minded coach like Hassenhüttl (see Southampton post-Mark Hughes and the progression of James Ward-Prowse), compared to Allardyce’s archaic, hoof-ball style of play, Lookman was one of the brightest young talents at the end of the 17/18 season, whilst semi-living in the shadow of, fellow compatriot Jadon Sancho. For a comparison between the two, and future would be star Serge Gnabry during his season at Hoffenheim, let’s look at the below stats (Bundesliga only):


Ademola Lookman (RB Leipzig) Jadon Sancho (B’Dortmund) Serge Gnabry (Hoffenheim)
Age (At Time) 20 17 21
Appearances (Off Bench) 7 (4) 7 (5) 20 (2)
Minutes Played 576 684 1507
Goals 5 1 10
Assists 4 4 5
Minutes Per Contribution 64 137 100
Avg Key Passes Per Match 1.5 1.6 1.2
Avg Shots Per Match 1.2 0.8 2.2
Avg Passes Per Match 19.8 29.8 22
Avg Pass Percentage 76.6% 84% 77.4%
Avg Succesful Dribbles Per Match 1.1 1.4 2

The above data gives us some interesting take-aways, and given the standings of the Bundesliga( see below) the comparatives to be made between the three can be considered as accurate as could possibly be.

Position Team Points Won Goals Scored
3 Hoffenheim 55 15 48
4 B’ Dortmund 55 15 47
6 RB Leipzig 53 15 57

*All data taken from WhoScored.com and TransferMarkt.co.uk.

Without wanting to get too analytical (because after all, football is just 22 men kicking a ball around a field), there are three immediate take-aways from the above data:

  • Lookman was far more efficient in terms of contributions per game than both Sancho and Gnabry, despite the latter contributing more Shots Per Game than the other two wingers. Given that all three players played the majority of the season as left wingers in teams that favoured attacking play, it’s fair to say they all played in similar roles and systems. RB Leipzig were the third most prolific team in front of goal during the 17/18 season, and it appeared that Lookman was both taking advantage, and helping contribute to that stat. He was more than doubly efficient than Sancho, however this can potentially be attributed to their age difference and his experience, albeit limited, in the Premier League.
  • Whilst not as prolific in front of goal, Sancho registered the same number of assists as Lookman, who both achieved just one fewer than Gnabry in half the number of games played. Sancho also looked to be more involved during build up play (under the recently appointed Peter Stöger, brought in to stabilise an ailing Dortmund side with slower, more concentrated play) completing a higher number of passes than Lookman and Gnabry.  
  • Serge Gnabry’s higher number of goals, assists and shots per game, without wanting to sound dismissive or demeaning, can potentially be put down to his age and his past experience of the Bundesliga.

Jadon Sancho was rightfully regarded as the next best thing, and the poster child for the future of English football, at the end of the 17/18 season. However, from all the stats of those last six months, it appears that Ademola Lookman could do everything and more that Sancho could, yet remained suitably under the radar, just off the beaten track enough to not attract the attention of larger clubs. And with that, he returned to Everton with great expectations from the fans and staff alike. 

Return to Everton 

That summer saw the dismissal of Large Samuel and his backroom staff, and the arrival of Marco Silva, highly regarded for the attractive brand of football he implemented in his six month tenure at Hull, and the eight months in charge of Watford. Together with Director of Football Marcel Brands, a self-imposed rule that the majority of the Everton squad would be under-25 was put into place, with a few older, more experienced players in the squad for guidance and leadership of the younger players, perfect for the soon-to-be 21 year old Lookman. Silva’s attacking, free-flowing football philosophy and penchant for younger players should have been the perfect match for a player who excelled so much in a Leipzig team of a similar nature. 

The pre-season of this 18/19 started in July with a 22-0 drubbing of Austrian team ATV Irdning, a game in which Lookman scored a hat-trick and all seemed well. However, with the arrivals of wingers Richarlison from Watford, a club record signing, and fellow Brazilian Bernard from Shakhtar Donetsk, also a left winger, it was apparent that Silva still wanted Lookman to fight for his place in the squad. Matters were strained when RB Leipzig publicly declared their interest in wanting to sign Lookman permanently, before submitting a number of bids, the fourth and final being around the sum of £25million. Everton were steadfast in their reluctance to sell Lookman, even after the player attempted to force a move himself.

