COMMENT By Solace Chukwu Follow on Twitter
There would be no new manager bounce for Villarreal at the weekend. Instead, they ran aground away at SD Huesca, taking a volley of fire before the hosts finally earned an equalizer and a point—only their fourth at home this season.
If Villarreal's lowly league position—barely outside the relegation places on goal difference—seemed like a quirk before, it is becoming real enough now. For Luis Garcia Plaza, brought in to steady the ship, it was a very apt introduction to the travails of a team that is struggling rather inexplicably.
The lone silver lining, in amidst the turmoil, has been precocious 19-year-old Samuel Chukwueze, who broke into the first team this season under Javi Calleja.
Promoted from the youth team, Calleja had foreknowledge of the talent the Nigeria international possessed, and his faith in his charge has proved justified: the youngster has hit the ground running, scoring in all three competitions already for the embattled side.
Beyond the simple fact that the manager who knew him so well and brought him through the youth ranks is gone, there is also a more pertinent consideration: just how might the experience of a relegation battle affect his game and development?
Often, when faced with the threat of demotion, managers will trust known quantities, the demands of the present having more currency than the future. There is a temptation to go back to the basics, favouring a more 'honest', robust style as opposed to an expansive one. Beauty is the first thing sacrificed.
This could mean an impatience with the caprice of youth, and a recourse to more combative qualities.
While Chukwueze is physically strong, and conscientious enough to tag in when the team is defending, he has often done his best work when allowed to remain high up the pitch as an outlet for swift, direct attacks. This, in fact, was part of the reason Calleja began to use him as part of the front two – to free him from defensive responsibilities.
Garcia will no doubt demand more investment, meaning more time spent behind the ball and larger distances to cover in transitions. Already, we have seen a little of that in the last two games, with Chukwueze playing a deeper wide role in a 4-4-2.
Of course, being asked to show greater defensive awareness is not the worst thing that could happen to a youngster. The concern, however, is that it takes away precisely what makes him so unique, and so highly thought of.
The immediacy of a relegation battle could breed an aversion to risk, and even though he is no one-trick pony, Chukwueze playing with the brakes on is less than half the player, in any case.
The reverse may also prove problematic: that Garcia overburdens him, and the pressure of lifting the team results in weaker showings. For all the maturity of his play, it can be easy to forget this is a player yet to hit his 20th birthday.
At this pace, he will be a quite special footballer, but carrying a team like Villarreal through the valley of the shadow of relegation would be a terrifying level of responsibility, especially for a player in his first top-flight season as a professional.
A further layer of intrigue surfaces in his contract situation with the club; Chukwueze's extant deal runs through to the end of the season, and while there have been attempts by the club to renew, the player's management is understandably wary.
It is easy to see why, what with the looming spectre of relegation. However, a failure to sign might be construed as a lack of commitment to the cause, and he might be made to feel the brunt of that by being dropped altogether.
One might think that he has made enough of an impression that there will be no shortage of interest should the Yellow Submarine go down. That said, a player willing to go to war, as it were, with his club at such a young age can be a turn-off for some.
With so many variables in the mix, the next six months will be absolutely vital for Chukwueze's career arc and development.