Could Zaidu Sanusi be Africa's breakout star of 2020?

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Zaidu Sanusi of FC Porto
MIGUEL RIOPA/POOL/AFP via Getty Images
The Nigeria international has impressed for FC Porto since joining in the summer, and looks to be taking his game to a new level in recent weeks

In the space of five days, FC Porto fans were treated to two entirely different viewing experiences.

On Tuesday, the record Portuguese champions battened down the hatches, grit their teeth and just about kept Manchester City at bay in Champions League action. The resultant goalless outcome would not have pleased the purists, but it was enough to see Sergio Conceicao’s side through to the competition’s Round of 16.

It was a game, and strategy, to illustrate the rampant inequality that has come to characterize European club football. In their own right, two-time champions Porto are very much the aristocracy, or, at least, they would if the vast financial resources of the likes of Manchester City had not rendered the very idea of an aristocracy obsolete.

However, their pedigree (both at home – where they have won more titles than any other side apart from Benfica – and on the continent) counted for little when faced with the pecuniary might of Pep Guardiola’s slick machine.

Saturday evening, however, presented a different proposition altogether. Tondela, a point off the Primeira Liga relegation zone and with no designs on world domination, rocked up to Estadio do Dragao in domestic competition, and goaded the hosts into a seven-goal thriller.

If there was a common thread running through those two highly disparate performances, it was the output of left-back Zaidu Sanusi, whose brilliance transferred seamlessly from Europe assignment to Portuguese.

The 23-year-old is belatedly becoming one of the revelations of 2020, but is doing with an urgency to suggests he is eager to make up for lost time.

Zaidu Sanusi

After an impressive 2019/20 season at Santa Clara, for whom he created eight big chances and averaged 0.7 key passes per game over 21 starts, Sanusi was tapped as the prime understudy for the in-demand Alex Telles by Porto this past summer.

While his tally of one goal and two assists over that duration seemed modest, the champions were willing to bet on the young Nigerian's relentless stamina, as well as a whip of a cross that typically sent balls arcing into the corridor between defensive line and goalkeeper. Prime real estate, in other words, for the calibre of centre-forward that Santa Clara did not necessarily have.

Telles would ultimately complete a move to Manchester United for a fee in the region of €15 million, but rather than enter the market for a replacement, Porto elected to keep faith with Sanusi. It is a decision that has been rewarded, on the evidence of some of his recent showings. 

By no means is the Nigeria international (he made his debut in the October international window) the complete package. At least, not yet. Look closely enough, and the holes in his game are apparent: he can lack variety and poise at times, and is often guilty of defensive blackouts on occasion. Questions remain over his passing and overall ball retention.

However, to focus on what he cannot do is to miss the point of what he is: a proper wrecking ball of a full-back, with oodles of energy and, as a bonus, the physical dimensions to be a threat in the air on set-pieces. As part of his brilliant performance on Saturday, Sanusi opened the scoring inside four minutes against Tondela, bounding up the pitch on a counter-attack that originated inside the Porto half, and materializing inside the box to coolly slot home Otavio's pass.

Zaidu Sanusi of Nigeria

It is also apparent work is being done on refining his defensive instincts, as was clear from his brilliant clearance off-the-line against Manchester City.

The presence of mind and the anticipation to drop back and cover the possibility of a shot sneaking past goalkeeper Agustin Marchesin was simply not present a few months ago. Overall, his work keeping Raheem Sterling relatively quiet was exemplary, and probably would have garnered more attention had his profile been higher.

It holds out some hope his bad habits are far from irreparable. In truth, Sanusi may never become the consummate footballer: a lot of his technical shortcomings seem hard-coded, sadly. However, football's present age is very much one that prizes dynamism and physicality from full-back; these, he has in abundance.

Chinua Achebe's flawed hero in the somewhat underrated 'Arrow of God' – Ezeulu – famously preferred “a sharp boy who broke utensils in his haste than a slow and careful snail.”

Modern football is flawed, and within it Sanusi's sharp urgency more than makes up for everything else.

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