It is at this point where the relationship between Everton and Ademola Lookman began to breakdown. Marco Silva rightfully desired to keep the player and integrate him into the first team squad, encouraging Lookman in a press conference on August 10th, 2018 “to fight for his position. I am here to do everything I can to make him happy again.” He would state that Lookman was the “present and the future of Everton FC” and was prepared for the player to earn his place. 

Unfortunately, the season proved not to be the break-out season that we had all expected and hoped for. The experienced Bernard, brought in to push Lookman on and develop more, started 25 of the games that season, and came off the bench for a further 9 appearances. Although he started the season relatively weak and ineffective, Bernard would cement his starting place over Lookman toward the back end of the season, consecutively starting the last 10 games in the Premier League. Richarlison ended the season as one of our more outstanding players, contributing 14 goals and assists in 35 games, from all positions along the front three, Lookman never posed a threat in displacing him from the starting eleven.

That’s not to say Lookman didn’t get his chance, however. He would miss the first 3 games through injury, making his his first appearance as a substitute at home against Huddersfield on September 1st, 2018. He would play 11 of the first 17 matches that season, but didn’t make his first starting eleven of the season until a lacklustre 1-1 draw in the home game against Newcastle on December 5th. He would play the next two games as a substitute, before an ankle injury ruled him out over the Christmas period. His only contribution during the first half of the season would be an assist against Crystal Palace in a 2-0 win.

Upon his return, Lookman would start against Bournemouth on January 13th, providing an assist in a 2-0 win and playing the full 90 minutes. This performance would be rewarded with a second start and another full 90 minutes the following week against Southampton in a 2-1 loss. The assist against Bournemouth would be his last of that season, and his start against Southampton would be his last start of the season. He would make a further 8 appearances that season from the bench. In total, Ademola Lookman played a total of 21 games, 3 of those starting, and registered 2 assists and 0 goals all season. From all the promise and progress witnessed during his six month stint at Leipzig, it was a very disappointing season all round.

He did come out publicly in October and say the transfer speculation from RB Leipzig during the summer had unsettled him, and that it took England U21 boss Aidy Boothroyd to sit him down and regain his focus for the season, as reported by the Liverpool Echo. However, despite this, it would still seem apparent from the on-pitch performances during the back end of the season that his spot at Everton was no longer worth fighting for. In a press conference from March 2019, Marco Silva stated that Lookman’s absence from the starting eleven was down to Lookman’s inconsistency in training, stating that “We know what his quality is and you know I believe in his quality since the first day I saw him so it has to be same Lookman everyday, with the same desire everyday. He needs to understand what the coach wants coming from him, and any winger in our model. He is a young football player but, being honest with you, I expect Ademola to be on a different level already this season.”

To say Marco Silva’s frustrations were shared by the fans, or at least myself, would be an understatement 

The below stats compare Ademola Lookman, Richarlison and Bernard at the end of the 18/19 season:


Ademola Lookman Richarlison Bernard
Age (At Time) 21 22 26
Appearances (Off Bench) 3 (18) 32 (3) 25 (9)
Minutes Played 602 2679 2129
Goals 0 13 1
Assists 2 1 3
Minutes Per Contribution 301 191 532
Avg Key Passes Per Match 0.5 0.6 1.2
Avg Shots Per Match 0.6 2.4 0.7
Avg Passes Per Match 12 22.7 23.7
Avg Pass Percentage 84.6% 68.5% 75.3%
Avg Succesful Dribbles Per Match 1.1 1.3 1.2

*All data taken from WhoScored.com and TransferMarkt.co.uk.

Given his considerably lower game time in comparison to Richarlison and Bernard, I wouldn’t expect his statistics to be anywhere near comparable in terms of goals or assists. However, compared to his time at Leipzig, the above is a drastic drop off, even when factoring in the standard of play between the two leagues. Bernard can be somewhat forgiven for his high Minutes per Contribution, given he came from the Russian league and had to adapt to the Premier League’s style of play, and Richarlison’s low Pass Completion Percentage can possibly be attributed to him playing a third of the season as a lone striker. Furthermore, it’s no secret that Everton have lacked an out an out striker since the departure of Romelu Lukaku in 2017, as badly as we all want Calvert-Lewin to fill that role, so both Lookman’s and Richarlison’s Key Pass stats can be potentially waived here as well.

Sanchoooooo

And what of Jadon Sancho during the last season? To say he’s been one of this season’s best European players is an understatement. He’s been pivotal in a Dortmund team that ran Bayern Munich to the very end of the season before finishing second, one point short of the title. providing 12 goals and 14 assists. He earned his first England call up, his debut being against Croatia in the Nations League on October 12th, making another 5 appearances since and provided 2 assists during those games. Over the last year, Jadon Sancho has become one of the most exciting footballing talents, not just for English football, but for world football as a whole, and if he doesn’t end up at the Nou Camp or as a Galactico within the next 4 years then I’ll be very surprised. 

In order to truly appreciate how good Sancho has been over the last 12 months, check out his stats below compared to the 2018 Balon D’or Top 3 (and Messi):


Jadon Sancho Luka Modrič Cristiano Ronaldo Antoine Griezmann
Lionel Messi
Age (At Time) 18 33 33 27
31
Appearances (Off Bench) 26 (8) 31 (3) 30 (1) 37
29 (5)
Minutes Played 2464 2618 2689 3204
2710
Goals 12 3 21 15
36
Assists 14 6 8 9
13
Minutes Per Contribution 94 290 92 133
55
Avg Key Passes Per Match 1.9 1.6 1.2 2
2.7
Avg Shots Per Match 1.2 1.1 5.7 3.1
5
Avg Passes Per Match 38.3 55.6 33.3 37.5
53.8
Avg Pass Percentage 84.9% 88.9% 85.1% 78.3%
81.3%
Avg Succesful Dribbles Per Match 3.3 1.6 1.5 0.5
3.9

*All data taken from WhoScored.com

I’ve separated Little Alien Boy from the rest to level the playing field a little.

What we can take away from the above, is that even at the young age of 18, Jadon Sancho is recording stats which we would expect so see from the best in the world, and in some cases actually outperforming them. If we look at his goals scored, whilst only scoring half as many as Cristiano Ronaldo, CR7 is averaging 5.7 shots per game, whereas Sancho is only averaging 1.2 per game, the lowest of all the forwards in the above comparison, yet it’s his efficiency in front of goal which is truly impressive. Furthermore, in a world where Antoine Griezmann is worth 120million Euros, what price tag could be placed on Sancho when it could be argued he outperforms Griezmann in nearly all aspects of his game from the left wing?

Seeing how far Sancho has developed in the last 12 months adds another layer of disappointment to the Lookman situation, when arguably, Lookman was the better player at the end of the previous season. Had Lookman stayed at Leipzig for another season, would we have seen a season as impressive as Sancho’s at Dortmund this season? Would this have secured his first team position at Everton upon his return for the season coming, potentially avoiding the attitude issues and inconsistent performances which have blighted the last 12 months?

There’s No Time Like The Present

Which brings us to today’s dilema. At the time of writing this article (blog post?) RB Leipzig have renewed their interest in Ademola Lookman, submitting a bid of around £22million, and whilst Marco Silva and the club have once again rejected the bid and stated he is not for sale, I feel this will be the last we see of our potential star of the future.

The club in a sort of catch-22 situation here, do they keep hold of an incredibly talented young player, with the potential to be one of the most exciting players in the post-Messi and Ronaldo world, but has no desire to play for us and will therefor probably not reach that potential? Or do they sell him to the club where he enjoyed his football most, where he showed just how good he can be, and where he’ll undoubtedly mature and develop into the talent he’s destined to be? In doing so, earning back triple what the club payed for him, but potentially missing out on a huge payday should the likes of Barcelona or Real Madrid eventually come calling one day?

In my personal opinion, I think it’s time the club cut their losses and sold. I don’t believe we’ll ever truly experience his full potential if his desire to play is with another team. And I don’t say that with any bitterness, at the end of the day he’s not a local lad and after being mis-managed by Koeman and marginalised by Allardyce, it’s understandable that he doesn’t see his future here. All that I would like to see if Everton do sell, is a sell on clause of at least 20% added into the deal should, Leipzig actually buy, allowing Everton to reap some form of reward should he become the talent I believe he’ll be. It’s a shame that one of our brightest prospects since John Stones has been allowed to drift away from the club, but if he wants out then so be it, £30million-ish for a 21 year old is probably as much as we’ll get and should be snapped at.

So long as we don’t sell him to fucking Southampton.

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